Category Archives: Jessica’s choice

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.)

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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

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:

Park’s Menu Korean Restaurant

This month’s Cracker has been rather delayed, owing to both disorganisation and illness on my part; this may or may not have contributed to the fact that I really felt like something relaxed, low-key and “ethnic” for this month. We ended up trying Park’s Menu, in Durban Rd, Mowbray, at the recommendation of Jo & Stv, who have eaten there a couple of times. This was, it transpires, a genius suggestion that seriously hit the spot, even before the bit with the evening’s special which entailed the cute pirate-chest dicebox and the free bottle of wine. (Snake eyes! our third bottle of wine for the evening, and it’s probably lucky I didn’t roll the free dessert, we’d never have fitted it in).

Although this is a Korean restaurant, the décor is really more English cottage chintzy than anything else – painted wooden furniture, cottagey still lives on the walls, odd bits of Victorian bric-a-brac, floral cushions on the chairs. It has a lovely, relaxed vibe, and the stainless steel stove tables for the hotpot really don’t feel as incongruous as you’d think. The staff are Korean and absolutely lovely – attentive, warm, relaxed. I had the impression that our table guy was (a) probably the owner, (b) probably the chef, and (c) really loved what he was doing. He apparently exports wine as another venture, and it’s entirely possible that Park’s is a sideline he does purely for his own enjoyment. If so, it shows.

I have to digress a moment. They brought us kimchi and bean sprouts as nibbles while we swigged rosé, and I have to say: kimchi? why has no-one ever told me? It’s marvellous stuff. This was quite bitey, but in a really good way, and the bean sprouts had a subtle spice thing going on that was also excellent. I am a new convert to Korean food. Bring it on, preferably instantly.

We stretched this out into three mediumish courses rather than the traditional starter/main, and had dumplings to start with. I adore dumplings, and these were particularly good – we had the steamed chicken and the fried pork ones. The fillings were distinctively spiced, and the fried pork dumplings were excellently crispy. Probably the best dumpling experience I’ve had in Cape Town, actually. I’m wishing I still worked at home, so I could head down the road and have lunch there. Often. I am fast developing a love affair with the Korean spicing.

Phase one of the mains comprised two of their dishes, Galbi and Ssambap, and I have to add in parenthesis that I’d be madly inclined to eat a lot more Korean food not just because the flavours and textures are lovely, but because the names are too. Galbi is an odd concept, beef rib that’s basically been long-stewed so it’s soft and tasty, but served in a broth with a lot of vegetables that have clearly been added at the last minute. You get the best of both worlds – tender, falling-off-the-bone stewed beef with crispy vegetables. Really excellent. The ssambap was probably my favourite, though – a spicy pork/rice thing which you ladle onto lettuce leaves and eat like a wrap, with various spicy sauces. I love self-constructed finger food, and this was a particularly good one, with very much what seems to be the signature Korean thing of lightly-cooked, low fat dishes with interesting spices. The portions are generous, we were starting to be full after two starters and two main courses between the four of us.

Phase 2 of the main course entailed a move to one of the fancy hot-plate tables, for hot-pot. They bring out a stainless steel dish with a sort of off-centre yin-yang curvy partition in it; sweet broth in one side, spicy in the other. Then the nice waiter main struggles out from the back with a giant trolley laden with raw food – mussels, prawns, crab sticks, bok choy, mushrooms, tofu, and a huge plate with carefully-rolled strips of thinly cut pork. The broth simmers on the hotplate; you have chopsticks and a couple of ladles, and you fling the food into the broth and cook it lightly before dipping it in peanut and/or chilli sauce, and noshing like mad. When you have, in defiance of the enormous meal you already ate, polished off the entire contents of the platters, you tip the last of the peanut sauce into your bowl with scoops of broth, and drink it like soup. This was enormously good fun, and I rather fell for both bok choy and tofu prepared thusly (the tofu explodes in a shower of broth when you bite into it), but in comparison to the flavours in the more conventional main courses, I found it a bit bland. (I may also be biased in that I’m not a huge fan of seafood). This will not, however, prevent me from instantly trying to emulate it at home with a fondue pot. Oh, no, indeedy.

It was a lovely evening. I really like this place, and propose to upgrade it instantly to the status of “neighbourhood hang-out”. I also note, with sadness and disapproval, that it was almost empty; it deserves to be popular and bustling and disseminating its culinary happiness to a much wider clientele. I therefore exhort anyone reading this to rush off immediately and eat there. If you don’t it may go under, and I’ll be devastated.

Assessment on the Patent Jo Scale, with a terribly uniformity because I really had a great time:
Atmosphere: 8/ 10 (a warm and distinctly original vibe)
Staff: 8/ 10 (lovely people, attentive and engaged)
Service: 8 / 10 (quick, attentive)
Food: 8 / 10 (large menu, lovely cuisine, nicely prepared)
Value for money: 9 / 10 (good lord, it’s absurdly cheap)

Addis in Cape

We’ve had a fairly high proportion of upmarket choices for Salty Cracker lately – culminating, in fact, in the expensive delights of the Roundhouse, plus a recent Overture visit – and I was very much in the mood for something rather more cosy and informal. We also had a sampling of Addis in Cape’s food as takeout at a friend’s birthday party a month or so ago, and I was still queasy after gastric ‘flu at the time and definitely wanted to revisit the cuisine properly, so Addis in Cape it was. This is Ethiopian food, and it completely hit the spot in terms of the vibe I wanted.

Addis is in Long Street, on the corner of Church, and is a cheery red-painted building on three floors, with a very lovely feel in terms of décor. Sod’s Law, however, naturally dictated that the one time we have to climb two flights of stairs to eat, has to be the month in which Jo has put her knee out and is hobbling around with a crutch. There is, alas, no lift, and I have to say it would probably wreck the vibe if there were. The staff were very concerned and sweet about her slow and epic ascent. It’s a typical old Long Street building, wooden floors and old plaster, and they’ve incorporated the feel into the decoration – bits of the walls have artfully-left patches of bare brick, which goes very nicely with the wooden chairs and basketwork, and the slightly run-down feel gives a very strong sense of African street-market. The colours are all orange and red, warm and slightly smoky with candles, and the restaurant’s habit of burning incense as part of the coffee ceremony means that the whole thing smells slightly exotic, a sensual vibe intensified by the Ethiopian music. I loved the medieval-style artwork on the walls, and the lampshades made from giant, colourful, inverted cloth umbrellas, as well as the curly Ethiopian writing everywhere (there’s a basic phrasebook painted on the bar).

The restaurant doesn’t have tables, it has baskets. Giant, conical baskets with a wide, flat top attached, just the right size for the huge plate which feeds all four of the diners at once, and which you huddle around on the low, cushioned, carved, wooden chairs. The giant plate is simply the base for the giant sourdough pancake which covers it, and onto which the different dishes are tipped in little piles from the small pottery bowls in which they are served. You are given another basket filled with what we inevitably christened “bandages” – strips of pancake rolled neatly into a roll. You tear off a piece about 5-6cm square, and you use it to swoop down on bits of the stew-styled dishes and pop them into your mouth without actually getting any on your fingers. It’s surprisingly intuitive; there’s something hard-wired about eating like this, I found I was doing it automatically without even thinking about it. It’s also very liberating to feel that the eating-with-your-hands thing is not only permitted, it’s the only way = they don’t bring utensils. And they wash your hands for you before and after eating. It makes you realise what an enormously wide range of behaviour is actually covered by the concept of “civilised”.

The food itself is lovely – spicy, occasionally with a bite to it, but with a wonderful and distinctive balance of spices and flavours, heavy on the garlic, ginger, turmeric and cardamom. A lot of the dishes rely on berbere, or on a spicy clarified butter thing called kibe. We went for the set menu, which gives you starter, mains with 8 dishes and dessert with coffee or tea. The format is stew rather than large chunks of meat, and I am very happy to report that the Ethiopian word for stew appears to be wot (a stirfy is tibs). It made a welcome distraction from the inevitable and ongoing attempt not to make lame and offensive jokes about starving Ethiopians.

The starter came on a pancake which seemed to have been spiced and oiled and baked in the oven, so it was crispy – a bit like a cross between a pancake and a pappadom. No bandages with this – you break off chunks of the crispy pancake and dip them in the spicy lentil dip, or the spinach/cheese one. The lentils were the winner here – smooth and bitey and piquant. But I could cheerfully have eaten the pancake without any accompaniment at all. We flattened it, and wiped out the dip bowls with our fingers. (“We” here is Jo and me, who seem to be particularly uninhibited with this sort of thing).

The main course gave us a very spicy beef stew, a very good lamb one, something flavourful with slightly chewy prawns, and an absolute winner of a slow-cooked chicken thing, rich and dark and flavoured with, I think, lime juice as well as the spices. There was another spicy lentil sauce thing, a sort of tomato/onion salady side dish, and a wonderful spinach conglomeration, not to mention the sweetcorn mix and some random carrot/pumpkin bits around the side. Possibly a garnish. We ate it anyway. We also ordered an extra to the set meal, a helping of something called kitfo, which is the Ethiopian equivalent of steak tartare – very finely ground beef with spices and chilli, almost a paste, and incredibly good. I found it easier to eat large quantities of this than I usually do with tartare, which I enjoy but can’t take beyond about three mouthfuls. While we all had favourites here (mine were the chicken and the spinach), they were all good – similar stews in style, but with enough variation of flavour and spicing that they weren’t in any way monotonous. The little bits of pancake with every mouthful also mean that you’re getting a fair whack of carbohydrate, and you end up feeling very full.

Dessert was a bit arbitrary, slightly leathery baklava or berries with ice-cream, and a bit of a let-down in that it didn’t continue the authentic Ethiopian theme (the nice waiter did apologise for this, and inform us that Ethiopian meals don’t really do dessert). But the coffee was presented in a beautiful silver pot with little china handle-less cups, accompanied by the aforementioned incense, and the tea I ordered (I’ve given up on coffee, the heartburn isn’t worth it) was flavoured with cloves and honey and was absolutely wonderful.

The overall vibe and feel here really are great. The staff are also lovely – cheerful and attentive and with a slightly amateur touch which really fits with the ambience. (I think a lot of them are also Ethiopian, which means it’s sometimes a little difficult to understand them through the unfamiliar accent). We brought a bottle of wine (Australian cabernet courtesy of Eckie, perfect for the meat-heavy meal), but the second bottle off the wine list was inexpensive, and there’s a fair choice. It was a lovely evening all round, comfortable and flavourful and a bit different.

On the Famous Jo scale:
Atmosphere: 9 / 10 (even with the stair problem, the vibe is lovely)
Staff: 8 / 10 (very sweet, beaming, warm)
Service:7 / 10 (can be a little slow at times)
Food: 8.5/ 10 (lovely flavours within its slightly limited range)
Value for money: 8.5 / 10 (really not expensive given the experience and the size of the meal)

Bizerca

Various inflictions and deflections, like illness and overseas trips, have delayed August’s Salty Cracker expedition, which consequently took place on Friday night. I chose Bizerca, lured by the online reviews which praised its warmth, unpretentiousness and good food as well as by the magical combinations of “French”, “fusion” and “bistro”, and wow was it worth the wait. We really like this place. We had a lovely evening, and there was an indecorous level of “oohing” and “aahing” over the food.

I have to say, at first glance it doesn’t look promising; the plastic chairs, glass walls, art deco plastic tables and eye-watering monochrome swirls over the bar all scream “trendoid!”, which in our experience is not often synonomous with good food. However, the potentially plastic ambience is warmed and redeemed by the service , which is headed by the lovely, chatty, arm-patty wife of the cook, and by the little touches – the menu being carried around on giant chalkboards, the fact that they have a cupboard for your coats. The printed menu is tiny, the daily-changing chalkboard one huge, which strikes me as the right balance for seasonal and inventive freshness; the dishes have a high proportion of interesting ingredients and combinations, not your standard nouvelle/fusion stuff. One of those menus where it’s really difficult to choose, and as soon as you’ve ordered you immediately wish you’d ordered something else, because it all looks so good.

We really liked the owner-lady: she explained the specials to us, laughed at the usual Salty Cracker silliness, and was very amenable to the idea that we might suddenly decide to order the special apple tart, which needs a 45-minute lead time, by semaphore. We spent the rest of the evening carefully not raising our hands above shoulder level, just in case dessert arrived as seventeen accidental apple pies we’d then have to eat. The waiters passed the Water Test quite adequately – a slightly raised eyebrow when we eschewed bottled water, but large glasses of tap water were provided as requested, and topped up if requested. (The table was a bit small for a jug, precluding our usual technique of the Large Jug). Our wine glasses were promptly filled. And their bread is simply wonderful – hot, crusty, brown, a light, dense crumb – perfect.

The “wow” started with the starters. I had a venison pâté/duck rilette combo, which was good, solid flavours, nicely prepared, but was raised to sublime levels with a sort of spicy relish thing, with I think cumin seeds in it – perfectly complementary flavours. (I’m kicking myself that I didn’t have a look at their home-made jams). Jo had a seared salami starter with peas, which is quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen on a French fusion menu, and was wonderful and slightly startling. Stv’s raw fish whatever-it-was came as a mould, and was exquisitely flavoured, possibly the winner of the starter courses (what was it, stvil? I can’t remember). Eckhard had the pork belly starter, which was simply evil. In a good way. The starter course was accompanied by a lot of “ooh” and “aah” and swapping of forks – the latter is a standard Salty Cracker practice, to the joy and/or despair of the restaurants, but the enthusiasm was damned well earned.

The starters arrived  very promptly, the mains less so, which was probably our fault for making noises about not wanting the evening to be over too quickly. (Nice owner lady: “You can stay here until 3am as far as I’m concerned. I’ve told the staff to delay your mains a bit.”) Jo and Eckie both had bouillabaise, which looked amazing – a rich creamy sauce rather than the usual clear soup, but intensely flavoured, served with croutons and a garlic aioli. Stv had something game-steaky? (memory goes…) It was excellent, although I can’t remember the trimmings. I had a braised shoulder of veal, amazingly tender, with some kind of incredibly intense reduction whose wonderful flavour I couldn’t identify, and parsnips, which I adore and which far too few restaurants cook.

These are not nouvelle portions, which is not a trivial issue given the richness of the food. We were all pretty much groaning by the end of it, and I was the only one who ventured into dessert, on the strict understanding that Jo ate half, when everyone else had tea and coffee.  Liquid-centred hot chocolate pudding, white chocolate crème brûlée, and a sort of intense berry sorbet thing which was absolutely essential in order to survive the chocolate, which was savage, again in a good way. I need to learn how to make this chocolate thing, it was delectable – rather like an inverted self-saucing pudding, but with very high quality dark chocolate and no restraint whatsoever.

The restaurant was fairly empty when we arrived, but by the time we left – for which read “rolled out the door, groaning” – it had filled up with a very lively, chatty, happy crowd. It’s quite noisy, but not intrusively so – the vibe is actually lovely. The service slows down a bit as the room fills up, understandably enough, but never to the point of being annoying, and the staff are smiley and pleasant. Also, parking is easy, lots around the corner with a car-guard. Which is fortunate, because we were too full to walk far.

It was a lovely evening, we like this place. On the Patent Jo Scale:

Atmosphere: 9 / 10 (unexpectedly warm and cosy given the trendoid tendencies)
Staff: 8 / 10 (Cheerful, attentive, unobtrusive.)
Service: 7 / 10 (a bit variable, slowed down as the place filled up)
Food: 9 / 10 (Yum.)
Value for money: 9 / 10 (really very reasonable prices for such carefully-prepared, creative dishes)

Yindee’s

For someone with an obsessive-compulsive blogging habit, I forget to blog my Salty Cracker choices way too often. Sigh. Sorry. Yindee’s was a while back now, end of March, which in fact meant the first of April owing to the mad socialising in the previous week. I chose Yindee’s slightly cautiously, because the First Rule of Salty Cracker Club is Good Food By Strict Rotation of Choice, but the Second Rule is Not Thai, because none of it is ever as good as Thai as cooked by Stv. (The Third Rule is They Must Allow Us To Bring Wine. The Fourth Rule is that Whoever Chooses Also Drives, with corollaries (a) my car is too small so sometimes I drive home for someone else, and (b) Jo Will Drink Lots And Hardly Ever Drive). However, I wrung the admission from my fellow members that (a) Yindee’s is fun, and (b) we could do Thai as long as it wasn’t any dish Stv usually cooks. Since this to me means all the crunchy deep-fried starter thingies, for which I cherish an illicit passion without any shame whatsoever, Yindee’s it was.

I also wanted something not too upmarket for this, because we did another Overture run the weekend before, and trying to be upmarket after Overture is always an anticlimax. One needs distance.  Yindee’s had exactly the right vibe – not too expensive, generally relaxed sort of feel, decent food, waiter with a big grin, lots of dark wood in the décor. It all adds up. The major mistake I made, though, was to agree to try out their low-table cushions-on-the-floor room when I booked. It sounded like a fun idea at the time, but I forgot about my knees. It was never quite comfortable, which I found distracted from the experience – I managed not to break any portion of myself, but there was considerable whale-like floundering in getting up and down. We have now Done This, and don’t need to repeat it. Chairs are my new religion.

They have a one-bottle-per-table corkage policy, causing the Evil Landlord to fulminate something ‘orrible, but in the event their wine list is quite extensive and there are sufficient inexpensive options not to be offensive. (Is it just me, or are CT restaurants limiting corkage bottles more and more often? I blame the recession). Also, jo&stv brought a really good white, although I cannot for the life of me remember which. We did the standard oriental food thing, which was to order one dish each, bung them all in the middle of the table and share, culminating in arguments about who gets the last piece of duck. (Usually me).

Starters were good! fish cake thingies nicely flavourful, slightly standard beef satay and sweetcorn fritters, and really good potato strips in a sesame batter, my favourite from this course. Must try this at home. (I try the sweetcorn fritters at home, frequently, and have to say mine are better, mostly because I can’t restrain myself from Bunging Extra Stuff In, usually more chilli). We eschewed tempura on the grounds that it isn’t Thai, although I would have cheerfully suffered the inauthenticity. Deep fried things in batter make me strangely happy.

I chose, of course, duck for mains, crispy deboned duck with a rather delectable tamarind sauce – yum. The Evil Landlord had seared tuna, which was excellent, in a sort of herb crust. I think Jo had fish of some kind in a garlic and pepper stir fry, yes? also very good. I am totally, utterly and completely unable to remember what Stv ordered. It was also good. There were no actual bad choices here: the mains were better than the starters, I thought, with interesting flavours. The portions are reasonably substantial – I could have done with marginally more, and certainly more in the way of veggie components to the dishes, but we were all full enough not to want dessert.

This was a good experience, but not a brilliant one – solid food, nice vibe and setting without being particularly memorable, reasonable service but not outstanding. (Our waiter vanished completely when we wanted to pay him, and had to be summoned from the depths with strange rituals). Yindee’s bills itself as an “authentic” Thai experience, but I fear Stv’s cooking has spoiled us for that. It pretty much lives up to its cost bracket: I’d eat here again cheerfully and with enjoyment, but not to mark any special occasion. It certainly doesn’t trump our benchmark for Mid-Level Eastern Food, which is Jewel Tavern – flavour, quantity, vibe are all trailing behind the Tavern’s delirious high. Besides, a Lazy Susan on the table adds bonus style points which are difficult to overcome.

On the Patented Jo Table, the judge from Eastern Knee Troubles offers the following:

Atmosphere: 8 / 10 (nice try on the low tables, good vibe)
Staff: 8 / 10 (pleasant, cheerful. Too often Cape Town waiters appear to be confirmed misanthropes.)
Service: 7 / 10 (occasionally absent/slow, but passed the Water Test with flying colours)
Food: 7 / 10 (good but not spectacular)
Value for money: 8 / 10 (priced unpretentiously and appropriately)

Savoy Cabbage review

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

Myoga review

Our enthusiastic applause for the Ginga experience prompted my choice of Myoga, the larney restaurant at the Vineyard hotel in Claremont. I’d originally wanted to try La Colombe, which was booked solid (apparently two weeks’ lead-in time for a weekend booking is required, ooh la la), so the general plan was up-market. Up-market is certainly what we got.

Myoga has a lovely feel – luxurious, carpeted, highly-designed, all warm and orange and plush – it’s something of an antithesis to Ginja’s we-slapped-the-red-paint-on-the-wall-ourselves aesthetic, but retains at least partly its comfortable feel. The kitchen sits in the middle of the restaurant, so one can watch the controlled chaos of the chefs and catch them rather endearingly sticking sauce spoons into their mouths and then back into the pot. (I always do this, and have hitherto always felt madly guilty about it). The restaurant’s bathrooms rate a special mention for the décor dubbed “futurist nightclub” by Jo – if the joint was ever raided, heaven forfend, by the timecops, the loos could simply fire up their blue lights, rotate a few chrome fittings and glide quietly back to the mother ship. Also, there are screens on the back of the toilet doors which show a live feed to the kitchens, which is curiously disconcerting while communing with one’s bodily functions.

The menu is very similar to Ginja, featuring the same wonderful flavour combinations in a sort of modernist flow-of-consciousness description, and beautifully-sculped piles of strange shapes and colours presented with a flourish in a lonely island in the middle of a giant plate. My smoked duck-breast starter (the quest for Cape Town’s Best Duck continues) featured piquant, vinegary flavours in addition to wanton touches of toasted peanut, pomegranate seed and turkish delight, with foie gras crouton-thingies on the side. It was delectable – complex, playful, unexpected. The dessert chocolate plate was also quite possibly better than sex, with coffee ice-cream, variegated mousses, dense chocolate tart and a molten chocolate death pudding productive of helpless orgasmic noises and a liberal coating of chocolate all over my hands and face. (The second visit to the Ablutions of the Future was necessitated at about this point). Jo’s assiette of desserts included a sort of frozen berry explosion thing that cut the chocolate death very nicely, and a not entirely successful pound cake effort – stodgy, confusing. I was wrapped up enough in my duck that I didn’t really taste anyone else’s starter, but the Evil Landlord seemed to enjoy his scallops, and stv his tuna – I am entirely unable to remember what sort of flavours they came with.

I have somewhat deliberately skipped from starter to dessert because the main course, frankly, disappointed me. The trio of veal is apparently something of a Myoga signature dish, and the flavours were lovely – three medallions each with a separate saucing, including an intense mushroom/truffle thing, lemon and anchovy with aubergine, and a green pepper sauce. The potato croquettes, mashed potato with subtle herbs in a fried crumb crust, were incredible. But the meat was arb, a sort of vague, tasteless carrier for the admittedly vivid and interesting sauces. I’m rather wishing I’d gone with the Evil Landlord’s venison in chocolate sauce with plums, or stv’s incredible beef fillet with duck liver pâté.

That wouldn’t have been too much of a problem, though – the sauces were definitely worth it, and the whole meal thing, at just over R200 for three courses, was not badly priced for the larney experience it is. The problem, and the reason why Myoga isn’t up there with Ginja in my estimation, was the wine. Myoga has a sommelier, which is always a bit touch-and-go with me because it’s not really possible to talk about wine without pretentious language. Jo’s Aubergine rant about little fishes going sploosh and the rrrah! of earthy polar bears is always floating vaguely about my head, and I have to be careful not to catch her eye otherwise unseemly giggling will result. Also, fundamentally, while the idea of an experienced wine-fundi pairing the right wine with your meal is all fine and well, in fact it’s a rotten swizz on many levels – you are gently guided into ordering on recommendation, without recourse to the wine list, and thus disempowered on one quite important level of choice, namely price. The wine cost more than the meal did. The sommelier swore he was guiding us to the cheaper choices, but I don’t personally feel that R300 for a bottle of wine is actually cheap. This was the most expensive Salty Cracker we’ve ever had, and the wine was frankly way overpriced. The recommendations were good and interesting (well, I wasn’t a fan of the pinot noir, found it thin and flat), but they weren’t worth that money. It was a huge pity, because you end up feeling that the meal experience has been devalued, and the devaluation had really nothing to do with the actual food.

So, on Jo’s four-point scale I’d score it thusly:

  • Atmosphere: 8
  • Staff: 7
  • Food: 8
  • Value for money: 5

Bonus points for the lovely garden and the warning signs about the feral tortoise.