Story of a Plate: Rabbit and Truffle at The Shortmarket Club

(Images courtesy of Andy Lund)

On the menu: Rabbit terrine, fig leaf baked ricotta, wild honey, lemon and porcini velouté.

Jean-Pierre recently enjoyed this starter dish as one highlight of an overall excellent meal at The Shortmarket Club. We chat to chef Wesley Randles about what may seem like an unusual combination to local diners in Cape Town.

Welsey Randles: It might seem unusual, but if you break down the flavours, it’s actually the perfect northern Italian plate, incorporating everything important to that palate. For example if you start with gnocchi, and then add rabbit and truffle, that would be completely normal in that region. This is exactly that, just broken down into slightly different components.

We start off with ricotta, which we make ourselves (just cream, milk and lemon juice), and then fold in a bit of polenta and parmesan. So while it is a baked ricotta, the added polenta gives it a bit more body, like gnocchi. We then wrap it in fresh fig leaves, and bake it to order. We confit the rabbit whole, shred the meat, and mix it with some of the confit braising liquid and jus, then fold through roasted pistachio nuts, preserved figs, and chopped up dates, which we set into a log in cling wrap. That’s then sliced into a perfect disc for plating, accompanied by a porcini marmalade (basically caramelised fresh porcinis, onion, garlic, and fresh figs), and finished with fresh sliced truffles from Alba.

Have you tried any of the locally produced truffles?

Wesley: I have, yes, but the sample I got was about three weeks old and dry, and not very pleasant, so we haven’t really gone back to it. But we have a fantastic guy from Italy who brings them in.

So no yearly trips to Italy to go truffle hunting?

Wesley: That would be nice! Generally every time I’ve gone to Italy it’s been for work and I’ve been stuck in a kitchen! [laughs]

How do you find that something you describe as quintessentially north Italian translates to a local dining context?

Wesley: I don’t really focus on the regionality of any food; I just try to create a plate that tastes as good as possible, and if I’m working with baked ricotta and wild rabbit, parmesan and truffle seem to me like natural additions to make it more delicious, rather than anything to do with regionality. But yes, it’s probably most recognisable as a classic Italian dish; in fact we’ve got regular guests from Milan that come down every year and visit the whole restaurant group (The Test Kitchen, The Pot Luck Club, The Shortmarket Club), and when I served them this dish recently, they commented that it could be from their own neighbourhood.

So you focus on what you like, rather than being informed or guided by a particular region?

Wesley: Exactly – everything on the menu is there because it’s something I like to eat, and if I don’t like to eat it, it’s not ever going on the menu because it’ll be a drag to cook every night. My first and foremost goal here is to make every plate taste delicious; even more so than aesthetics. As long as it tastes fantastic, then I’m happy. We can make it look pretty afterwards, as we refine it more and more, but if it’s tasty and fantastic from the get-go, then we’re already winning.

Are there tweezers in your kitchen?

Wesley: Yes, quite a few.

We ask because of the new big buzz in the foodie world about the new “World Restaurant Awards” launched in Paris on Feb 18 this year [and which crowned Wolfgat in Paternoster the “Restaurant of the Year”]. They also had a category for “Tweezer-Free Kitchen”, and “Tattoo-Free Chef” [we say eyeing chef Randles’ tattooed arm].

Wesley: There are so many restaurant awards these days – it’s hard to know which ones to follow!

Finally, tell us about you (non-Italian) suppliers, and how long diners can expect to see this dish on the menu?

Wesley: Everything that we use protein-wise and for fresh ingredients is, and has to be, local. The rabbits we’re getting at the moment are brought in from Wild Peacock as the “middle man”, but there is a rabbit farm in Stellenbosch (even though South Africans don’t seem to be big fans of cooking rabbit, which is strange because it’s always been around – but then it does require quite a long cooking time). We find the fresh fig leaves locally [ed’s note: Wesley did reveal the location of his preferred fig tree in the city, but we’ve decided this is better left secret, lest he runs out of a key ingredient for this dish!], and our fresh porcini are currently sourced from Durban, where mushroom foragers have the advantage of more or less the same temperature all year.

We’ll keep the dish on the menu at least until October, when the fig leaves will probably become hard to source – they add something really unique to the plate, with a beautiful herbal, malt-like perfume that infuses the ricotta as it bakes and arrives at the table: both delicious and unfamiliar.

Where to get it: The Shortmarket Club, 88 Shortmarket Street, Cape Town. 021 447 2874.