All posts by Jessica

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.

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 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.)

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

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5 Rooms Review

I wimped out on my Salty Cracker choice this month: I’d just returned from overseas, I was catching up and rushing around, and inspiration was signally failing to strike. Fortunately, jo&stv had thought up 5 Rooms in a vague and forward-thinking sort of way as a future possible choice, and they graciously ceded it to me. Which was, in the event, a Win.

5 Rooms is at the Alphen Hotel in Constantia, one of those upmarket boutiquey sort of hotels in a lovely setting, and which has recently undergone renovations; apparently jo&stv have had drinks there back in the days when it was merely a pub. Now it’s a restaurant comprising a number of smallish rooms (presumably 5, I didn’t count) opening out of a bar area, and serving truly excellent up-market cuisine. The vibe is a little weird, though: the pub, on a Friday night, was noisy and crowded, and it feels a bit odd to thread your way through casual, shouting guests to reach the smaller dining area. It’s rather fancy, with wall-to-wall carpeted floors and immaculate white linen; the chairs were plush and comfy, although the overall aesthetic was a bit, to our mind, Joburgy, in the sense of overly modern and marginally lacking in character, by which no insult to Joburg is intended and you are perfectly free to read “not really our scene”. (Interesting pictures, though, old-fashioned and with a lot of gilt frames, and their periodicity swearing slightly at the modern carpet). The music from the bar was at an acceptable level when we arrived, but escalated to “too loud” about fifteen minutes in, which was something of a pain and made conversation rather less than intimate. I prefer to think of fine dining as something slightly more hushed and reserved. They did turn it down on request, but not enough.

Our waiters were lovely, friendly guys who quickly picked up the usual slightly hilarious Salty Cracker vibe, and were amused but helpful in the face of Jo’s chronic menu indecision. The menu is extensive, the wine quite pricey but with a good selection; they had a winter special, with a slightly reduced menu covering two or three courses at a vastly reduced price. A strategic enquiry, however, revealed that the special featured smaller servings than the à la carte, and we abandoned it posthaste. We eat heartily at Salty Cracker. We are unabashed about it. We would, on the whole, also have been happier if the courses had come out rather more quickly than they did – the whole meal moved just a little too slowly, with minor glitches like the bread (which was lovely and seedy) arriving for only three out of four of us and with about a ten minute wait with Steve doing mournful-puppy eyes before the last portion turned up.

by max barners
Beef medallions, saffron parsnip purée, whole-grain mustard
The decor and atmosphere were forgiveable, though, because the food was really very, very good. I won on the starter: beef medallions, rare and tender, with a bitey mustard/balsamic reduction and a parsnip purée with saffron. Truly excellent. Jo had the spiced artichokes, which I tasted and liked without actually realising it was artichoke – again, a marvellous flavour balance. Steve and Eckie had the salmon, a beautifully nouvelle sort of presentation with layers of avocado and crème fraîche and a sprinkle of caviar. I don’t like either caviar or avocado very much, but I loved this – an amazingly salmony mouthful.
 
by max barners
Salmon Tian, avocado, caviar, creme fraiche


by max barners
Fillet steak, wild mushrooms, smoked bacon, creamed potatoes with chives
I remain true to my epic gastronomic quest, to sample and rank the duck in every duck-conscious restaurant in Cape Town. 5 Rooms is certainly in the top five, its braised duck, Asian greens and chilli/lime reduction tender and piquant. I particularly enjoy Asian flavours with duck, and this was a lovely example. The winner here, though, was Eckie’s springbok loin with cranberry chutney and something they call “smoke surprise”, which the waiter declined to explain, but which turned out to be intensely smoky, and very good indeed. Steve’s fillet with wild mushrooms and smoked bacon was also good. Jo had something off the specials, a chunk of prime rib with chips, which, while being a pleasingly substantial chunk of meat and a beautiful example of good steak steakhouse-style, lost a bit in comparison to the interesting and delicate flavour combinations of the other dishes in this course.


We actually had dessert, which is rare with these meals. I couldn’t resist chocolate fondant (I can never resist chocolate fondant. I must learn how to make it.) and it was a worthy example of the breed, rich and properly molten inside and served with chocolate ice cream and (a nice touch) a tiny Nachtmusik cappuccino. Eckie and Steve went for the crême brûlée, which I didn’t taste, but which came with a rather disconcertingly shocking pink mesh of spun sugar which looked as though it would have been rather more at home at a children’s birthday party, or possibly a baby shower. I should also add that the restaurant’s rather firm adherence to the whole French/nouvelle/fine dining thing is demonstrated rather neatly by the number of times in this post I’ve had to format circumflexes and accents and what have you, not to mention the brief tussle with WordPress’s spellcheck, which was rendering me more than somewhat insecure by refusing to recognise “caviar” as correctly spelled. “Crême brûlée in HTML looks completely bizarre).
 

by max barners
Shocking pink spun sugar garnish to the creme brulee.

This was a great evening, with really excellent food in an atmosphere which, while not perfect, was at least warm and welcoming. I would definitely visit again, although I’d be inclined to try for a week-night in the hopes that it was less crowded and noisy.

Photos are, of course, by Max Barners.

On the Patented Jo Scale:

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Mr. Chan Review

photo by stvOh, dear, I keep forgetting to write this review. Not, I hasten to add, because it was a bad experience, but because I’m busy and disorganised, and possibly because a surfeit of duck is detrimental to the will. My choice was Mr. Chan in Sea Point, which was recommended to us by friends, who also waved under my nose the seductive possibility of crispy duck with pancakes, one of my favourite things in the multiverse. It would, I thought, also be an interesting comparison to Jewel Tavern, which is our favourite Chinese hang-out. In the event, Jewel Tavern still has it in the “favourite Chinese food” stakes, but I also don’t think it was an entirely fair comparison.

Mr. Chan has an air and ambience that just nicely balances on the edge of clean/plastic/cheery and warm/idiosyncratic/comfortable. It’s open and light, and some of the notes in the decor – the glittery Eastern-style cherubs on the walls, for example – are amusing. It’s also clearly more successful than Jewel Tavern simply in terms of number of tables filled – not all by a long chalk, it’s a big restaurant, but enough to be reassuring. As we arrived a giant drove of Chinese people were leaving, which suggests that it also passes the test of good ethnic cuisine, i.e. actual people of that culture eat there.

We did the usual thing with starters, which is for everyone to order one which we subsequently share, necessitating a certain amount of bargain and negotiation. Lots of crispy and seafood-flavoured things on the menu; the spring rolls were good, not exceptional – a bit pedestrian, perhaps; the prawn rolls were excellent, the chilli squid and crispy ribs were likewise delectable. A good batch of starters, all in all. But no dim sum buns or dumplings on the menu. Woe. I am fast developing an inelegant fondness for same.

photo by stvThe reason I don’t think we enabled a fair comparison with Jewel Tavern is because I’d pre-ordered the whole crispy duck with pancakes, which is in itself a giant meal and which precluded us trying a wider range of dishes. The duck was wonderful; they bring the whole thing out and dismember it for you, and in a most civilised fashion give you a plate of shredded meat and another plate of bones and bits that Jo and Eckie and I waded into while Stv, who doesn’t like to get his fingers greasy, laughed at us. It was rich and tasty and the skin was properly crispy; they’re very generous with their giant piles of pancakes, and the usual trimmings (spring onion and cucumber shreds, plum sauce) were plentiful and good. We ended up extremely full.

It was a good meal; it wasn’t, though, to my mind an exceptional meal. My overall feeling was that Jewel Tavern’s flavours were more interesting, although, as I say, we didn’t have a chance to compare main courses outside the duck experience. I am also now able to say with authority that I prefer Jewel Tavern’s szechuan crispy duck, which has the breading on the outside, to the non-breaded version. It was, however, a good meal and a pleasant evening, and I would not be at all averse to returning for a non-duck run at their main courses.

On the Jo scale:

photo by stv

Carne Review

photo by stv There’s been a Carne menu folded up on my desk for about a week, since our rather late January iteration on Monday night. It’s an A3 sheet of brown card, printed with three columns of food under exciting Italian headings, and liberally stained with the residue of shared forkfuls travelling across the table because it also serves as your place mat. When I asked the waiter if I could take it home, he tried to give me a fresh one without the stains. (I resisted. We earned those stains). This neatly sums up everything about the Carne experience: its generosity, its eccentricity, its air of relaxed permissiveness. It’s clearly equally serious about its food and about its clients’ experience on a far broader scale.

Carne was Eckhard’s choice, which together with the name tells you that it’s all about the meat. I’ve never before eaten anywhere that proudly displays a giant plate of raw cuts before you order, and explains exactly what they are and how their taste and textures differ; I left feeling not only full and happy, but culinarily educated. The carnivorous focus notwithstanding, you could cheerfully and interestingly feed a vegetarian from their six different vegetarian starters and the side dishes. The Italian feeling is very strong, with both the menu sections and the dishes themselves labelled in Italian (and I have to say, “Il Filetto di Gnu” simply looks odd), but the visual feel and ambience are to the warm side of the “trendy” scale. It is, however, one of those places where an initial impression of “ooh dear, crowded, cramped, those trendy plastic chairs look uncomfortable” is almost immediately dispelled and obliterated by the warmth of the welcome and the quality of the food. It’s clearly very popular and was pretty much full throughout the evening, but we dined in our own happy bubble of relaxed gourmandising amid the cheerful noise.

Quite a lot of the success of the experience, of course, came down to the waiter. If my dodgy memory serves me correctly, his name was Warren; he was not only attentive, knowledgeable and skilled, he also demonstrated that perfect waiterly ability to pick up on the vibe of the table and to join in the flow of nonsense in the appropriate idiom and tone. He won us over utterly by his blithe disregard for the corkage guidelines; they allow one bottle per table, we’d brought two and chosen which one to drink, and about an hour into the evening he cheerfully opened the second one, talking loudly all the while about how this Zinfandel, our first bottle of wine, was an excellent choice. (Although not as good as the Zinfandel on their wine list, could he bring us a tasting sample? which he duly did, and we all tasted it, and yup, it was better. But we didn’t have to buy wine at all). The end of the evening was rendered amusing by watching the other wait-staff at the tables around us holding the portable card readers up at arm’s length to catch the apparently dodgy signal, like so many slightly more commercialised Statues of Liberty. Warren didn’t do this, but processed the card with perfect decorum. When Jo asked him why he didn’t do the holding-it-in-the-air thing, he said, with a touch of Jeevesian austerity, “Because I’m not an idiot, ma’am.”

photo by stvThe food was great. Did I mention that the food was great? They had asparagus on the starter menu, which always makes me happy: this was grilled, with a poached (free-range!) egg, and was crunchy and satisfying, with the rocket and parmesan beautifully complimenting the asparagus (needed just a pinch of salt, though). Eckhard’s veal tongue carpaccio was an amazing amalgam of subtle flavours; Jo’s beef carpaccio was more standard fare, but still excellent. Steve had the tartare “Clap-Clap”, which basically means the raw minced beef patty is very quickly seared on each side, clap-clap. It’s served without the usual raw egg, and in terms of flavour was stupendous, probably the best and most interesting tartare I’ve eaten (although only narrowly edging out the lamb with Indian spices Caveau gave us that one time). It was one of those menus where it was difficult to choose because it all looks so good. I totally have to go back there to try out the lamb ravioli starter. And the goat’s cheese terrine.

photo by stvMains, of course, were all about the meat. Jo and Steve had rib-eye and rump, I forget which way round, but they swap at half-time anyway. It was excellent, of course, really at the top end of the pure steak scale in terms both of cut and of cooking, and the salsa verde Jo ordered with it was very good. Especially with my lamb. I had “La Coscia di Agnello Marinata”, marinated leg of Karoo free-range dorper lamb, and it was voted the best dish of the course: brilliantly cooked and insanely tender. Eckhard’s wild black wildebeest fillet was also superlative. The dishes we chose all eschewed major sauces or flavourings in order to allow the meat to have prominence, and it really worked; I find myself, though, wanting to go back to try the slightly more elaborate dishes, rib eye in white wine sauce, or lamb shoulder stuffed with spinach, sultanas and pine nuts. I also have to say that the Carne side dishes and sauces are significantly better than those at the other Mecca of the Pure Steak Experience, Nelson’s Eye; the Carne fried chunky potatoes are wonderful, and the side salads interesting and well prepared.

We even had dessert; the dark chocolate hot fondant (me, of course) was really good, and in the perfect portion size (small!) not to overload after the meal. Jo’s berry salad with mascarpone sorbet was also wonderful, although I wasn’t much into Eckhard’s “Zuppa Inglese”, translated as “Italian trifle”: the custard was lovely, but the rest a bit uninspiring. At that stage, however, stuffed as we were with wonderful food, and near delirious with happiness at the whole experience, I don’t think anyone was quibbling.

We like this place. Really, we do. The patented Jo scale shakes down as follows:

Wine: n/a, tasting one Zinfandel does not constitute an assay of the wine menu, and I have no idea if it was extensive and/or well priced. The beautifully-handled corkage thing comes under Service, I think.

photo by stv

Fork Review

photo by stvI felt like tapas. The Salty Crackerites have a distressing tendency to swap forkfuls from each other’s plates at the slightest provocation (i.e. whenever something looks good, which it usually does), so the tapas experience of multiple tiny bites of any one dish shared between the table is kinda logical. Also, I’m very tired at the moment and didn’t feel like wading through a steak or anything, so one-bite easy eating sounded heavenly. We ended up at Fork because it’s the sister restaurant to Knife, which we loved. I did, however, have some minor doubts: some of the reviews whinged about the portion sizes, and I was faintly afraid that it would end up being too trendoid and snooty and horribly expensive given the tiny portions. In the event, none of these fears were justified; the vibe was great, the bill was smaller than we expected, and we had a great evening.

Fork is in Long Street, one of those long, skinny places behind a small street front. It has face-brick walls and a lot of dark wood, and ends up feeling cosy and warm. There’s a bar downstairs and a really long flight of stairs up to the main dining area, where there are booths along one wall in addition to the normal tables. At 7pm we were a lot earlier than the bulk of diners, and scored a booth, which is absolutely the best environment for eating. Salty Cracker can become a bit loud and hilarious, which is not ideal in posh places, but we fitted in perfectly here; the room filled up to become noisy and cheerful, but the booth means you can still hear yourself conduct noisy, cheerful, weird conversations about non-linear time streams, and economic narrative theory, and vampire symbols in a therapy context. And nanobots. Apparently we’re still with the nanobots.

As with Knife, you get a giant dish towel as a napkin, which is very useful given the amount of finger-eating you do. They suggest eight dishes for four people, and you order them in a giant wodge, after which they trickle them out to your table in twos and threes at appropriate intervals. It’s very nicely judged, and was conducted with cheerful and amused efficiency by our lovely waiter, Jorge. (He’s from Chile. The accent is very sexy, and he responded very well to our characteristic waiter harrassment. Of, I hasten to add, the non-sexual kind. Mostly.) Being what you might call hearty eaters we ordered nine dishes up front, then another four, then three desserts.

photo by stv
Pork belly in a mustard and parsley crust
This food is really, really good. It’s one of those menus where it’s actually hard to choose because you basically want everything, so it’s lucky that you get to taste anything that anyone orders. Particular standouts: roasted pork belly with a mustard-flavoured crumb crust, which was amazing; the most perfect little puff pastry circles enclosing a mushroom filling, like a tiny hamburger, with a rich parmesan flavour; deep fried goat’s cheese with a sort of crackery thing flavoured with sun-dried tomato; seared salmon with a wasabi flavour; kudu with a beautifully sour citrus reduction on a bitey chilli potato base; chunks of rare fillet of beef with fried onion rings and a delectably dark, rich, red wine and mushroom sauce. The sauces are incredible – we handed back every plate with fingermarks in it, to Jorge’s amusement. There really wasn’t a dish here that wasn’t rich, complex and interesting in flavour and texture. They also do amazing things with ravioli-style food, the one we had having a miraculous poached egg enclosed in it along with the ground beef filling. We noted, in addition, that there are really a lot of veggie-friendly options, which makes this a good recommendation for the non-meat-eating among you.

The perfect thing about tiny bite-sized portions is that you can really fit in dessert. Their flourless chocolate cake is to die for, and the sticky toffee pudding is to commit suspicious acts of desperation for: the slightly gritty butter/sugar topping is horribly moreish. The rest of the table insisted on ordering white chocolate mousse with a raspberry coulis, which was nicely textured but a bit bland and arb in only the way that white chocolate, instrument of the devil, can be. I felt smug.

photo by stvI also have to mention the wine. One of the drawbacks of Fork is that they don’t allow you to bring your own wine, which is one of Eckie’s pet hatreds, and which triggered (a) a spirited discussion on whether a wine-bar/tapas joint is really about food-as-an-accompaniment-to-booze rather than booze-as-an-accompaniment-to-food and thus is more justified in wanting to make money on the booze bit (I still maintain it is); and (b) a decision to add a new category to the Patent Jo Scale of judgement. The lack of corkage facility is really not an issue, though, because the winelist (slightly eccentrically presented by region rather than type, which is rather fun) contains a plethora of options which are both excellent in quality and reasonably priced. We had a Rickety Bridge rosé, which was lovely – fragrant and slightly cranberryish, and everyone else raved about the Bon Courage shiraz, which I didn’t taste as this stupid Warfarin regime limits me to one glass of wine and I love rosé.

photo by stv
Kudu on a chilli potato mash
Further to the additional-category innovation, postively for the First! Time! Ever! on Salty Cracker you are seeing (a) pictures, courtesy of Stv, and (b) an assessment on the Patended Jo Scale which was argued over by the whole table at the end of the meal, rather than being plumped on by the writer of the review after the fact. We admitted that generally we score quite highly in our reviews, but that this has a lot to do with the fact that we go to some really good restaurants. All the 8s here are thoroughly deserved. We had a lovely evening.

On the Patented Jo Scale:

Knife

Eckhard picked a winner in his characteristic “steakhouse” choice category this month. Knife is a fascinating experiment in a not-quite-steakhouse vibe, managing to combine beyond excellent steakhouse fare with a somewhat upmarket and trendy décor, good service and thoughtful design under the slightly vague rubric of “New York loft meets Deep South smokehouse”. It’s one of the best quality and most memorable meals we’ve had in a while. I was a bit surprised at how comparatively empty it was for a Saturday night; the restaurant is a huge space, and really demands more recognition. Perhaps part of the problem is its slightly odd situation, in Century City but tucked away in a block separate from Canal Walk and under a hotel, and thus relying on word-of-mouth rather than walk-ins. I assure you it’s absolutely worth the trek.

The menu is extensive, and the starters and side dishes rise more than somewhat above the usual steakhouse array, both in breadth of choice and in composition: interesting flavours, spices, combinations of ingredients. Two of our table started with the panfried peppered calamari with a bacon vinaigrette (I suspect the bacon vinaigrette sold them), which was delicious; my mother also raved about her Creole mussel curry, in a spicy tomato sauce – excellent. My salad was perhaps the low point of the starters, perfectly adequate, but rather low on the beetroot/goat’s cheese elements which were supposed to define it. Everything in this course, however, was beautifully presented, fresh and tasty.

Our main course choices ended up mostly divided between rump steak and ribs, served with chips; the chips are one of the basic tests of a steakhouse, and Knife does particularly good straw-cut french fries. The rump-eaters were inclined towards the belief that this was the best steak they’d had in Cape Town – excellent quality meat, cooked to perfection and perfectly to order. The choice of sauces included at no extra charge is a nice touch. The rib-orderers were equally happy with the smoked, marinated, barbecued ribs, which I have to agree were tender and flavourful, and moreover left a gratifying pile of bones heaped in the middle of the table. I’m still a bit lacking in appetite after all the medical experiences and wasn’t up to heavy red meat, but my southern fried chicken was wonderful, offering tender meat and crispy, spicy breading. You can order extra side dishes, which are again slightly more interesting than the usual steakhouse creamed-spinach-and/or-mashed-butternut – we had wilted greens and roasted broccoli, both very good.

We couldn’t fit in dessert, which is a pity as I would have loved to continue on my American South kick by trying their key lime pie. Alas. Another time.

This was a truly excellent meal, but beyond the sheer quality of the food, I have to say what made it was the obvious thought that has gone into constructing the restaurant’s spaces and service. Half their tables are booths, which is the best possible dining experience, insulated from the noise of other diners; the tables are generously proportioned, leaving you elbow room to really get at those ribs. The walls are covered with beautifully-carved wooden plaques in a variety of slightly retro shapes, offering meat-enthused slogans with cheery, cheesy goodwill. The menu has a children’s section, and advertises various colouring-in and other activities available for kids. Your napkin is not a napkin, but a checked dishtowel of generous proportions and high absorbency, a thoughtful trend continued in the plastic aprons and, later, moistened towels provided to rib-eaters. We expect, the ambience says, you to be enthusiastic about your food. I was particularly taken with the serving arrangements: your server arrives with your dishes on an absolutely giant round tray capable of holding about five plates without overlapping. To serve, they plonk this down on the handy-dandy folding collapsible table legs they have previously set up next to your table with a flick of the wrist, and proceed to serve you, and afterwards to clear the table, in comfort, efficiency and style.

They passed both the water test (alas, no jugs, the only minor niggle in an otherwise perfect evening), serving tap water by the glass without turning a hair, and likewise remaining calm and pleasant in the face of diners who insist on bringing their own wine. (I forgot to check if they charged corkage, anyone remember?). And the value for money is excellent, considerably cheaper than Nelson’s Eye and possibly even slightly cheaper than Hussar, hitherto our gold standard for happy steakhouse eating. This was all in all a Good Experience, TM. Will definitely go again.

On the Patented Jo Scale: