Hitting a restaurant with a definite reputation for The Trendy is always a bit of a mixed experience – one wants to find out what all the fuss is about, and is also slightly braced for it to be mostly about marketing. The Savoy Cabbage seems to carry a lot of reputation baggage, which makes it particularly ironic that the first problem with the evening was finding the damned thing. This was partly my fault – I’d looked up the address, but hadn’t found a map or anything. In the event “Hout St., near Heritage Square” turned out to be a wholly inadequate designation because the bloody restaurant is one of those coy, understated sort of establishments with a small, discreet and rather pretentious twisted wrought-iron plaque rather than an actual sign. We drove straight past it. Then we spent twenty minutes circling the centre of town in an increasingly desperate attempt to navigate the one-way system and the incredible confusion of the Greenmarket Square roadworks, which randomly close off whole roads at whim. (What are they even doing there, anyway? apart from booting the market out just in time for tourist season?). Eventually I phoned the restaurant to get directions, and I have to say the nice man was very kind and only laughed at us a little bit. We arrived eventually, triumphant and slightly giggly.
I rather like the inside of the Cabbage, it’s got that industrial feel – naked brickwork, giant air-con ducts, interesting spaces – which managed to stay just on the right side of pretentious. The vibe is pleasantly relaxed, and there’s a fairly continual trickle of cheerful guests climbing the stairs to the upper-level bar. I’m not entirely sure that the split-level thing works, though, the giant central staircase means that some tables are tucked away, which seems to require the waitstaff to have orienteering badges as much as the guests: we sat at our table for twenty minutes before a waiter actually worked out that we hadn’t been given a menu. (We had, however, been given a complimentary canape, and after ten minutes of wistful panting a passing waiter took pity on us and opened our wine. Memo to self, screw tops in future!).
The see-saw of the experience really got going with the actual arrival of our waiter, who was a gem – one of those intelligent, amusing guys who seemed perfectly happy to plug into the relaxed and slightly scurrilous vibe which Salty Cracker appears to generate. The menu is delectable, really interesting combinations of flavours, unusual vegetables, meats and cuts. There was much debate. When we finally ordered Jo asked the waiter if we’d picked anything that would disappoint us, and he gave his list a deliberately staged and cursory looking-over at arm’s length before saying “No!” firmly. We liked him. He was also thereafter very good with keeping wine glasses and water jugs filled.
We also liked the starters, which were, I think, on the whole better than the main courses. I’d heard good things about the Cabbage’s signature tomato tart, which was, alas, absent from the menu: the butternut/caramelised onion/goat’s milk feta one I had was, however, very good, and I shall definitely do my damndest to recreate the combination at home one of these days. Jo & the Evil Landlord had the beef tartare, which I think is probably the best I’ve ever tasted – full of celery, strangely, which I don’t usually enjoy but which gave it a wonderful bite and texture. I am, however, wishing I’d ordered Steve’s starter, which was definitely the winner – chicken-liver parfait in a sort of fig sauce thing, and more like foie gras than it had any right to be. (And I have to say, I always wonder what restaurants think about the Salty Cracker tendency to pass forkfulls of a dish promiscuously around the table. And to return the plates with nothing left except fingermarks in the sauce. It’s a toss-up as to whether they’re horrified or flattered.)
Things got a bit dodgy with the main course. On the upside: man, they do large portions. This is the nouveau cuisine sort of presentation, but with portions almost twice the size of those at somewhere like Ginja. Steve’s Three Little Pigs thing was very good -three sorts of pork in a cider sauce, lovely stuff. Jo’s great hunk of veal had, interestingly, a bone sticking out of it, but was likewise wonderful, with an incredibly intense mushroomy sort of pâté thing on the side. The Evil Landlord’s warthog chunk was a bit smaller and slightly boringly presented, no really stand-out flavours. My breast of duck, served on a completely wonderful parsnip mash with endive, which I love … was tough. Overcooked, leathery, dry. I am totally spoiled for duck by the French tendency to sear the outside of a duck breast like steak and serve it rare, and I’d fondly hoped that this might be the same, but I suspect they slightly overcooked it in the pan and then kept it warm long enough for it to dry out even further. Jo, fortunately, is less diffident than I am about this sort of thing, and hauled the waiter over to complain: the restaurant thereafter gained serious brownie points by dealing gracefully with the issue, whisking my plate away to re-do it (a bit of a wait, inevitably, made bearable by being fed forkfuls by everyone else, like a baby bird). The second version was indeed rare, although I suspect they went slightly too much in the other direction; nonetheless it was good, if not as tender as it could have been.
We were too full for dessert. This almost never happens. We looked wistfully at the dessert menu, which was fabulous, but couldn’t contemplate forcing anything else down.
So, overall this was a very endive/cider sauce experience – bittersweet. On the upside: attractive, unusual setting and relaxed feel, lovely staff, some amazing food, the ability to handle dissatisfied patrons sending food back to the kitchen with a certain dignity, and without bad vibes resulting. On the downside: some poor staff co-ordination, slightly slow service (we waited a while for the starter) and some definitely dodgy quality control in the kitchen. Also, their prices are about 20% higher than somewhere like Overture or Ginja, and despite the increased portion size, I don’t think the flavour/innovation levels of the food quite justify it. Jo’s famous four-point scale comes out thusly:
- Atmosphere: 8
- Staff: 8 (but Service 6)
- Food: 7
- Value for money: 6