In which Das Crackernauts find out if Mr Chan is The Man or he’s just A Flash In The Pan.
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.”
The 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.
Mains, 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.
In which we meet the meat before it meets our needs.
Gah. Our visit to La Boheme is receding in the rear-view mirror, with no review to show for it. Bad Salty-Crackerer, no biscuit.
I chose La Boheme because I was looking for that Bistro vibe – friendly, bustling, tasty, generous. La Boheme is all that, and, should I forget to actually say that, heartily recommended: Go There. Eat Things. It will Be Good.
The long time that’s passed in some ways helps bring into focus what stood out the most: the staff. Service with an attitude, a big mouth, a sense of humour and a firm set of opinions. Service with enough chutzpah to keep us with the rowdy cracker bunch, and give us a run for our money. This does not mean it was perfect – I vaguely recall moments when we would have liked to get the waitress to our table but could not find her – but given the large personality and great investment in our meal that we got the rest of the time, this was totally forgiveable.
Another stand out was the wine – it’s a wine bar, so after some deliberation we left our own wines in the car (wine-bars sometimes get a bit huffy about bringing your own). I remember the wine list being large but navigable, and struck on the Satyricon from La Vierge on the grounds that it sounded cool. It’s an extremely lovely blend of strange foreign grapes with a naughty label, and when we got home we phoned our local wine store and bought a case of it, that’s how good it was. It’s drinking extremely well right now, and now, and again just now.
The food is a mixture of tapas, starters and mains, and I believe there was some sort of special combo deal that we probably ignored as usual. The menu is chalkboard and apparently changes often; here is a snap of what we were faced with:
We had the tapas for starters: the chorizo in red wine, the white anchovies, gnocci with roasted tomatos and the honey-glazed little ribs. All absolutely mouth-wateringly good, with the white anchovies (milder than the little black ones, and bigger, lovely flavour) and the gnocci the stand outs. Everything was fresh, rich, and beautifully balanced, excellent start to the meal.
We followed up with mains – unfortunately, these came from a third blackboard (yes, there were more blackboards!) which we got no pic of and which, curse the passage of time and the death of little braincells, I do not remember very much of. I know I had the duck: done in an Asian vibe, with fine noodles and a sweet sauce. It was nice, but I do recall being terribly jealous of everyone else’s food, so there it is: everything else was BETTER than Asian duck. Nums. The portions were extremely generous, it must be noted, and we really felt that we got excellent value for money.
Last note on the atmosphere: La Boheme and Bruxia have essentially merged into what is quite a large restaurant, and on a Friday it hustles and bustles and can get a tad loud. Let’s say the cracker team in full guaffing swing was not stared at by other diners trying to have a quiet meal – quite the reverse, at times. The concensus around the table was “loudish, but not in a bad way” as I recall.
OK, drum roll:
In which the bubbly atmosphere is complemented by bubbly wine and bubbly waiting staff.
I was looking for a homely, family, Mom ‘n’ Pop sort of place, and Thai World did not disappoint.
(There’s a whole thing about how my choosing was a trauma-laden-ridden-filled thingy, but that’s another story)
The inside is quite charming. You quite clearly get the feeling of English husband and Thai wife: he runs the bar in the front room and she runs the kitchen of nummy food (although my familiarity with the cross-cultural set-up may be tinting my glasses on this one.).
There were bits and bobs of Thai ele- and paraphanelia on the walls and tables that add an air of more Thia-ness to the place: I approve!
The food was really good, but not knock my socks off amazing. Tastes and flavours were, to my buds, quite authentic. Tastiness always trumps authenticity, but it’s nice to have both.
The portions sizes, of the main courses especially, were very generous.
As you may expect from a Thai meal, the sauces were excellent. A great mix of flavours and strength.
Winning dish for the table was the Duck Red Curry (Kaeng Phed Ped Yang on their menu). It was, pardon my language, amazeballs. Jo became somewhat obsessed over the course of the meal with deconstructing the ingredients and preparation method (“Why is my curry not this good?” was the cry. Fret not, your curries are also amazeballs! Um… That felt weird to say.). (Upon more sober reflection, it was (sort of) decided that the WIN was at least partially due to Duck Fat ™)
My only complaint was the speed of the service: a little bit too slow to be called leisurely. We got the impression that a lot of the other clientèle were regulars, and the fact that they were in and out while we were still there gave the impression that they were being favoured over us a bit. To be fair to them, the lady owner did say that our mains took a while longer because of the steamed fish. To be fair to us, if we’d have been told that we would’ve asked stuff to be brought out as it was ready. Not a train smash, but something to bear in mind.
So, these score thingies of which you speak…
(I’m trying to score more harshly than the other Crackstefarians: 5 means average. 10 means OMGBBQ. 1 means killmenow.)
In which we are whirled around by waiters and have large quantities of Thai food in Harfield Village.
I 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.
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.
I 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.
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:
In which we go to Fork on Long Street, it being full of tapas-y goodness, and the sister restaurant of Knife.
Note: there is no Spoon.
Due to a scheduling car-wreck, I ended up with a lunch slot for the August Cracker (it was that or have August Cracker in mid September…). Bistro 1682, where I have only been for breakfast until then, is not open for dinner, so it was the perfect opportunity and there we went.
Bistro 1682 is a beautiful beautiful place, all modern and tall and shiny and splendid. The glass-fruit chandelier in the bar and the awesome “alien creatures grazing” statues on the grounds of the Steenberg estate are notable standouts. It was a sunny day but just a smidgen too cold to actually sit outside, which is a pity as they have great outside – shallow pools and geometry.
Their winelist is quite reasonable is you stick to their own stuff, so we had sparkles to start (as we meant to carry on). The menu is a mix of fine cuisine and lunchtime favourites (the steak roll with fries next to veal sous vide, that sort of thing. Starters I remember in this time-delayed review are Eckhart’s beef tataki, the white risotto, and the fish brandade. The tatake is kind of a signature dish – when they took part in Taste of Cape Town, the recipe was published in a magazine and I have it cut out at home. It is fantastic. I chose the risotto which was delicate but did not quite hit the spot – the trouble was tasting everyone else’s meal and spoiling my palette, I suspect! Jess and Stv had the fish brandade which they enjoyed, as I recall.
I chose the veal sous vide from the impossible menu – so many options, all sounding too good. It was probably the weakest choice. Jess’s pork belly with asian, sweet and sour flavours was brilliant and unusual, Eckie’s steak and chip roll looked divine. Steve’s charcuterie was impressive but the flavours weren’t quite different enough and the truffle sauce had a slightly odd texture, like cold mashed potato.
Either their portions are small (but they really are not) or because it was lunchtime and we stretched the meal out more, we all, for a change, had desert. There was something with a chocolate nemesis and cherry jelly, and another with toffee themed things (that was mine). I found the deserts a little too bitty and nouveau – too many tiny portions of various flavours, rather than an indulgent composition in itself. But desert, so not my thing.
The service was lovely – a waiter with a sense of humour, always good. They did forget to make Steve’s charcuterie which was a problem it took only 5 minutes to prepare but that’s 5 minutes of him sitting hungry while our food arrived (no, we didn’t wait… we did feed him though!).