FOODSTUFF: No-frills food and decor at La Tête

Photo Claire Gunn
At Cape Town’s newest brasserie, minimalist décor is in keeping with a prudent approach to food and a no-frills style of presentation.

La Tête restaurant opened at the foreshore end of Bree Street in November 2016. The name is French for the head. “I called it La Tête because it symbolises what we do. I use the entire animal,” says chef and co-owner Giles Edwards, butchering a carcass into meaty parts as he chats.

Edwards is not one for half measures. He decided to become a chef after a game-changing dinner with brother James at Fergus Henderson’s St John nose-to-tail restaurant in London (their British father loved offal). Edwards dropped out of the University of Cape Town and enrolled at Capsicum Culinary Studio.

Newly qualified, he headed back to London to find work at St John — but was turned down. They refused him two more times. After cheffing experience at a one-Michelin-star and then a seafood restaurant, Edwards was finally hired as sous chef at St John. “But the head chef disappeared, so myself and the other sous chef ended up running the St John kitchen. It was five years of heaven,” he says.

Photo Claire Gunn
In late 2015, Edwards decided to try South Africa, testing the market with a pop-up restaurant called Salt Cellar, in Salt River. “It was a chance to see how Cape Town would react to pig tails, no foams and gels [on plates].” By the time he launched La Tête a year later with brother James as a business partner, the concept was fine-tuned and crispy pig tails were on the menu.

“It’s not so much about nose to tail as about sustainability. It’s using up all the rest of the animal. Everyone’s only using the prime cuts. I can get hold of liver, brains, hearts, tongue, kidneys … It’s also about getting hake,” says Edwards. Plainer fish species will always be on the La Tête menu. Meats are grassfed or free range, as are the chickens that supply eggs.

At lunchtime, the fish sandwich is a must: it is either hake or angelfish, deepfried in batter, served on sourdough, plus homemade tartare and red pickled onion. I plan to return again when Scotch eggs are on the menu.

Photo Claire Gunn
At dinner, starters are the more interesting part of the menu. It is advisable to select a few. On the lighter side, chilled, sliced octopus tentacles are lightly pickled and served with cucumber lengths, capers and mint. The crispy pig cheek is richness itself, using pork fat to create a confit centre, which is slow-roasted to crunchy crackling and served with crisp, raw radish, creamy mustard and herby greens. Edwards rightfully calls it the “Rolls Royce of pork belly”.

Mussels out of their shells, with buttered leek strands and salty bacon lardons, is comforting in a brothy stock. Salt hake with bread and green sauce tastes clean and fresh, a solid combo of poached, flaked fish, assorted herbs, red onion and cubes of good bread.

But it is devilled chicken hearts that draws a line in the sand. Fried fingers of a dense, layered potato bake, elegantly mopping up the intense umami jus of the hearts. Says Edwards: “It’s a new dish. I’m in love with it. I think it’s amazing.”

On the mains, the duck is aged for a week to develop flavour. Edwards also rates the ox heart: thinly sliced, marinated and grilled. “My favourite way is to serve it like steak and chips, because it tastes very much like steak.” Despite the obvious offal focus, La Tête offers a vegetarian lunch and dinner too. Porcini on toast is worth having in season.

Photo Claire Gunn
“Our aim is to cook amazing food and to provide an experience around that. The experience must start with what’s on the plate and what’s in your glass,” says Edwards. La Tête’s plates embrace simple elegance and a “Parisian bistro twist” in a cow head emblem or a single blue line.

His pop-up restaurant was in a Cape Town wine shop. Unsurprisingly then, the La Tête wine list — a collaboration by the Edwards brothers — offers many niche producers’ interesting labels, from Alheit to Storm and Crystallum’s whites, reds and rosés. Wines are sold by bottle or glass, in short-stemmed Parisian brasserie type stemware.

Classic desserts include poached fruit, chocolate pots or a single meringue “floating island” on homemade custard. Simplicity is the overriding philosophy. Says Giles: “I like to say no to the idea of a signature dish. I use a lot of herbs, a lot of vegetables, a lot of meat. Although my fish bill is almost as big as my meat bill. It’s a pleasure changing the menu twice a day.”

Madeleines. Photo Claire Gunn
In keeping with the food, the narrow interior of La Tête is minimalist, with stark white walls and white pinboards, a concrete floor and wooden ceiling fans. Custom-made light fittings are by Arora Lights. Stained wooden tables are reclaimed school desks from Swaziland. There are no tablecloths.

The interior is functional rather than flash. A long kitchen runs parallel to diners, open part of the way. Exterior walls are grey and black; interior ones are painted white with light grey and black accents. A zinc bar from Antonie Grobler of Individua Design is opposite a wall with a station clock. Says Edwards: “Being an inner city restaurant, we wanted a clean space. The food is quite simple and the space is quite simple. So you’re not distracted.”

LATE, 17 Bree Street, Cape Town. Open for lunch Tues to Fri and dinner Tues to Sat. Tel 021-418-1299, La Tête

A version of this appeared in Business Day HomeFront in April 2017