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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.

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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: