|Welcome to the dining journal! Here you'll find updates on the recent dining experiences of the editor, JP Rossouw. Please note that these are time-bound impressions of one visit, not the official review. If you'd like to review one of the restaurants, click here. Comments are welcome, but we reserve the right to edit/remove them.
The Oyster Box Hotel is a contender as one of South Africa’s most beautiful hotels and its setting, overlooking the Indian Ocean and a candy-stripe lighthouse, is as romantic as they come. For drinks, the Lighthouse Bar upstairs makes you feel like you’re in a James Bond movie; while high teas are a pleasure in the Palm Court.
The most sophisticated dining room is named The Grill Room, although grills are not the particular signature here as the menu ranges widely with seafood platters at R1100 for two and lemon roasted chicken supreme at R160; while a Café de Paris sirloin costs R155. The space is richly ornate and service is smooth, but my experience of the quality of cuisine for the price has not been that impressive.
So when a local suggested that the best curry in town was the hotel’s The Ocean Terrace, I was glad to return to this delightful space but brought with me a nagging doubt that the food would deliver. The terrace is another comfortably upmarket space, this time a whimsical “pool room” in white latticed wood and striped materials and filled with natural light at lunchtime. Service was excellent, and the choice in what to eat was again extensive: including steaks, seafoods, sandwiches and salads – even a gourmet pizza menu (“toppings from around the world”) stood on the table.
At the end of the room, a deep counter presents the curry buffet in ornate copper pots, behind which the chefs operate the tandoor ovens. It’s an impressive variety – I was determined to sample as widely as possible and fell short of completion after tasting nine dishes from the selection of vegetable, seafood and meat curries. Sides, sambals, breads and tandoori dishes are also in abundance.
For this variety – and happily quality – R240 was very fair value. Not all dishes were completely convincing, the dhal makhani in particular showed little depth or richness; but most combinations showcased clear and pure flavours and often delicious complexity. Stand-outs were the prawn and chicken curry, a milder mix but with great flavour; and the Singapore fish curry, with very rich and complex, deep tomato spices. The vegetable korma was also masterful in keeping the vegetables crisp and retaining their own flavour. For lovers of the fiery curry, the lamb vindaloo was on the outer reaches of my heat tolerance, though the lamb not as tender as it could have been.
To calm the palate, a surprisingly good chocolate brownie for dessert with a chocolate and orange ice cream that was in turn perfect in texture though needed more orange kick – and finally a very good espresso.
For: Beautiful surrounds and superb service; good curries.
Against: Only the risk of over-indulging!
Real Spanish eating is hard to come by, notwithstanding a move towards “small plate” eating which the Spaniards “invented” with tapas. The local versions of tapas seem often to miss the core idea, which is that these plates are meant as tantalising portions to mix and match and to share in abundance – not as slightly down-sized main courses. Crucially, this means that the contents of the plate should be divisible, and not a portion for only one person. Furthermore, if you claim Spanish-style tapas, there are certain flavours that one expects: olive oil, garlic, pimenton and chourizo – and ham has to make a star turn. Sherry on the wine list would also be a sign of real intent. Happily, a new spot in the Cape’s Kalk Bay does tick the portion and flavour boxes. The menu lists quite a variety of plates – but regrettably they were out of all ham dishes (despite the ham hocks on display) as well as no paella and lamb on the day – cutting the selection in half. What I did sample (octopus with potato, chickpeas with chourizo and tortilla) were all delightfully authentic (so don’t expect absolutely tender octopus). La Parada also looks the part, if blatantly so, with bullfight posters and hanging legs of ham. And a Spanish accent from the kitchen most certainly added to its charm. It’s a bar-style space that opens onto the street with only hard-stool counter seating – again in keeping with the concept of tapas bars where the idea is a snack before moving on to your meal at a more formal restaurant. Now if only they could list a fino sherry. 021 788 3992
The steakhouse brand Turn ‘n Tender has grown to number five outlets in the greater Johannesburg area but with their recent Famous Brands alignment, this should grow into a national brand pretty soon. And that’s great news for those of us down south, because all my meals at any of the outlets over the last years has been very satisfying. Indeed, Turn ‘n Tender is one of the reasons that I have long felt Johannesburg has the edge on the rest of the country in terms of quality steak restaurants.
Of late, I have mostly eaten at the Illovo branch. It’s always busy and a walk past the kitchen during the height of service is an education in the organised chaos that is a popular steakhouse. When its busy and full its also pretty noisy in this plainly adorned space, but the service has never lagged, overseen by Brian – one of the “four brothers” who started the chain 35 years ago. Business groups mingle with families and special occasion tables and its no surprise that loyal return customers are legion.
The red bibs on (mostly male) diners indicate they are getting stuck in to the fantastic beef and pork ribs, marinated in a sticky BBQ sauce with a side of “pap”. On this meatiest of menus (with biltong a starter staple) you can even sample lambs’ tails but for the more sedate you also get the classics: snails, calamari or curried prawns and at great value with most of the starters around R40.
An obligatory chicken and seafood section is there, but the heart of the matter is found in the “from the grill” and “four brother specials” lists. This is the place to eat “point rump”, the very tasty piece from the end of the rump cut with the fat layer; as well as any steak Argentinian-style – spiral cut (think of a spring shape, this cut creates a very tender “bite”) and served with chimichurri sauce. Then a detailed list of the more usual cuts in a variety of sizes as well as a fulsome list of combos like ribs and duck legs or steak alongside boerewors, the closest one can now come to the old-fashioned “mixed grill” (indeed they can even top your steak with a fried egg).
Throughout the menu, the value is very good indeed, for example a 500g T-Bone costs R125 and a 300g sirloin R125. The quality of the meat is consistently high and the sides are good. Desserts really delve into the South African “comfort” zone – Bar-One chocolate-sauced ice cream, milk tart or Italian kisses, or choose from the list of Dom Pedros or the modern sinfulness of full-fat milkshakes. To round it all out, the hearty and no-nonsense service ensures that you feel like you are in good hands.
For: Quality steaks and more in an energetic environment.
Against: Hard surfaces and full, happy tables means noise.
If it’s a classic steakhouse you are after in the Pretoria area, look no further than Centurion’s The Godfather. It’s got the dark tones, wood and leather that marks the traditional South African steakhouse and on the menu you’ll find the staples of the genre. The name is taken quite literally in the waiters’ fedora hats and black waistcoats, fortunately not the Tommy guns. To start, crumbed mushrooms, snails and shrimp cocktail all make their appearance along with meaty options (“beefy delights” in lemon and garlic butter); while the bulk of the menu is dedicated to steaks in great variety, many with signature sauces (saucing is big at The Godfather). Chocolate chilli fillet, cheddar melt sirloin, carpetbagger are all here – or try their off menu but always available (and recommended) three mustard butter-sauced rump. From the “unadorned” grill menu, the 550g T-Bone and “Mansize” beef ribs” at 800g show intent. There’s a decent seafood section – but this quickly segues into to the “combos” where you can add a steak to your seafood. Quality here is superbly consistent, and as the legions of fans will attest, they really look after their locals and regulars. And on the weekday lunch I was there, service was very good indeed, with the manager visibly present too. My only quibbles are that the place is looking pretty worn and likely at its best for an evening visit; and that the wine list is also rather too traditional, featuring almost exclusively the big corporate names. 2 Biella Centre, Cnr Heuwel and Mike Crawford Streets, Centurion.
012 663 1859
Steve Maresch, The Local Grill, flanked by runners up (left) Martin Lombard, Little Havana -and (right) Giorgio Nava, Carne SA
The nationwide quest to identify the country’s best steakhouse has come to an exciting conclusion with the announcement of the inaugural winner and 2013 Steakhouse Champion of South Africa on the 8th May – and the winner is The Local Grill in Parktown North.
The Top Three Steakhouses were all excellent in terms of selection, knowledge, maturation and preparation of their meats, but what gave The Local Grill the edge was the fantastic meat experience it offers in terms of range of cuts (including grass and grain) and even choice of bovine. The fact that you get a tour of the meat locker if you show the slightest bit of interest is also fantastic and says it all about a place that truly “preaches” steak!
The Top Three were completed by the excellent Carne SA (Cape Town) and Little Havana (Umhlanga Rocks) both superb exponents of steak. The awards were held at Luke Dale-Roberts’ famed Pot Luck Club, where his innovative platters of excellent Chalmar Beef accompanied The Wolftrap wines.
The Awards brings to a close a search that began with an open round during which the public nominated their favourite steakhouses – and nearly 200 establishments were named as contenders in the Championships. The Top Five from this nomination round then joined an expert’s selection of award-winning steakhouses to go into the Play-Off Round in April where 14 steakhouses went head-to-head during personal visits by the Steakhouse Championships judges, led by well-known MasterChef SA judge Pete Goffe-Wood.
Pete Goffe-Wood was very happy with overall quality: “The standard of the last 14 was very high indeed and it is clear that the steakhouse category is alive and well in South Africa. Of course, steak is a South African passion and the steakhouse is the quintessential South African restaurant experience – it’s who we are – and this competition celebrates those who push the envelope of that experience.”
It’s been nearly a decade since we last had a steakhouse champion and The Wolftrap – steak’s ideal partner – was excited to take on the challenge of identifying the ultimate house of steaks. Over the next months, there is a prize of a meal for two at The Local Grill – simply buy a bottle of The Wolftrap for details!
Chartwell Drive is abuzz with restaurants, and has become the epicentre of much Durban North dining. Besides the many chain eateries, there are also a number of gems – for example it features some excellent meats in the form of Little Havana – and also some very good Italian at Remo’s Villagio.
Remo’s Villagio is an offshoot of the “originale” Remo’s in Mount Edgecombe and on a Monday night (never the restaurant’s best friend) I found Villagio packed – while the places around it were doing so-so business. Initially taking this only as a sign that South Africans love their pasta and pizza, I left after dinner at Remo’s assured that it was more than that: because Remo’s is a fine restaurant.
The first mark of care was the greeting at the door by an elegantly dressed hostess. There was also a sign that read “no slops after 6pm” but they were struggling to keep that rule, this being the much more laissez-faire KZN. Nevertheless, the upmarket interior did encourage diners into smart-casual dress (at least). The stylish hostess was matched by waiters very neatly kitted in black waistcoats and ties.
The interior is visually rich, with an “applied Italian” look in the “la dolce Vita” pictures, Romanesque small tiled mosaic floor, fountain in the garden, statuettes and a Vespa scooter parked in the patio area. It all added up to an Italian town square feel. But it rises from generic “trattoria” through the contemporary music, the pleasing inside-out flow, plantation fans, wicker-look chairs and lovely red booth seats. There’s also a very attractive old-fashioned bar.
A small wine list features Italian wines by the carafe and the one (large) page menu is full of well-described options: “Popeye’s Pollo”; the “Joey Tribbiani” sandwich with meatballs and mozarella; Ferrari calamari (cold marinated calamari in white wine vinegar olive oil chilli and parsley tossed with onion and peppers); “Good Old-Fashioned Macaroni and Cheese”; and from the pizza menu – “Tricky Dicky” (Parma ham, cherry tomatoes, rocket and avo). Antipasti cost around R60, salads around R70, pizza R90 and pasta R70 – so it’s not budget Italian but neither is it exorbitant (another welcome feature of dining in KZN).
Furthermore, there’s a box at the top of the menu with daily specials, and on a Monday night it is gnocchi with prawn and sage (R100). I ordered this with trepidation, as gnocchi is as stern a test as you get – but was happy to find that Remo’s was one of the best I have eaten in South Africa. Cloudy pillows of gnocchi, tender prawns, with the butter and sage well judged.
Chancing carb overload, my main was then a pizza. Theirs are of the oval/handmade style and this was good too, if far too heavy on the cheese, so as it cools it suffers the “fossilized footprint” syndrome where an olive used to be, and shows the cheese up as not of the best quality.
For: Lovely upmarket but relaxed space, good pasta.
Against: Could use better cheese on otherwise good pizza.
Mundo Vida in Umdloti on the KZN North Coast has both the most sublime of locations and the most mundane. Regarding the former, its second floor deck directly overlooks the beach for dreamy lunches. On the latter, its directly above a filling station, with the signage in your line of vision if you look left. Its interior space also looks somewhat worn and rather scruffy, but the warm and owner-led service more than makes up for this lack of aesthetic charm. The wide-ranging menu really aims to cover most bases – from over-sized salads (the “Beach Garden” salad for two at R79 is recommended) to Asian- and Mediterranean-inspired starters to pizza, pasta, seafood platters and grills. There is a certain formulaic quality about the look of the plates that go out (shoe-string fries and ribbon carrots are generic adornments) and the flavours are distinctly calibrated to the robust rather than the subtle. It’s “world café” food, as the name suggests. At a recent lunch I tried the Louisiana Prawns (R79) – “crispy Cajun-style Queen prawns served on matchstick fries with a salad and jalapeño aioli” – which was fine and spicy, if lacking any distinct Southern flavour. Then the Pork Wonton “Parcels” (R49) – “crispy wonton parcels filled with roasted pork belly, carrot and cucumber slaw topped with a sweet and spicy Asian style sauce”. The pork was dry, hard and with burnt edges, the sauce a generic-tasting sweet chilli. But the fine sauvignon by the carafe and the dreamy vista of liners in the bay tempered overt grumpiness. 031 568 2286
A return, after some months, to the original Reuben’s in Franschhoek after recent past visits when I found that this first restaurant had suffered somewhat from a lack of attention while Reuben Riffel, the Franschhoek local chef made good, had gone on to great successes with his personal brand and his extension restaurants in the One & Only Hotel and in Robertson. I was curious to see how the “foundation” store was now doing, and I immediately noticed that the servers currently wear wine brand sponsored clothing. I wondered if this was a sure sign of a change in focus to the more commercial. But the menu reads as it always has, a selection of modern bistro-styled plates with a Cape twist – and the flavours over lunch, along with the presentation, was very good. Starting with a well-dressed Caesar salad and the signature salt and pepper squid salad (very tender calamari, though could have had more seasoning); the lunch continued to impress with delicious chicken livers and a prawn and chicken curry that was as flavoursome as any I had recently had in Kwa-Zulu Natal. Service was excellent and precise, and the wines available by the glass are good (notwithstanding the brand allegiance). Happily, the Reuben’s mother ship was back on track in show-casing his visually pretty and (also) tasty creations and it remains one of the most pleasant spaces for lunch or dinner on the town’s main road – especially with the large fireplace ready for action over winter. And another attraction, alongside, is an outlet of the popular Cape coffee outlet, Deluxe.
The name puzzled us, until the helpful waiter explained that it was the chef/owner’s nickname. We were remarking on the poorly punctuated menu and its tautology “organic farm grown organic chicken lightly smoked…” when the waiter further explained the surfeit of the terms organic, free-range and “farm grown” on the menu – turns out that most of the produce and meat featured is sourced on the chef’s family’s farm in the Magaliesberg. However it was by this happy accident of the waiter’s overhearing us that we received this information, as the menu, curiously, does not make mention that a single farm supplies most of the ingredients.
It’s worth making more of, since Coobs takes the concept of “provenance” further than any South African restaurant I have come across. As a space, Coobs also strikes a “real” or “natural” note through the plentiful use of wood, mostly in rough-hewn form – as wall panels, tables or recycled as table tops. A “cow crossing” road sign takes pride of place to further enhance the agrarian tone, but at the same time it’s neat and new enough to comfortably host the society set – plus it is on the popular 4th Avenue strip in a rather eye-catching new building (and is therefore a step up in space to the many “holes-in-the-wall” here).
Service is personable and the chef was also on the floor to look over the tables, lending a sense of hands-on care, which amplifies the concept of “home-grown”. However, a poorly laid out and spelled menu does lead one to wonder about the quality in other departments, but in this case we were off to a good start with our panko crusted “jalepino” poppers, filled with a tasty cheese and accompanied by a very suitable gooseberry atchar (R58). The salad of “peas, avo, beans, cucumber ribbons, parmesan and sprouts” was also perfectly acceptable, if steep in price for what you got at R65.
As mains, the “farm grown organic acorn fed wild boar ragu with house made parpedelle” (R65) featured well-cooked boar and decent pasta with good “bite”, but the ragu’s tomato had been over-reduced leaving it far too acidic – and overwhelming the natural sweet flavour of the meat. Another main, the “organic free range” chicken as a pie with leek and pepper cream sauce (R85) was tasty enough, but not a pie as there was a puff pastry leaf below (thoroughly soaked) and placed on top. As dessert, the rhubarb tart with honey comb and home-made “vanilla bean” ice cream (R55) was altogether forgettable; the rhubarb cooked down too far, the ice cream granular.
There’s a fun wine list that showcases more interesting and up-and-coming younger producers and wine-making areas – also in keeping with the theme of the restaurant. In all, Coobs excites with its point of departure – we all appreciate home-grown in this supermarket age – they just need to sharpen up the details.
For: Produce-led menu of provenance; good wine list
Against: Needs to up the consistency and value.
Stanley on Bain has been the location for Port Elizabeth’s dining renaissance over the last decade. It’s home to the original Vovo Telo and its offshoot pizza outlet, and it’s also where you will find this hole-in-the-wall sushi spot, the highly personal expression of the chef-owner “Mark Sushi” – as he introduces himself. A grounding at the ever-busy Willoughby’s in Cape Town’s waterfront gave him a good overview of Asian cuisine and from there he has made the food of China and Japan his quest; returning to his home town to start Fushin.
He’s not looked back and today Fushin is highly regarded as a Port Elizabeth food option, notwithstanding its small dimensions. One of the benefits of a compact venue is the likelihood that you will be better served and here you get the distinct feeling that they’re ready to look after only your personal sushi needs.
The sushi counter is large and therefore prominent and seats right up at the chefs is a great option for single or paired diners. The modern, neat, red accented interior with stark white/black accents otherwise offers four-seaters or pavement tables for larger groups. The wine list is personal and interesting with most of the wines by the glass, also sake options.
On the busy menu, creative and extensive salads, dim sum, a tapas section, a rice and noodle bar for bowl food, plenty of sushi (much of it speciality pieces of their own creation that show a fusion bent) and also tempura. Then there is a section called “Chef’s kitchen” with Peking duck pancakes and Thai curries.
The prices are reasonable (for example a platter of 15 piece nigiri for R110) and the quality is consistently good, with an eye to presentation. I sampled the nigiri and found it very good, with firm rice and good balance; dim sum that was fair (R55); “spicy baked Peruvian scallops” that were excellent (R58) and “kakiage” – strips of vegetables in tempura – that were very good (R25). A halva ice cream to finish was appropriately rich (R35).
Fushin is imminently opening a modern cocktail bar two doors down to offer tapas-style dishes and creative, “molecular” drinks. A preview look inside suggests it will immediately be the see-and-be-seen spot and add another dimension to this mostly casual strip of eateries.
For: Good, fresh seafood and Asian dishes in a energetic space.
Against: Probably not for lingering meals.
The stylish interior of Signal, Cape Grace
Graham Beck's Gorgeous for bubbles and bites
The inviting warmth of Lucit, Pretoria
Makaron in Stellenbosch: design meets cuisine
Great calamari at Pirates, Plumstead
Regal dining room of the Saxon Hotel, Sandton
Vote for your favourite steakhouse