Category Archives: Eckhard’s choice

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.

al's place 1

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.:

al's place 3

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.

al's place 2

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.

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

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.

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:

The Roundhouse

Right, so for the purposes of this review of Eckhard’s choice, the part of Eckhard will be played by Jessica. Please imagine this entire review read in a hammy German accent.

The Roundhouse  is a national monument dating back to the eighteenth century; it’s a quaintly circular building perched up on the hill above Camps Bay, with a spectacular view over the bay, the hillside and the sunset. It’s also the most upmarket and expensive place we’ve eaten yet, which means that this won’t so much be a review as an extended meditation on the nature of Value and Service in the Modern Restaurant. We had a fabulous evening.

It starts well because they reserve parking for their guests, and offer to re-park your car for you if you didn’t stop to enquire about the reserved parking and parked all the way down the hill. There’s a small waiterly phalanx on the front steps, including one of the evening’s hosts: you are welcomed, your reservation confirmed apparently from memory, and are ushered into the rather charming curved-walled, wooden-floored restaurant to be given a table right next to the window and the view. Everything’s white linen and solid silver cutlery, but they’ve left what could quite possibly be several hundred years worth of graffiti scratched into the windows, so the whole thing has an air of slightly raffish character.  Your jackets are hung up for you. (I love that. It’s such a personal touch). They suggest aperitifs, and bring you incredibly tall glasses of gin and tonic, filled with ice. The host introduces himself, and the menu, which is full of fascinating flavour combinations – foie gras and mackerel, quail with artichokes, hake with roasted peppers and fennel.

The service in this place is, quite simply, superb. There’s a very high ratio of waiters to guests, and they seem to stagger the arrivals of the guests deliberately, so each arrival is a bit of a production. They passed the water test with flying colours – it arrives in a lovely old silver jug, and your glasses are filled attentively. If you leave the table, someone folds your napkin. The wait-staff drift around in the middle distance, working in well-coordinated teams to bring everyone’s meal to the table in one fell swoop; they synchronise movements by eyebrow semaphore and, apparently, telepathy. The waiter wanted us to order four courses at once, we wanted to do two first and then the next two; the host was there in seconds to graciously permit the deviation. They are very, very good at reacting positively to exceptions.

The menu is set out in four courses – starter, fish, mains, dessert, with three or four options in each – but you pay for either four or five courses, and can pick from wherever you like. (Jo, predictably, had steak for dessert again, which cracked up the waiter rather gratifyingly). You can also do the wine-pairing option for an additional charge.  The charge is not small: R395 for four courses without wine, R595 for the same with wine. It’s inevitable that we’d compare this with Overture, who still come out ahead – food slightly better, prices lower, and, most importantly, larger portion sizes. The Roundhouse is very nouvelle; when the first course came out, I was conscious of a sinking feeling, looking at the tiny, arty island of food in the middle of the huge plate – it seemed entirely disproportionate given the cost of the evening. The wine portions are likewise small, less than half a glass, although beautifully served in individual glass decanters. It’s a testament to the quality of the food, service and ambience that we ended up leaving feeling absolutely the reverse of taken for a ride.

So, first course stv and I both had the ricotta cannelloni with pickled beets, which was unusual and really excellent – strong beet flavour and creaminess enhanced with a balsamic jelly reduction which was amazing and intense. (The rosé which went with it was perfectly chosen to complement it). Jo and Eckie had the foie gras and smoked mackerel terrine, a slightly bizarre combination which worked absolutely beautifully, and was served with (fairly minute portions of) octopus and toasted brioche, which, yum. The second course was slightly more substantial; my roasted cob with a chorizo and mussel veloute came with mashed potatoes, and was very good and surprisingly like a creamy bouillabaisse in flavour. (Eckhard also had this, as I recollect). Steve had the hake with roasted peppers, which I think was the winner in this course – lovely balance of flavours, the strong peppers very interesting with the more delicate fish. Jo went, I think, for the crayfish with smoked pork trotter and broad bean salad, and I am completely unable to remember what that was like, owing, I suspect, to flavour overload.

For third course, Jo and Eckie tried the lamb’s brain/tongue/cheek combination, daring things that they are. The waiter was not actually significantly helpful with this, suggesting that the lamb’s brain was “chewy”, whereas Jo and Eckie were more inclined to describe it as “not chewy”. The tongue was excellent, though, and the celeriac purée a surprising but apt accompaniment. I had slow-cooked quail with artichokes (yum! I love artichokes, these were tiny and tender and intense) and asparagus, and a rather vivid sherry-based jus. I can’t remember what Steve had – the same? Losing track.

Dessert was good – Eckhard had a baked camembert which he didn’t say much about other than that it was good; Steve’s chocolate fondant with honey ginger ice cream was the clear winner. I had a raspberry soufflé: it’s served all hot from the kitchen, and the waiter cuts a cross in the top and inserts a scoop of pistachio ice-cream. It was very good, moist and fluffy and seriously raspberryish, but a little too sweet for my taste. Should have had the chocolate. Jo had, as aforementioned, beef with a parsnip puré, which I think was good but not spectacular.

I think this could have been a disaster in the legendary mould of Aubergine, except for three things. (Apart from the beautiful setting, which is On Tap courtesy of Cape Town, and thus slightly cheating). One, we were expecting the steep price, and had decided to go for it anyway: we were in the mood to immerse ourselves in that upmarket atmosphere. Their web information and phone booking process are very good at making perfectly explicit exactly what you’re getting into. Two, they really do it very well. Their service is immaculate: attentive, intelligent, alert but not actually too intrusive, and you end up feeling enormously well cared for. The food is beautifully prepared and served, rife with fascinating flavour combinations: the portion size ends up nicely-judged in a four-course meal so you’re satisfied by the end, but not overstuffed. I mean, we have no problem with overstuffed, but occasionally an elegant sufficiency is a nice change. Three, they do it with a refreshing, charming and rather warm-hearted complete lack of pretension. I was struck by the good humour of the staff – they seem to genuinely enjoy working here, and interacting with their clients. There was none of that offended, rather rigid and slightly stultifying thing Aubergine did to us which basically made it an awful evening.

So, on the Patented Jo Scale:
Atmosphere: 9 / 10 (classic high-end dining with a particular warmth, and a really lovely setting)
Staff: 8 / 10 (intelligent, good-humoured, good at their jobs)
Service: 9 / 10 (It’s a whole ethos of service, and it shows)
Food: 7.5/ 10 (Good, interesting, occasionally exciting, slightly variable in quality)
Value for money: 7 / 10 (a heavy blow to the wallet almost completely justified by the experience)

I’d go there again in a heartbeat, supposing I had a lot of money and a really spectacularly important occasion to celebrate. But I think I’d go to Overture first.

Famous Butcher’s Grill

Let us say, just to start with, that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a steakhouse. A steakhouse is a lovesome thing, God wot. This whole Salty Cracker lark started with a steakhouse, the Hussar, and it’s still a favourite haunt. A steakhouse is perfectly capable of offering a superlative experience of its kind, and should be measured not against fancy Frenchy food or nouveau whatsits, but against the Platonic steakhouse ideal, redolent of warmth, informality, substantial food, lack of pretension, a certain speedy facility in the service, and above all, superlative steak as a centrepiece, a kind of religious icon of carnivorous pleasure. Hussar does it in everything except the service. Nelson’s Eye sets new heights to the steak bar and vaults them with ease, rendering its lack of actual side-dish accomplishments moot. I personally eat steak about twice a year, but I thoroughly enjoy it – and the evil chippy trimmings – when I do. The Evil Landord defaults to the steak-ey with his choices, and it’s absolutely OK by me.

All that being said, it remains a tragic truth that the Famous Butcher’s Grill simply doesn’t deliver. It should have rung warning bells when the Evil Landlord had to undertake a mini epic quest just to track one down – the branches in the suburbs seem to have closed down in the last year or so, which does not auger a franchise in the bloom of meaty health. The remaining branch is in the Cape Town Lodge, a hotel in the CBD, and even on a Friday night with live music was not a seething locus of steak-guzzling activity.

The ambiance isn’t bad: it has a reasonable feeling of cosiness, and really quite pervable scrolly brocade designs in the wallpaper and tablecloths. I can’t think that the live music is a plus, though; it’s too small a venue for a guitar dude with the amp cranked up high, and it was frankly intrusive. (He didn’t have a bad voice and the music was recognisable 70s-90s guitar pop, but reinterpretations of Chris Rea do not aid my digestion.) It also helps to be given a small, complimentary bowl of perfectly adequate leek-and-potato soup as a welcome and a talisman against the cold of the evening, which has been a little sharp-tooth-bitey winter recently. The waiter was pleasant, attentive and willing to be amused by the usual Salty Cracker antics; the service is mostly good, and our starters arrived astonishingly quickly. The food, however: the food is … adequate. Okay, shading down into “not up to scratch” in some areas. Mostly as ordered, but in the “serviceable” category rather than even the “good”. Nothing inedible, but nothing really exciting.

I wasn’t blown away by the starter offerings, but most of the usual suspects are there; deep-fried Camembert, calamari, the standard steakhouse fare. (I was deeply amused to see that they advertise a basket-of-blitong starter as “African Sushi”). Often this sort of basic starter off a small menu is done very well at a steakhouse, but my calamari had a rather dry, crumbly breading to it, and wasn’t exciting for flavour or texture. How difficult is it to spice up a breading? Honestly. Stv and the EL had the Camembert, fairly inevitably, which seemed to be OK – sufficiently gloopy on the inside and crunchy on the outside, and Stv managed to polish off the whole thing, which is something of a testament given his tendency to shrivel up and die when overly cheesed. Jo’s Avocado Ritz was a bit odd – piles of lettuce and a seafood mayonnaise pile under which some lonely avocado bits presumably lurked. She’ll have to weigh in on how it actually tasted, but it looked like very 50s cuisine to me.

We all had steak – T-bone, rump, fillet medallions. My medallions were nicely tender, cooked in brandy with a peppercorn sauce which was rather good; the grade of meat itself was excellent, and the specified “rare” actually achieved, although to the bleu end of the spectrum rather than the medium. (And, no, this isn’t because of all the vampire tv lately: I’ve always liked my steak rare. I only have it every six months or so, but when I do I crave it bloody). The only problem was that they don’t actually sear the outside properly, which means it was a sort of grey rather than being grilled to brown; in fact, this seems to have been a feature of all the steaks for the evening, rather a travesty given the “grill” delineation. Also, I seem to have got lucky with the fillet: Jo said her rump was tough, the EL reported his “stringy around the edges”, and Stv’s T-bone wasn’t properly cooked next to the bone despite a request for “medium rare”. The side dishes were perfectly arb as well as perfectly carb – mounds of bland mashed potato, undistinguished chips, the usual butternut/creamed spinach duo in the name of vitamins. (And what’s with that? As the EL pointed out at the time, all steakhouses seem to default to those two vegetables, probably because they’re easy to produce as large vats of glop. Or because there are deep underlying signifiers which one of these fine days I shall deconstruct).

All this being the case, it’s extremely lucky the EL found four hitherto unsuspected remaining bottles of Diemersfontein Pinotage under his bed, and brought two of them along; we polished them off, and it made up for a lot. We ended up full, but curiously unsatisfied; we didn’t bother to stay for dessert.

I fear that, on the Patented SC Scale, the Famous Butcher’s Grill is not that famous. The Judge from Really Bloody Steak awards the following:

Atmosphere: 6 / 10 (pleasant enough setting, points docked for inappropriate loud music)
Staff: 8 / 10 (Cheerful, attentive, vanished a couple of times and had to be extracted with forceps by the desk person.)
Service: 7 / 10 (quick to very quick, needed some prompting for water refills and wine-opening)
Food: 6 / 10 (meh. Could have been worse.)
Value for money: 6 / 10 (really would like to see more bang for my buck)

Five flies review

Oops, been a while since the actual eatings.

So, http://www.fiveflies.co.za/.
In a very cool, many-roomed, many-bar-ed (although we just went for din-dins), big ole building in the middle of town is Five Flies.
I’ve heard varying things, mostly since going there, about the snootiness of the staff. We had a great experience – our waitress was lovely, and the one or two others who flew around our table were jovial and friendly. The maitre d’ looked a bit offish, but we only exchanged a word or two with him, so no probs there.

The food, you say?

Starters:
me, jess – Smoked salmon and cod fritters with rosti, watercress and garlic aioli;
jo – Pan-fried prawns with chilli, garlic linguini and squid ink lemon butter;
eck – Grilled field mushroom with gorgonzola, caramelized onion and creamy artichoke, truffle sauce.

Mains:
jess, jo – Springbok Wellington with mushroom duxelle, roasted butternut and foie gras, truffle jus;
me – Grilled ostrich fillet with potato gratin, mange tout, sauteed spinach and red wine sauce;
eck – Herb crusted, roasted rack of lamb with creamy garlic potatoes, fine beans and tomato jus.

Dessert:
I seem to remember that we did somehow squeeze it in, but I can’t remember who had what, when, why, or whicheeba.

The food was great. All round good with no duds.
Particular highlights were the ‘strich and Eck’s lamb (informally voted overall winner).

Odd thing to note, but not really a bad thing, was the speed.
They must have an entire team of chef whipping boys / girls because that kitchen can turn stuff around like a professional ice skater, on happy juice, going downhill, blindfold. Fast, I mean. Very fast. We didn’t feel like we were being rushed, but we were surprised when our starters arrived maybe 10 minutes after we ordered them. And the mains maybe 15 minutes after the starters were taken away.
I suppose you could argue that that’s what restaurant kitchens are supposed to be like (you order your food, you get it!), but we’re used to a more leisurely pace of noshing.
I’d quite like to pop back there for lunch to see how the experience compares.

I’m not quite compote menthol (ahem) enough to do proper numbers, so have some pseudo-random ones:
Atmosphere: 6 / 10 (got a bit loud later on, with a bad table across from us)
Staff: 8 / 10 (speedy, smiley, accommodating)
Service: 8 / 10 (extra points for pace, especially when you known about it in advance)
Food: 7 / 10 (good, solid, fare, and some interesting combos)
Value for money: 7 / 10. (Um… how much was it…?)

A few thoughts on Cargills

Okay, so it wasn’t shortly, and this isn’t really a review, but it needs to be said that Cargills (at dining-out.co.za, at eatout.co.za) was fantastic.

It’s in the distant past now, so I unfortunately can’t remember much detail (that’s my advanced age for you), but the general standard of food was excellent. The waiter was attentive and friendly without being clingy (important in such a small venue) and the chef was pleasingly cheery when he came out to see how the food was going down. Slightly short, slightly round, very smiley. :)

I think there were mussels, Camembert, and mushrooms for starters – nummy!
Main courses were Sole with parsley lemon butter (gentle and subtle and cooked to perfection), Springbok with mixed berry jus (great red flavours to match the red meat), Confit of Duck (Jess, comments, as our resident duckspert?) Beef Fillet Bordelaise (good cow!).

There were five of us, so I’m sure I’m missing some things.
Like the stir fried veggies that are served as sides instead of the standard meh creamed spinach and fries. Very tasty.

Om nom nom!

Buzbey Grill

It seem highly unlikely the Eckhard will write his own review, so the other Crackers will do mini review jobbies of our own, sort of on his behalf.
It has been suggested that we write a review where he can fill in the blanks. We shall see.

Starters:

  • Crumbed Mushrooms (Jess)
  • Angels on Horseback (Jo)
  • Fried Camembert (Eck)
  • Char-Grilled Sardines (Steve)

Mains:

  • Pepper Steak (Jess)
  • Hollandse Biefstuk (Jo)
  • Spare Ribs (Eck)
  • Rump Steak w/ Pepper Sauce (Steve)