Cheyne’s Review

A few Fridays ago, the new (and some might say improved) Crackernaut roster went down into the deep south of (the republic of) Hout Bay for some Pacific Rim cuisine at Cheyne’s (@cheyne_reaction on the Twitters). Trivia factoid: this was only our second Cracker in Hout Bay. (Also: no Jaegers or Kaiju were spotted, in case you were wondering.)

The Yay

The food was excellent all round. The menu is tapas-style and is divided into Sea, Land, Earth, and (erm) Happy Endings. We had a good mix of animals and vegetables, and pretty much every dish was delicious. There was a wide range of flavours and styles and it tickled all my Eastern bells.

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The decor is also worth a mention: slightly odd, but very groovy prints of graffiti-as-art cover the walls and give the place an interesting feel. Our table was a nice big, solid, bit of wood, but it did make us feel like we were sitting quite far away from each other.

The service was really good, but we kept having odd not-actual-misunderstandings with our waiter. It often wasn’t clear that he had got what we said and that all was good. But the right food and drinks kept coming out, so we were happy.

The Boo

After a couple of plates we started spotting some patterns. While it was beautifully presented, the food started to look a bit similar. The setting for it, I mean: every dish came in the same style: perched on a black slate tile, with little blobs of Kewpie mayo and little hills of (admittedly nommy) kimchi on. A minor quibble to be sure, but a bit odd.

In summery summary

Next time I’m out that way again, it will definitely be high on my list as somewhere to go, but I suspect I wouldn’t make the trip out just to go and eat there.

Al’s Place review

Eckhard’s Salty Cracker tendencies are clearly unchanged, he’s still (a) looking for unpretentious steak places, and (b) leaving it to me to review them. January’s Cracker was Al’s Place, which is a sort of family-style steakhouse in Station Rd in Rondebosch. Station Rd is an odd little corner of the suburb notable mostly for Cargill’s, which is a tiny and excellent place serving classic French haut cuisine. Al’s, not so much. Al’s Place does pretty much what it says on the box – it’s a warm, relaxed environment, nothing fancy, and on a Friday night was fairly full of warm, relaxed, rather noisy diners. The interior is a bit bright for the classic steakhouse vibe, but cheery and not too crowded.

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I didn’t look very hard at the decor, but there are odd, quirky things on the wall which Steve apparently did look at, viz.:

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We weren’t too hungry, for some reason, so rather than going the whole hog with starters (and possibly because of the slightly limited and very standard starter menu), we ordered a couple of foccacia breads, one garlic, one feta, and a roasted vegetable salad. The foccaccia was great, very thin and crispy by virtue of the fact that they have a pizza oven; the salad was fine, more than edible but not wildly exciting. The food and the bottles of wine we’d ordered took a while to appear – speedy service is clearly not high on the priority list.

For mains Jo and I had duck, which was deboned and slow-roasted and served with an orange sauce; Danielle had ribs, and Eckie and Steve had steak. Everything fell into the range of “well-cooked and tasty” which indicates solid steakhouse fare without rising to the elevated heights of Knife or Dale’s Black Angus. I enjoyed the duck, which was beautifully crispy on the outside; the orange sauce was good, as were the potato croquettes it was served with. The duck itself was flavourful, but I found it slightly stringy. Then again, with my ongoing quest to eat all the duck in Cape Town, I’ve had it at most of the really posh restaurants in our local area, and may well be a tad jaded. The ribs were excellent, a good barbecue sauce tang and the meat fell off the bones – Danielle’s plate was raided wholesale by the table at large, which is usually a good sign. The steak was also generally good, although Eckie’s larger portion of rump was better, the smaller one was a bit on the medium side of medium rare (caveat: I like my steak bloody, your culinary mileage may vary). Again, the sauce was good – green peppercorn, pleasantly bitey. They make excellent chips, hot and crispy, but for some inexplicable reason flavoured with what tasted like Aromat, which is a bit of a brash flavour to fall over unexpectedly in your restaurant dinner. And the veggies were unfortunately at the lower quality end of standard steakhouse fare – mashed butternut and creamed spinach, both basically glop. Not a bad flavour, mind you, but gloppy. Glop is a tragic thing to happen to an innocent vegetable.

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The service was slow throughout – the wine arrived late, and we had to remind the waiter of our lost order. The wine list itself is rather downmarket, with only a couple of good/drinkable wines, all on the cheap end of the scale (under R100). Jo was convinced they offered Tassies, but after a brief and spirited debate about “the one with the spazzy giraffe”, it turned out to be Chateau Libertas. Still, it’s significant that she was making that association.

The servers were keen, pleasant and chatty, but forgetful; Isaac was entertaining, all sass and jokes, but he didn’t, alas, deliver. As someone commented while we twiddled our thumbs waiting for the bill: just bring the damned thing already, you don’t have to cook it. I also noticed a small outbreak of servers with card machines doing Statue of Liberty poses, which is always amusing but hardly impresses one with their calm professionalism.

This was a pleasant evening all round, the staff and space are likeable and the value for money good, but this one is not joining my mental list of “places to go when I’m jonesing for steak”. If I feel the need to eat locally it’ll be the Hussar or Cargill’s. Al’s is fine, but I’m a spoiled Capetonian and want something a little more exciting for an evening out.

Galbi Review

As part of my continuing quest to explore new Asian restaurants, to seek out new food and new drinks, to boldly eat where we haven’t eaten before, the Crackernauts headed out to Galbi, a Korean (fusion) BBQ joint on Long Street.

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The Good

The food was interesting, a bit different, and the communal mini-braai thing is always fun. They have these awesome steampunk-y brass tubes that hang from the ceiling and funnel the smoke and hot air up and (presumably) out.

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The waiters were very smiley and friendly and helpful: yay!

The Bad

There’s a call waitron button on each table, but it worked erratically in practise. It rang every time, but someone didn’t always come.

The portions were on the small side. We ordered the Korean Galbi set, the Fusion set, and the Safari set. This should have been enough for six, but the five of us polished it off easily. No-one was left hungry, but we felt like we could have eaten a bit more.

The Ugly

It is hot as hell in there. The ceilings aren’t too low, but the space is quite small. Combine that with the pit of fire in the middle of every table, and the temperate rises up quite a lot. The concrete-y walls also mean it gets loud. It was a Friday night with a birthday party party in, in a place in the city bowl, but still: loud.

The Verdict

An interesting experiment, but not an entirely successful one. Might be worth trying again in winter.

The Pot Luck Club Review

Hello there. Steve being Jo here, provided brief wordy words about The Club of Luck, of Pots.

Pencil Menu

Jo and I had been there before for dinner and loved it, and decided it was a worthy destination for a lunchtime cracker. Important aside: we went there and back by taxi for maximum relaxation.

The restaurant is cool. It’s perched on top of the biscuit mill, with great views, and is just the sort of modern architecture stylings I like.

Kitchen

The menu is divided by flavour: Salty, Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Umami, and dessert. The lunch time one is a little smaller than their dinner one; this worked well for us as a foursome because it meant we could have, essentially, the whole menu. WIN.

Every dish was great, a few were amazing: I remember the chinese ribs and the calamari being particularly good.

I highly recommend The Pot Luck Club. Really great food, friendly staff, great setting. Did I mention really great food? :)

You can check out another pic or two on Flickr, and read a slightly different (but equally short) take on Opinyon.

96 Winery Rd review

O dear, I am very behind on this review. Amazing how a solid weekend marking Honours essays will motivate attention to other procrastinations. Since I’m late and it wasn’t my choice, this may be a slightly short and perfunctory review, at least compared to my usual screeds. This was Eckie’s choice, at the end of August; 96 Winery Rd is a rather attractive restaurant in wine country between Stellenbosch and Somerset West. In a break from tradition we went for lunch, since it’s easier to trek back into town when full and slightly drunk if it’s also not pitch dark. On the other hand, there goes the day, and you’re not much good for the evening either, owing to a tendency to groan a lot and refuse to move.

The vibe in this place is lovely – the countryside is beautiful, and it’s a large, spacious, well-lit place with lots of room between tables and a pleasingly thatched roof which always gives me flashbacks to family Christmases on the ranch. The décor is warm, lots of wood and random pictures and a slight sense of comfortable clutter – a very farmhouse feel. The service is fine, also warm and pleasant, and the relaxed vibe is reflected in the fact that, on a Saturday afternoon, there were only two other tables occupied, one of them for several hours by a family including small (regrettably noisy) children. That didn’t really work, unfortunately, with their menu, which points to the ineradicable problem with this place, viz. its multiple personality. It needs to work out what it wants to be, already, and not do this weird mix of relaxed with formal, fine dining with steakhouse, family with swish.

Eckie chose the restaurant because it apparently does good steak, which suggests a slightly more steakhousey, large-portion vibe. But it has pretensions of novelle in its presentation, which is all artful and piled, and it has a a tasting menu. The tasting menu has no bloody idea what it wants to be. Its portions tend to be slightly larger than the usual upmarket tasting menu, possibly too much so, because we were all seriously and almost unpleasantly full by the end of it. And its “fine dining” thing is horribly half-arsed. The best example is the salad which made up the first course, which is billed as “Winter salad with truffle and sherry dressing”. The truffle and sherry dressing was delectable, I seriously have to try that flavour combination at home. The salad was a pile of iceberg lettuce with a few half-hearted bits of tomato and other random veggies I can’t even remember now – radish, perhaps? – tucked randomly within. It bore a striking resemblance to the traditional steakhouse lettuce/tomato pile all right-thinking diners leave righteously on the side of the plate, secure in the knowledge that no-one really expected you to eat them. Token, is the word. I felt the same about the pork bellies, which was clearly on the menu because every good Cape Town restaurant in the history of ever does pork bellies at the moment. I have no problem with the trend, pork belly is a lovesome thing, god wot, but these were arb. Tiny portions, crackling more soggening (although I can’t really bitch about that, it’s the one area where Overture fumbled the dismount last time we went), and the usual, uninspired, sweet-potato/chutney garnish. I think the wild mushroom risotto was better, quite intense flavours, and the pinotage/berry/black pepper sorbet was lovely, but I honestly don’t remember much about the main courses – seared salmon, Hollandse pepper fillet, créme brulée. All very standard dishes, no stand-out flavours or combinations. Hussar does everything except the salmon. The steak was, in fact, good. I have the vague impression that the pine nut/maple salsa with the salmon may have been interesting.

I think this experience may have been better overall if we hadn’t gone for the tasting menu – the problem is, it raises fine-dining expectations which are simply not met by what is effectively nicely-executed high-quality steakhouse fare. If they want to be in the Overture class, they need to provide something more than a slightly unenthusiastic imitation of the current top restaurant trends with a nouvelle glaze. It wasn’t at all a bad experience, but it would have been better if it wasn’t confusing.

The Test Kitchen review

I’ve been meaning to go to The Test Kitchen for a while, having been to and loved Luke Dale-Roberts’ other joint Pot Luck Club, and we finally got around to it last month for my Cracker choice. I was pretty fired up for the experience, having missed my first booking there (I got sent abroad for work stuff), and given that we had to book two months in advance. TL;DR: amazing, but also amazingly expensive.

We went for the Discovery menu. The Gourmand also looked great, but we’ve gone off of long tasting menus: you get taste fatigue by the end. The flavours were fantastic and by and large the combinations of them were too. My only complaint is that some dishes had a few too many flavours fighting for attention. The presentation of every dish was exquisite: beautifully crafted and plated, although I could have done with a few less smears (ahem). The portion size was well judged: we all felt pretty full by the end of the meal, but not stuffed to bursting: something that tasting menus often get wrong.

The staff were friendly and knowledgable but lacked warmth, and the atmosphere was kind of similar. The experience felt professional and high-end, but with a dash of pretentiousness. Kind of how I feel about the Biscuit Mill in general: not quite my kind of space.

One that’s important to mention is the price. Yowzer, it’s not cheap! If you asked me if The Test Kitchen was good value for money, I  think I’d err slightly on the side of not. You do get fantastic food, but for me it wasn’t the leagues ahead of other great places that you’d expect given the large difference in price. Does it deserve its top spot in restaurant lists? Based purely on the food: probably yes. Based on the experience as a whole: probably not.

All in all: stunning food, but I won’t be going back in a rush. The credit card needs to recover a bit. I might head upstairs to Pot Luck Club instead.

The Greenhouse review

I may or may not have a thing for really expensive, high-end dining, she says, looking shifty. I blame decades of impecunious grad student existence. While my love of good food can easily be contented by, well, good food, in any setting from shabby/ethnic through intimate/hearty to warm/steakhouse, every now and then the yen for something precise and pretentious and rarified arises and cannot be denied. And for that, praise the culinary deities, there are places like The Greenhouse.

The Greenhouse is attached to the Cellars Hohenort hotel in Constantia, which is a lovely setting and also includes The Cape Malay Restaurant, which I am noting significantly for future reference. Greenhouse gains serious points before you’ve even arrived, because the phone lady enquires seriously about your food allergies or other dietary requirements, and they reinforce it with another enquiry when you are ushered to your table. (I can’t eat dessicated coconut, for some reason it makes me seriously nauseous, and they were very graceful about their willingness to swap out desserts from other menus to accommodate me. They were also horribly embarrassed when they forgot to make the substitution at the end of the meal, and whisked away the offending coconut bavarois, to replace it with a series of apologies from various staff which culminated in one of the actual chefs coming out to assure me he was very sorry and the rosemary/honeybush cream/jelly replacement was truly on its way. Which it was, and was delectable enough that I completely forgot I’d promised to share it with Jo until a few spoonfuls from the end).

The staff, if it’s not clear from the above, are lovely; the waiter was only slightly portentous in describing the meal, with enough good humour to undercut it, and the sommelier managed to be deeply serious about the wine without subscribing to the Pretentious Dickery end of wine language and attitude. The actual physical setting manages the same tricky blend of fine dining formality (lots of white linen and chandeliers) with a slightly quirky edge which renders it luxuriously welcoming rather than snooty. It does to perfection what an expensive dining experience absolutely must do in order to be worth it: gives you the impression that your comfort and enjoyment is the most important thing in the world.

They have set menus rather than an à la carte; either a three-course winter menu, which I looked at wistfully on account of the pork belly, or a choice of seven-course tasting menus, chef’s or fish or vegetarian. For some reason everyone felt like splashing out on the full seven-course menu with wine pairing, which kicks in at around R800 per person. This is the extremely high end of our dining range, something we don’t do often (I think the Roundhouse was the last one), and I hasten to say up front that the food and the experience as a whole were utterly worth it. Steve, Eckie and I had the chef’s menu, and Jo went for the fish; both were a lush, imaginative array of ingredients and flavours, and the contrast was very interesting. (The day Salty Cracker doesn’t pass forkfuls of food around the table is the day we’ve all been replaced by alien pod people and should be terminated with extreme prejudice.) I also have to say that the wine pairing was superbly chosen, not a disappointing wine in the selection, and some absolutely inspired taste combinations. (In other news, I’ve met a dessert wine I actually like. They serve Vin de Constance, which is both marvellous, and perfectly appropriate to the setting).

I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow of the fourteen dishes, because there were simply too many of them, even if my usual procrastination hadn’t delayed this review by several weeks and blurred everything in my mind to a sort of delicious, drunken mélange. High points, though: the game fish tataki and yuzu snow, which somehow managed to make the abalone and oyster it accompanied palatable to my non-shellfish-fancying proclivities. That sort of sweetcorn/garlic mousse thing that came with Jo’s crayfish custard. Having the top of my head blown off, in a good way, by a completely unexpected and astonishingly good chestnut-vanilla purée with the rabbit ballotine, and by the tea-smoked duck breast in the following course. Black olive jam on Jo’s pan roasted cob. Seared foie gras with, of all things, granola, a bizarrely successful combination. The way the jus from the lamb soaked into the barley risotto. Cheese cake served in a wedge imitating Camembert, with pine nut biscotti and something with roast pineapple.

If there was a problem with this meal (which there wasn’t), it was that it was too good, certainly too generous. We were practically in a group food coma by the end of it, forcing the dessert down because it was too good not to, in a spirit of debauched, determined, prescient regret. Partially that was our fault, because we went through their beautiful bread basket like a ravening wind. It would have been a crime not to. I don’t think I’ve had better bread, or a more imaginative selection, at any restaurant ever. They do those really crispy, salty, thin things like a sort of more flaky and substantial poppadom, and amazing onion bread, and a sort of cheesy ciabatta we actually fought over. But I think the seven courses is slightly too much, or else the portions are slightly too generous. (Or else we’re far too greedy).

I’m not going to do the Patented Jo Scale, because it’s going to be ridiculously repetitive. Instead, I’m going to do what we’ve been threatening to do for months, and revert to a purer, simpler code. This was a five star experience. In every category. Chew on that.

(Photos, as usual, by Max Barners; there are more on Flickr.)

Pure Review

Despite being in a hotel (the Hout Bay Manor) I though Pure looked promising: lovely decor, interesting sounding food. Unfortunately, we were a bit disappointed.

As a quick aside: the place is quiet hard to find at night. The road leading up to HBM isn’t signposted; the entrance gate thing is big and labelled, but isn’t lit. So we missed it the first time. Ahem.

Where Pure dropped points was staff and service: most of the waiting staff were polite, but curt with it, and had no warmth. Compare this to somewhere like the Roundhouse (extremely formal and fancy, but also very friendly) or (Crackernaut winningest hearth-throb) Overture and the comparison is quite unfavourable. They also weren’t knowledgable about the food: Jess’s quite tasty pureed beetroot soup with roast garlic was described as “beet soup *frown*”; Jo asked about pasta portion sizes as she wanted one for a starter, was told they were quite large, and got three small ravioli; there was “a misprint” on the menu that meant taking three scoops of the same ice cream as a dish cost more than taking three scoops separately, which they had to discuss with the chef to find out.

Soon after we sat down, we were greeted by the very cheery Food and Beverage Manager (um…) Vincent, who wished us happy eating and told us not to hesitate to give him any feedback. This was nice. Alas, we never saw him again.

We Crackerlngs like to take wine with us to restaurants. It’s not so much that we’re cheap: more that restaurants charge a ridiculous mark up on their wine. We took a pretty fancy bottle of red that we’d been saving and the (grouchy) waitress opened it for us. She came back about five minutes later and told me that they were charging corkage of R80 (burn!). That’s a bit ridiculous compared to other spots in Cape Town, and it would have been better to have told us before they opened the bottle. It’s interesting though that their web site says “As we have a extensive wine list we have a NO Corkage Policy at Pure.

The menu is a bit schizophrenic. It’s part bistro, part steakhouse, but doesn’t quite hit the mark for either. The scores, then.

Dale’s Black Angus Grill review

Eckie’s choice very often inclines towards steakhouses, which is always interesting. Steakhouses seem to exist on a different planet to other kinds of restaurant – other scales of value, other avenues towards spectacular success or horrendous fail. Where an upmarket nouvelle joint can be dire in the area of pretentious, unexciting or downright annoying, a poor steakhouse can be basic, rote or plain bad. On the other hand, a really good steakhouse has a particularly happy confluence of generous portions of excellent food, an inspired focus on steak, and the sort of warm, relaxed atmosphere which gives a meal a particular glow. Dale’s is in this category. We had a fabulous evening.

Dale’s Black Angus is in Milnerton, in The Paddocks, which is one of those glitzy shopping malls. This is usually not a recommendation in terms of atmosphere, but one is immediately reassured on walking up to the restaurant, which is an open double-storey with white-linened tables spilling out in a slightly café style from its open front wall. There’s a lot of wood panelling and wooden furniture; the slightly over-shiny cocktail bar is sealed off from the main room, and there are booths along two walls. A booth is the best possible restaurant dining configuration, as far as I’m concerned. You are insulated from other people’s noise and free to be less concerned about your own. (Ours can rise sharply about a third of the way through the second bottle of wine).

The place is large, with an upper level, and with a fairly high number of excellently-trained waitstaff scurrying about. This is fast becoming a notable index of restaurant quality – professional trained staff versus part-time student types. Worlds of difference. It’s essentially a warm and welcoming space, with a sort of family feel which is initially suggested by the name, and reinforced by the discovery, from our waiter, that the bar is named after the owner’s son, with whom the waiter went to school. (He was a good waiter. It took him about ten minutes to twig to the usual level of Salty Cracker nonsense, after which his responses were pitch-perfect). The service is quick, and even if it wasn’t, the walls are covered with wooden plaques containing interesting and possibly apocryphal quotes from a variety of Famous People, which you can read while you’re waiting. You can also amuse yourself with the menu, which, apart from the entertaining warning on the front page (“Unattended children will be given a double expresso and a free puppy”), is huge and full of delectable stuff.

The starter course is often the Achilles Heel of a steakhouse, in that you can frequently feel the perfunctory attention given to it while the chefs concentrate on the steak. This, however, wasn’t. It’s not a huge selection of starters and it hits all the usual buttons for steakhouse opening gambits (calamari/crumbed mushrooms/prawn something/deep-fried camembert), the huge and blinding difference being how bloody good they all are. Honestly, the feel is far more fine-dining than perfunctory-steakhouse; interesting ingredients, fascinating flavour combinations, beautifully prepared and served. My crumbed mushrooms were stuffed with bacon and cream cheese; Steve’s deep-fried camembert came with fig preserve and toasted nuts. My memory is going a bit, but I think Jo had some sort of carpaccio thingy which was also excellent.

I was very tired that evening, and didn’t feel up to steak. (I don’t eat a lot of red meat in the large-chunks sense, and need to get a bit of a run-up on steak). I had the duck à l’orange, flambéed with Van Der Hum and served with a marvellous jug full of excellent orange sauce, and it was very good, but not as good as the steak. I should have manned up and had the steak. Dale’s chateaubriand is quite possibly the best steak we’ve had in Cape Town (there was extended debate on this topic), and the Special Reserve is almost as good. Beautifully tender, cooked perfectly, excellent sauce béarnaise on the side – I do approve of the Giant Jugs o’Sauce approach. The nice waiter tried to take ours away before we’d finished, and was properly apologetic once he’d recovered from the yells of outrage.

We were enough in the swing of things that we even had dessert; Jo and I shared an excellent baked cheesecake, Steve had the citrus-infused crême brûlée, which I know I tasted, but which I absolutely could not remember tasting two minutes after the fact. (No blame to the brûlée, but I was tired enough at that stage to be hallucinating slightly). And the three courses, with two bottles of rather good wine (their winelist is rather more than adequate), didn’t actually come to hideously huge amounts (R300 or so per person?); this is very much fine dining at upper-level steakhouse prices.

So, on the Patented Jo Scale, scoring rather high all round:
Overall: 8.5 / 10
Atmosphere: 8.5 / 10 (Warm, comfortable, family vibe)
Staff: 8.5 / 10 (Great! well trained, friendly, both amusing and amused.)
Service: 8 / 10 (Good, only a couple of minor delays in things like water refills)
Food: 8 / 10 (Steakhouse +++, straightforward dishes elevated by flavours and preparation)
Value for money: 8.5 / 10

Galloping gourmands gallivanting about Cape Town.