With Cape Town – and surrounding areas – being home to the best restaurants in the country (yes, that’s a fact) we often get carried away by celebrating places like The Tasting Room, Test Kitchen, Terroir, Overture, The Greenhouse etc. And rightly so. They are world class.
But there are also some unsung heroes producing phenomenal food from kitchens far less grand than those listed above. I think it’s time we give them a much-needed high five.
Here is a list of places that consistently impress with quality and commitment.
Yes, they make a mean eggs benedict, but there’s a lot more to this place. Vanessa Marx has a clear food philosophy with only a handful of ingredients being presented on a plate. A daily changing menu is tough to do and they nail it time and time again. A carefully constructed wine list too.
Neil Grant is a magician with wine pairings. And he could’ve opened a fancy pants place, sold high-end wines and charged through the roof prices. Instead he opened a modern take on an Italian joint. Chef Annemarie Steenkamp bangs out a bone marrow risotto that rates as one of the best plates of food I have eaten recently. There’s a lot more where that came from and when you throw in Neil’s pairings this place starts to move into a whole new eating category. Hospitality is brilliant too. I once strolled in there for a nightcap and asked for a Maker’s Mark Manhattan. They didn’t flinch. I had three.
The Common Room:
You might already know that Margot Janse is brilliant. But did you know that The Common Room serves the best tapas in the country? A small, chilled space in Le Quartier Francais where you can kick back and eat things like fish lollipops with chakalaka, a bacon crumble or a wood-fired roast chicken for two (complete with gravy boat).
This guy makes sandwiches and pies, right? Wrong. He breaks down whole carcasses, hangs cheese in his cold room for months until they’re ready to use, hand-makes things like buffalo bresaola and sometimes takes two days to make a pork pie. And (of course) there’s his bread, which is still made the painstaking, wake-up-at-3am-and-get-to-the-bakery-in-the-dark kind of way. Whereas 99% of “artisanal” bakers in Cape Town are cutting corners and selling you pre-made factory stuff, he’s not.
At the butchery we deal with all types of restaurants. When the team at Loading Bay approached us to experiment with their (already awesome) burger we thought it would be a pretty quick process. MONTHS later we were still perfecting the ratios of various cuts to nail down their burger patty. They are absolute nazis when it comes to getting the details right and I mean that in the best way possible. I eat at their place often and am amazed at how the simple ingredients are treated with respect and a bit of creativity. A bucket of chicken and a craft beer sounds easy. But have it there and see what I mean.
Having spent a week cooking in the kitchen with Stef Marais I can vouch for the guy’s commitment to sourcing free-range meat, sustainable fish and seasonal produce. He could get half his ingredients for a fraction of the price but he coughs up extra. It shows in his food too. In terms of a comfortable, chilled, reliable neighbourhood spot this one is hard to beat for me. The bar, The Snug, is one of Cape Town’s best kept secrets too.
When I first met the owner of El Burro he gave me a long and passionate explanation of how he was determined to get South Africans to shift their perception of Mexican food. I must say, I was doubtful. We all have a pre-conceived image of sloppy beans and yellow cheese served in a soggy fajita. Well, I definitely did. Since then Nic has educated me about the intricacies of all things Mexican. Yes, this includes tequila. But even that was a total eye-opener with the whole experience being really interesting. He too makes a concerted effort to find ethically-reared meat and has been constantly pushing the boundaries at his spot with unusual cuts like pig cheeks, ears, tongue and trotters.
Oep ve Koep:
You want to be pretty careful throwing around words like “genius” when explaining any kind of talent. In any field. But for me Kobus Van Der Merwe is a genius. His spot in Paternoster is about as unassuming as you get. But look at one of his plates of food and it’s got that same minimalist, deconstructed vibe that you expect from the popular Scandinavian chefs like Rene Redzepi. He is the absolute pinnacle in terms of local chefs who forage for ingredients and he trawls the local sand dunes for his ingredients. Take a drive out there and let him do his thing. Last time I was there a papaya and raw fennel salad was topped with apple granita. The second time it was gnocchi with sauteed dune spinach. Like I said: the dude is a genius.
I’ll make this very simple. They could charge double what they currently are for their tasting menu and they’d probably get away with it. I’d still go. Let’s throw in a sunny courtyard for summer and a bunch of fireplaces for winter and you’re pretty much set for all-year-round good times. Which matters, because their menu is carefully constructed and bang-on in terms of seasonal produce. So you should be going there all-year-round. A nice wine list, good pairings for that (ridiculously priced) tasting menu and some of the warmest hospitality in town. Boxes ticked. Why this restaurant is consistently overlooked for higher honours I don’t know.
So there you go. Yes, we are blessed with some of the best restaurants in the country. But you don’t have to go to the fanciest places to be impressed.
Go forth and eat,