There is a lot to look forward to for 2016. Young, new owners that have bought Woodlands Eatery and will be stamping their own mark on it. Jason and Brigitte Lilley (of Jason Bakery fame) branching out with a second concept store. A new addition to the Shortmarket Street makeover/facelift/upliftment. And yes, naturally, I am pumped about Ash Heeger opening her jam inside our newly-renovated premises. She is a huge talent and we are lucky to have her. Before we get there, I have taken a look back at some stand-outs of 2015. I have limited these to Cape Town (with one exception), mainly because I didn’t really get to the winelands much at all over the past 12 months. And I definitely didn’t get to Jozi. I have ignored fine dining. I did that because…well because I just don’t like it. Have a read. And let’s try and keep the comments section civil…
Best breakthrough restaurant:
Bronze: Sexy Foods
When a butcher votes a vegetarian restaurant as one of his best of the year, you should pay attention. I will admit, I was VERY skeptical about this one. I didn’t like the name (I still don’t) and I wasn’t crazy about the decor. But I was intrigued. Organic vegetables, with an emphasis on sprouts. That’s a punchline, not a business model. Turns out it’s actually a pretty inspirational business model. On my first trip I was greeted with a menu listing ingredients I had mostly never heard of, combined in ways I would definitely not have thought of. But what hit me when I got around to eating was that everything was oddly delicious. Every dish had been skilfully plated and those whacky ingredients had been used sparingly and with excellent balance. There is a remarkable story behind this brand, and its owner, and I encourage you to go in order to hear it. Go with an open mind and be willing to hear things like “we want you to have the patience of a great tree.” They might also tell you to be “a radiant blue monkey”. Do not laugh. Okay, laugh a little. But do not leave. These guys are hippies but they are unashamedly hippies. It’s infectious. A whacky bunch serving nutritious food that just happens to taste sensational, this is undeniably interesting and it deserves to be celebrated for its willingness to be different.
Silver: The General Store.
Fresh ingredients, prepped and cooked on the day? Check. Good coffee? Yessir. (Rosetta). Attention to detail? You bet. Is the owner on site? Of course. Throw in the fact that after you’ve enjoyed your meal you can leave with anything ranging from placemats to lemonade to a massive frozen lasagne and we are talking about a place worth going to. The General Store wins best brunch but it could easily win best lunch too. Choose from a host of salads, enjoy them in one of the coolest hole-in-the-wall spaces you’re likely to see, or load up a take away container. It’s hard not to compare this style of food to Ottolenghi. So I will. Guys, it’s like Ottolenghi.
Gold: The Hog House Brewery.
Opening a BBQ-themed restaurant is risky. Doing it in an industrial park is riskier. Doing it in an industrial park in Ndabeni is basically career suicide. Somehow, PJ Vadas has made it work. It might have something to do with the enormous amount of research he did on smoking meat. It might have something to do with the crack squad team he assembled. It might have something to do with the attention to detail within the space. I don’t really care. The end result is a masterclass in unpretentious food, escalated to a level that still feels like an experience. The beer being brewed on site is excellent (the porter being particularly impressive) and this, coupled with the recent addition of Hog House Cafe on Spier’s premises, has catapulted this start-up to a serious player in the space of 12 months.
Honourable mention: Outrage of Modesty
Yeah, I know. It’s not a restaurant. But there is a small amount of food on offer and, well, this is my page so just deal with it. Serving cocktails that are north of R80 was always going to be a push. Doing it through a reservation system was also pretty ballsy. But the same team that brought you The House of Machines has nailed it again. A clean, minimalist bar with absolutely zero branding is the first change you’ll notice. (Actually, you won’t notice; that’s the point). The second thing you might pick up on (or not?) is each cocktail being vague about what spirit is actually in there. That’s not a cagey tactic so that they can sneak some KWV in there while you’re not looking. That’s also deliberate. The idea here is that people just choose flavours they enjoy. Don’t overthink it. Trust the professionals to be the professionals. Trust the fact that the menu has been meticulously developed. Because it has. I love this place for the courage in their actions. Pushing boundaries and forcing people to re-examine their ideas of cocktails and the environment they’re supposed to be drinking them in.
Underrated restaurant of the year:
Bronze: The Culture Club.
This should ruffle a few feathers. I can almost feel the collective eye roll from here. I mean, The Culture Club? That place that sells cheese? Yes. That place. “But how? They aren’t even a restaurant!” They are, in fact. Considering the process(es) that are involved with cheese making, I feel that a small cafe that proudly puts the end products on a pedestal deserves recognition. On top of making their own, the owners source the best – and I do mean THE BEST – cheese in the country. And some from further afield. If you like produce-driven menus and seasonality you will like this place. If you like fermented foods, you will like this place. It does have toasted cheeses, yes, (and they are magnificent) but it is also a place to enjoy duck rillettes on toast. Or a pulled lamb shoulder mixed into a salad with pomegranates. Or a mac ‘n cheese. Or a pulled pork sandwich.
Silver: A Tavola.
Call me old fashioned, but every now and then there’s something I like about sitting at a table with a white table cloth and a thick red carpet. I like an interesting wine list. I like having internal Goodfellas dialogues. I like attentive, friendly service. And I really like Italian food, done well. This place has all of that. Yes, when you arrive the average age of the room will drop to about 82. Just go with it. You won’t have a view. You won’t have fancy stemware and unusual cocktails. But sometimes you just want to eat a bowl of pasta.
Gold: The Table at de Meye
The fact that this, for me, is the most underrated restaurant in the Cape, is important. Important because it is, in fact, highly rated. Just not highly enough. It should be winning awards every year on platforms with a much bigger audience than this. Owners Luke and Jess are the perfect hosts and form the ultimate partnership, albeit one that is slightly quirky. Their casual approach absolutely adds to the entire experience and I have often described this restaurant as “a place that feels like you are just going to a friend’s house for lunch”. (A friend that can wipe the floor with more “illustrious” chefs.) The Table is more committed to sourcing ethically-reared, seasonal and sustainable produce than any of the more celebrated restaurants on our eating scene and the way Jess cooks and presents the end dish is unique, beautiful and highly memorable. Throw in Luke’s front of house ability and the fact that you literally sit at tables beneath trees on a huge lawn and this is a very special place. The catch? It’s only open on the weekends. Book in advance and take a drive. Eat too much. Drink too much. Lie on the lawn.
Comeback restaurant of the year:
A few years ago I Tweeted about the Clarke’s burger. At the time people were calling it the best in town. I ate it. It tasted like a vetkoek. It was so greasy I actually just wanted to go home and take a shower. One or two equally underwhelming meals led me to write this iconic spot off as a food option. I continued to go there, but mainly for the Bloody Mary and the Friday beers. Last year, something happened. Something changed. I braved the burger again and it was brilliant. A new bun, a different grind and an altogether knock out hamburger. I went back for lunch the next day and tried a salad. A beautiful bowl of fresh and balanced ingredients floored me. I was pleasantly surprised and washed it down with some pineapple-infused kefir water, which was another sign of the work being done behind the scenes. Maybe the ultimate tipping point came when my wife and I settled in on a random weekday and decided to try the R10 oysters. Salty, briny, perfectly sized. And tasty. Served straight up with Tabasco, lemon juice and a mignonette, these might be the single greatest food discovery of 2015. I mean, TEN RAND? Are you kidding me? I tried everything at Clarke’s last year. Saturday brunches, Sunday breakfasts, weekday lunches, boozy dinners, quick coffee breaks. They nailed it all. I’m not saying Clarke’s ever became unpopular (it pumps) but it has won me back in a massive way.
Restaurant of The Year:
The lobster rolls are nice. The pickled vegetables are nice. But the duck tacos are better than nice. On a recent visit, where I was introduced to a new dish built around the delicate flavours of angelfish and shaved coconut, I really sat up and took notice. This place is getting more and more ambitious. Pickled octopus is now on there too (served with soba noodles), along with the already popular classics. If you want a place to get some delicious, fun and consistently good food this is it. Choose from a small but well-curated wine list or enjoy it all with an ice cold beer. Hallelujah remains a restaurant that I would gladly go to for an anniversary dinner, a boozy dinner with mates, or to celebrate the big deal you’ve been working on for months. Arrive in slops. Arrive in sneakers. Arrive in a bowtie. They will not care. Long live the flamingo.
(FYI: this is also winner of Best Website by a country mile)
Silver: Pot Luck Club
Two years ago if a friend from out of town was visiting, I would take them to The Pot Luck Club. Today, nothing has changed. I still do. The reasons have changed, however. Slightly. Back then I was going for the “wowness”. The crazy views. The open-plan kitchen. The theatre of certain dishes. The all-out vibe of the place. If I’m honest – and I mean really honest – I think there was a hint of style over substance. The food was good but it wasn’t amazing. Today it is amazing. It is flat-out delicious food which showcases interesting and unusual techniques. I would eat this food in the basement of an office park. In Joburg. Oh, it still has those views by the way. They aren’t going anywhere.
Gold: Chef’s Warehouse
By now, you’re probably halfway through compiling a reply to this post. It could disagree with plenty of things I’ve had to say here. In fact, it should. I accept that. These are just normal opinions from a normal dude. One thing I won’t accept easily is an argument against Chef’s Warehouse cooking the tastiest food in the city. Bite-for-bite, mouthful-for-mouthful I just haven’t found anything better. And if you tell me you have, I’m going to have a hard time accepting that. I’m not the only one either. Ask a decent chef in this town where he/she eats on their day off and 9 out of 10 will say Chef’s Warehouse. There are a lot of cool things happening in 2016 but this tiny restaurant remains the benchmark.
Most influential person of the year:
Look guys, I’d like to say there’s a new face dominating the scene. There isn’t. Just the same face, kicking arse and constantly reinventing his offerings. Test Kitchen is the best fine dining restaurant in the country. That’s a fact. Pot Luck Club is cooking the best food it ever has. That’s a fact. The new baby, Naturalis, is set to add something different to the stable and breathe some fresh air into The Biscuit Mill. Throw in a pop-up at The Saxon, plans for a Shortmarket Street concept and one or two other projects that are already doing the rounds in the rumour mill and it’s hard to even nominate a local chef with as much pulling power. When Luke talks, people listen.
Chef of the year:
I know I said there wasn’t a new face dominating the scene. But there could be. Wes Randles will be in charge of the new Shortmarket project and I expect big things. At Pot Luck Club, Wes has emerged from his mentor’s (fairly daunting) shadow and is cooking his own style of food with so much confidence and authority and technique that it is now a serious restaurant that could draw the crowds even without the jaw-dropping views. With recent Eat Out accolades, Wes has put Pot Luck Club in the same category as the country’s most serious restaurants. And he is done it by not taking things too seriously. The past year saw some obvious growth in the offering at Pot Luck, as well as the guy doing the cooking. He has the momentum and 2016 should be another big year.
That’s it. Some highlights of the past 12 months. I’m sure you have some of your own. Let’s have a chat?
Go forth and eat,