September, 2012

The Moscow Mule

I’m lucky enough to have the best mixologist I know as one of my best mates. The dude has spent 10 years perfecting his craft and I’m always amazed at his knowledge when it comes to flavour profiles. He has one of the most developed palates I’ve ever seen and when you invite him over for drinks he always brings a little leather bag full of the latest tools and ingredients picked up on his travels.

He’s gone a long way to shifting my perception of cocktails. In this country we often associate the word with bright pink drinks and umbrellas but the world of cocktails is seriously exciting. The trend nowadays is towards making as many of the ingredients as possible at home and something as simple as bitters has endless possibilities when you start experimenting. These pages will be filled with plenty of the classics as we move along, but with Saturday’s weather coming to the party there was only one option. The Moscow Mule. This is a killer drink for Summer and it’s easy to make. Like cooking, the quality of the drink is directly proportionate to the quality of ingredients. Don’t skimp.

Recipe
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2 shots Grey Goose vodka (or whatever is your favourite)
½ shot  freshly squeezed lime juice
3 dash  Angostura aromatic bitters
Ginger beer (Frankie’s or good ‘ol Stoney are good bets)

Method
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SHAKE first 3 ingredients with ice and strain into ice-filled glass. Top with ginger beer and stir.

Garnish
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Lime wedge & mint sprig

Some extra tips here. Little details make a big difference with cocktails, especially with presentation. Something I’ve started doing is buying a whole block of ice and using a pick to chip off chunks. The end result in the glass is very, very cool. Also, give the mint a good slap in the palm of your hand to release the oils.

Go forth and eat,

Andy

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The Tasting Room

 

If something ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Right? Well, apparently not if you’re Margot Janse. She has recently re-launched the already world-class The Tasting Room at the (also world class) Le Quartier Francais Hotel in Franschhoek. She spent hours/weeks/months labouring and conceptualizing each dish. She hand-selected unusual wines to go with each course. She trained the staff in the extra experiences that each ingredient of each plate brings to the customer. She flew her brother out from Holland to give the room a facelift.

But that was the easy job.

I’ve got to try and explain it to you.

Normally it would be a cinch. To gush over this meal would be a walk in the park. But you see, half the fun in eating at The Tasting Room is the fact that the menu consists of a choice between five courses and eight. That’s it. In other words, you have no idea what you’re about to eat. And that’s the beauty of it. For me to ruin the surprise by explaining each dish would be the culinary equivalent of telling all those Dallas fans what really lay in store for JR all those years ago.

So what can I tell you? Well, I can say that it is by far the best display of South African ingredients that I have seen. Staying on the right side of cheesy, liberal uses of ingredients like buchu, granadilla, waterblommetjies and venison will please international visitors looking for a “unique” South African meal, but it will thrill any local food fan too. You see, what Janse does so well with the new menu is what she has always managed to do: she tells a story through food.

And it’s a wild ride. The whole thing is as experimental as any meal I’ve had in South Africa and, instead of playing around with just one or two textures (a gel or a foam here), or cooking techniques (savoury custard, porcini dust etc.) the entire plate is a bit of a gamble. It’s a night where you’ll shake your head in admiration and find yourself with a stupid smile on your face. More than once. A meal where you eat rocks, cigars and a bowl of cheese will do that to a guy.

The pride for the valley is a theme throughout the menu, with the staff taking great care to explain the origin of the produce. The wine pairings too, are local for the most part and are presented in a laid-back way. Forget alcohol percentages, terroir details, pH levels etc. Instead you’ll hear about the one farm owner’s pet dog and the other’s Muay-Thai hobby and fledging TV career. It’s pretty awesome. The wines themselves are worth a mention, as dinner allowed us to try a wide range of unusual varietals. All nicely weighed up against the ballsy flavours and textures shown with each dish.

The space is seriously cool too and Margot’s brother, Herbert, deserves a big high five. Globally there has been a shift away from the stiff, white-linen fine dining brigade and the whole mood in this place says very clearly that they aren’t taking themselves too seriously.  Indeed, the décor is as unexpected as the food, with a multi-coloured rope (reproducing the silhouette of the Franschhoek valley) taking centre stage as a feature.

Perhaps the best compliment to pay is a simple, short word. Asked the next day to describe dinner I used it. The night was: fun.

On a night where Caster Semenya was busy running her 800m final at the Olympics somewhere between my third and fourth course, I was kept up to speed on her progress by our enthusiastic waiter tapping me on the shoulder with updates he was getting from the bar next door. Caster came in second on the night and brought home a silver medal. Looking at each dish and hearing international guests at adjacent tables in raptures about our local talent in the cooking world, I would probably put this meal one rank higher. Solid gold baby.

Go forth and eat,

Andy

(The above article was first published on the Eat Out website. For info and contact details for The Tasting Room head over to www.eatout.co.za)

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Braamfontein and other bits and pieces

It’s been ages since I’ve visited Joburg. A recent trip gave me the chance to check out a few new things. Here they are:

The Red Rabbit is one of several parking-lot-facing restaurants in the Nicolway Shopping Centre. I was keen to visit not because this particular parking lot was extra pretty, but rather because it’s brought to you by the team behind Thomas Maxwell Bistro – one of my favourite restaurants in that part of the world. Unfortunately the food can’t even compare to TM. In fact, when I jokingly asked the waiter where the post-meal cupcakes were (a signature at TM) I was told, very sternly, that “they were not Thomas Maxwell.” Damn right. They weren’t in the same league. A decent seafood bisque could have done with some seafood. Burgers were undercooked and overcooked for two of our party and a grilled calamari was really good, if not confusing. (It came with teriyaki sauce and squid ink risotto but sat on the Red Rabbit plate which describes the place as a French Bistro.) So, all in all, pretty underwhelming.

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Marthinus Ferreira’s cooking. His restaurant, DW Eleven-13, is always my first stop when I’m in Joburg. He has recently opened his spin-off tapas bar, The Grazing Room. And I hate him for it. He has made my life unnecessarily complicated. You see, after eating there on Friday night, I can’t say which I prefer.

Set in the adjacent room (previously the bar area) The Grazing Room is tiny. What’s even tinier is the stove where the cooking takes place. It’s incredible. Imagine a smart car with the boot open, and that’s pretty much the entire operation. Including the bar. From the Smart Car his chefs belt out  small plates packed with big flavour. We had (amongst others) deep-fried lemon risotto balls, grilled sardine on lentils, smoky pork with beans, a yorkshire pudding smeared with braised lamb shoulder, springrolls stuffed with mozzarella and prosciutto, steak tartare and an absolutely flawless gazpacho. On the night we nailed a few bottles of Paradyskloof Pinot Noir, but in a way I wish I had tried some of his suggested pairings. They’re pretty “out there” and include several beers, bourbon and a host of liqueurs instead of stickies for the desserts. The food was brilliant, the staff knew their stuff and the attention to detail was bang-on. Even the “tomato toast” was delicious.

Marthinus deserves a high-five for his efforts to source ethically-reared produce. He is now serving only free-range and sustainable meat and I applaud him for that. I also appreciate his efforts to add extra bits and pieces onto the dining experience. A bowl of popcorn dusted in dukkah might not sound like a big deal but when it’s brought to the table instead of bread it’s a nice touch. And the candied crab apples and coconut marshmallows to end off the meal epitomised his approach of doing things differently, having some fun and still maintaining a very, very high standard.

A early morning trip to Braamfontein rocked my world. The area has been revamped and shook up and the end result is a humming, thriving, pulsating little niche carved into the heart of downtown Joburg. It’s very cool. Obviously you want to check out The Neighbourgoods Market when you’re there.

The Good Luck Club was fun for a Saturday afternoon spent eating Dim Sum and drinking beer. I’ve always enjoyed hanging out at Wolves Cafe and this is the latest offering from the same team. Like Wolves, a lot of thought has gone into the branding and design for this small eatery. Like Wolves, the food was solid. Unlike Wolves the service was shocking. Our dude was totally disinterested. With so much attention having been paid to getting the small details right, the most glaring one still needs to be addressed for me to chalk it down as somewhere I’d rush back to.

Go forth and eat,

Andy

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The Test Kitchen and Pot Luck Club

 

After a recent sample of the new winter tasting menu at The Test Kitchen I sent a fairly innocent Tweet announcing how much I had enjoyed it. I had eaten at the revamped The Tasting Room in Franschhoek two weeks prior to that and the Tweet basically said something along the lines of both meals being on par with anything I have experienced abroad. A fairly cynical response came back from someone with the opinion that my meals were good because “both chefs are foreign”.

Bullshit.

For me, the success of a top kitchen has to do with a lot of people. Not just the chef with his/her name on the door. There are plenty of sets of hands involved in getting a finished dish to the table. Apparently Luke agreed, because he invited me for a coffee to chat a bit further about the whole thing.

“Cape Town can compete with most cities in the world,” is the way he sums it up. “There is plenty of talent if you know where to look. And I’m not just talking food. Art, design – this place has got it all.” When I press him further to comment on the theory that young chefs coming out of catering colleges don’t have the loyalty to stick around and earn their stripes he says simply that it “depends on the person. It’s like any industry.”

The Test Kitchen and Pot Luck Club are both as good examples of this as you’re going to get. Ivor (head chef at Test Kitchen) has been with Luke for more than seven years. In other words, they’ve been sharing a kitchen since La Colombe days. Luke is full of praise for Wesley too (who heads up Pot Luck Club) and pays him the ultimate compliment by telling me that he “reminds me of myself at that age.” According to Luke both guys are always looking to push harder and “re-invent the wheel.” Something that is becoming harder and harder to do in the food scene.

The quality of the experience at both restaurants rests heavily on the service too. Which is awesome. Simon handles The Test Kitchen. Markus handles Pot Luck Club. Both nail it. They do this by giving the diner  “the choice of explanation.” In other words, if you really want a full definition of each course – and why it pairs with wine – of course you can have it. If you just want your food served quickly with a good smile and a full glass you can get that too.

Onto the winter menu. That’s why I was there in the first place after all. My overriding impression of the dinner was the ability to pack all those seasonal ingredients in without making it heavy. Beetroot, turnip, butternut, sweet potato, various mushrooms. They’re all there. I want to know how he manages to pull off an 11-course affair without rolling people out the front door. “Yeah, that was a huge challenge. But if you look closely you’ll see only one course has cream. And there’s hardly any starch. You won’t find things like a thick heavy jus either.” (Ironically the dish I enjoyed least was the “starchy” option where rice balls made an appearance)

The entire menu has strong Asian influences with ingredients, but with techniques too. A chawanmushi is basically an Asian custard and it makes an appearance in both savoury and sweet forms. A highlight to watch out for is the best palate cleanser I’ve seen in South Africa. I don’t want to give too much away but it involves: sorbet, a branch, homemade bitters and a spritzer bottle. It’s pretty neat.  Another dish involves a smoke machine and glass bulbs for presentation, while yet another utilises a test tube to hold an impossibly good sauce. In other words, there’s a lot more theatre than I can remember previously. Luke agrees and when I ask him the challenge of pulling it off without being cheesy he says the skill is to do it absolutely perfectly. “You can make the odd mistake when you’re cooking but when you do it with dishes like that you end up looking like a wanker.” Needless to say, Ivor was flawless with these. (As he was with the entire service). A notable touch is apple used as a way to introduce acidity where needed. I first saw this in a trout dish that Luke has had on previous menus and it is carried through in the winter version. It is pure class.

The wine pairings are refreshing too. I say wine pairings, but quite a few of them aren’t wine at all. “We didn’t want too many grapes,” is the seemingly obvious explanation I get. Instead, infused sake pops up more than once. And it’s superb.

When the coffee runs dry, we take a walk across the road to his bakery. Here, breads are produced from scratch daily for the restaurant. From there it’s off to the site of the new Pot Luck Club. Yup, I said new site. The Test Kitchen is expanding towards the end of the year, as Pot Luck Club re-opens atop the old seven-storey silo within The Biscuit Mill. With views of the mountain, Stellenbosch and the harbour I’m most excited by the view of the adjacent traintrack. There’s something gritty and grungy about this place. It feels raw. It feels honest. It feels…well…really, really cool. With more than 80 seats, a bar and an innovative layout allowing interaction with the chefs one thing is clear: if you think the current restaurants are good,
you ain’t seen nothing yet. In other words, they’re flying. It must be because Luke is from overseas. Pffft.

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