FOODSTUFF: Cape Town welcomes The Shortmarket Club

shortmarket_club_-_chef_wesley_randles__manager_simon_widdison_hr_3.jpg Chef Wesley Randles and manager Simon Widdison are the hands-on component of a four-way partnership that includes Luke and Sandalene Dale-Roberts (it’s her furniture and interior design here) of The Test Kitchen and The Pot Luck Club, Cape Town restaurants where Randles and Widdison previously worked.

First impressions? The dinner vibe is buzzy and service is slick, with no give-away waiters stumbling over unfamiliar menu items or having limited knowledge of a dish, as is so often the case in a new restaurant.
Prices are on the high side, but then Randles points out that they go to a lot of effort to source artisan ingredients. So a warm baguette is presented with distinctive butter that has never spent time on a supermarket shelf. Near impossible to resist.

Or take the grass-fed rib-eye on the bone is from Oak Valley in Elgin. Tender, full of flavour and charred as expertly as it would be at any top steakhouse. The extra touches in the cafe au lait sauce, and sides including duck fat potatoes or fennel fondant.

The menu doesn’t have the wow factor of The Test Kitchen. The style is simpler. More familiar. The surprise is in the sorts of ingredients combined on a plate, the expert sauces or a flavour you can’t quite place.

shortmarket_club_-_interior_hr_1.jpg A CONVERSATION WITH CHEF WESLEY RANDLES

I’ll take you through the menu. Lunch or dinner is contemporary but classic. Organic grass-fed beef carpaccio on goat’s ricotta, with a dressing of miso-cured egg yolk and barrel-aged cherry vinegar dashi. Served with frozen Parmesan and burnt onion powder.
Or you could order Saldanha Bay oysters. There are dressing options so you could have a spicy Tiger’s milk dressing. Or just oysters clean. You could finish work in the afternoon, sit in the bar area and have the perfect martini with fresh oysters.
There is lamb rump, roasted over the wood fire, served with lamb rosemary jus and a Consol jar of mint jelly on the side. On the plate is fennel fondant, instead of classic potato fondant, roasted down until caramelised. It comes with leeks sous vide and fennel seeds, pine nuts and pine needles.

The dining process is a little bit of theatre and fun. So we have bread trollies and cheese trollies running up and down the aisles. The waiter will bring a tray with four plates on it. We created the menu and style for this space. We can bring back that old-world dining where every table is looked after really well, but with that bit of theatre at the table so the dining is fun.

shortmarket_club_-_chardonnay_steamed_west_coast_mussels_with_celeriac_and_ham_hock_veloute_poac.jpg The point of the menu is to challenge your focus and taste buds. The restaurant doesn’t feel pretentious to sit in and it’s a market between upmarket casual dining (The Pot Luck Club) and extreme fine dining (The Test Kitchen). We’ve never touched on breakfast in any of our restaurants so that’s a whole new thing. Our style of breakfast is recognisable but extremely different.

We know Cape Town has quite a breakfast culture. It’s going to take something different and creative to separate us. We’ve tried to be original. It won’t be eggs and a croissant. So we have a Scotch egg. It’s a boiled egg in a layer of pork farce and caramelised onion, on a bed of wild mushrooms, kale, crème fraiche and grated truffle.
Another dish is organic trout, hot-smoked inhouse, then glazed with sweet miso butter. It’s served with organic poached eggs and three-month fermented cream. Nobody touches fish for breakfast in Cape Town usually. That’s the idea: we can draw people in because our breakfast is different.

I’ve always wanted to do an amazing roasted chicken at the table. So we have a petit pousson. It’s a two-day cooking process where the chickens are cured and stuffed with chestnuts, lemon and fynbos. Slow-cooked sous vide individually, then roasted in the oven, glazed in olive oil. At the table we present it in chestnut husks set on fire, so we are smoking the chicken on arrival. The garnishes are classic. We’re serving roasted parsnip and bread sauce, with organic roasted baby beet and tarragon gravy.

The food style is a complete mix and match. You can’t say any of the dishes are Asian or something else. We’ve taken amazing South African produce and used them with techniques we know. I’ve worked with Luke for nine years so I’ve learnt to manipulate the flavour using Asian ingredients in such a way that we can bring out the best possible product. We use certain Asian ingredients to make the dish — not Asian — but the best it can possibly be.

shortmarket_club_bar_hr_1.jpg I wanted to do a lemon tart that is so much more. When it arrives at the table it looks like lemon tart. But lemon geranium is blended into the crust, and the custard filling has a touch of saltiness from preserved lemon. It’s caramelised and served with strawberry and amasi ice-cream, and finished off with lemon charcoal and strawberry dust. I don’t like to screw around and add a million purees to the plate. But then it has to be the perfect lemon tart.

I’ve always aimed at being an all-rounder: very capable in pastry, but also on the sauce section or grill. Luke always said to be a really good head chef you need to be able to jump on every section at any time and be better than everyone else. It’s important that you can do that, especially if you have your own restaurant.

Simon and I have worked together for years. He is an all-rounder but he knows his wine pretty damn well. I started at La Colombe with Luke just before I turned 21, then at The Test Kitchen (Simon was the GM opening it). Simon and I opened The Pot Luck Club together in 2013.

I try to make sure that I am not just following trends. You start off with a base: something completely original. Then you can add techniques you’ve seen somewhere and create something completely different. That is just progression; it’s not copying. The first and foremost focus here is flavour. Everything needs to be delicious first.

THE SHORTMARKET CLUB, 88 Shortmarket Street, Cape Town. Open Mon to Sat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Tel 021-447-2874, The Shortmarket Club

A version of this appeared in Business Day Homefront magazine in July 2016.