Welcome to the dining journal! Here you'll find updates on the recent dining experiences of the editor and the review team. 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.

Looking forward to the next twelve years: Hartford House post Jackie Cameron

Hartford House is set on the grounds of a thoroughbred stud farm. The hotel and restaurant is within a 19th century, sandstone house that once belonged to the last prime minister of the Natal Colony. With its wisteria-lined walk ways and gooseberry-laden gardens, the location is (as novelist Alan Paton once wrote of the KZN countryside) “lovely beyond any singing of it”.

For over a decade, Chef Jackie Cameron presided over the kitchen at Hartford House. She produced a series of iconic degustation menus which gave voice to the taste of her terroir. She consistently emphasised locally sourced and/or indigenous ingredients. There was a charming emphasis on plates of food as a vehicle for telling the stories of where we come from, who we are and where we are going as South Africans. And then she left. In August 2014 Chef Travis Finch replaced her and food lovers across South Africa held their breath.

Chef Travis Finch

Chef Travis Finch

A new chef taking on a kitchen so identified with someone else needs to balance continuity and change. Not just for diners but also for kitchen staff. The first thing a Hartford devotee will notice is that Chef Finch has sensibly kept elements of his predecessor’s menu but added personal touches. For several years the Hartford pre-dinner bread basket has offered a tour of KZN culture with Zulu madumbe bread, Afrikaner roasted mealie bread and fluffy white ye olde English colonial miniature cottage loaves. Chef Finch has added several new elements to the bread board with mixed results. A steamed mealie bread joins the more modern baked variety and a Durban Diaspora style pan puri. The steamed bread was silken and delicious but the pan puri were heavy and chewy – not the bouffant street food classic I had hoped for. The potato, chickpea and moong sprout filling is always bland but at Hartford it was not set off with the piquancy of tamarind chutney which makes the dish in more classic settings.

Menus change regularly but Chef Finch is sticking with the emphasis on local farmers and food artisans. During my 8 course evening meal I tasted Wayfarer trout, Midlands organic pork and Dargle duck. Even the out of region ingredients got a KZN glaze – literally in the case of the molasses cured Kob which was delicious on a bed of foraged wood sorrel. The chef told his guests that the view from his bedroom window had inspired trout with pine smoked new potatoes and marog wild leaves. All smoking is tricky and pine smoking is particularly prone to overwhelming ingredients but on this plate the balance was subtle, smooth and sophisticated. It was a remarkably fluent translation of view into taste. The meltingly plump duck with its fat reconfigured as crackling was similarly successful. I was less certain about my encounter with a cauliflower panna cotta and condensed milk ice cream. The chef told a charming story about his mother making him condensed milk ice cream as a child. I wasn’t convinced by its presence on a fine dining menu. Condensed milk ice cream is cheating. Mummies (myself included) make it because it is quick and easy and it is good enough to fool little children but it is cloyingly sweet and has none of the depth of flavour found in a proper custard based ice cream. As for the cauliflower pud , the less said the better– I blame Tim Noakes.

Service is as sweet, skilled and smooth as ever. When asked, waiters are knowledgeable about the food that they serve but they don’t overload guests with unsolicited information. My only front of house quibble has to do with where I sat. I ate on the hotel’s beautiful veranda. This is the usual evening dining location at Hartford but I have previously (when eating with a child) been seated in the breakfast room. Such an arrangement is very sensible as it frees up parents to enjoy the glorious food with their kids without worrying that an unpredictable toddler will spoil other people’s grown up dinner dates. On this occasion I was part of quite a large, entirely adult group. We were happy to see each other and I got the sense that we were a bit louder than was ideal for the tables around us -all of which were romantic tables of two eating in hushed tones. We weren’t badly behaved but, in retrospect, I think it might have made more sense to seat our party in the breakfast room.

Overall it was a lovely meal in a lovely place. It wasn’t as polished as the previous meals I have had at Hartford but it was jolly nice. It is worth noting that Jackie Cameron was at Hartford House for twelve years and grew into her brilliance over that time. The Goss family (who own Hartford) took a chance on a young chef who was three days shy of her 20th birthday when she arrived to run their kitchen. The gamble paid off and great things were achieved. Travis Finch is almost as young as his predecessor was when she first came to Hartford. He is undoubtedly skilled, talented and thoughtful. I very much look forward to the next twelve years.   — Anna Trapido

www.hartfordhouse.co.za. 033 263 2713
 
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Waffle about Waffles

My Belgian friend invited me to have lunch with him at Aroma Gelato and Waffle Lounge in Pretoria (072 592 8822; www.aromacoffee.co.za). Waffles are important to Belgians and I didn’t want to seem disrespectful so I swotted up on the subject. Google is a deliciously dangerous thing. Before I knew it I had a bad case of the Jeffrey Steingartens and was ploughing my way through many, many ye olde waffle recipes.

I couldn’t help myself. Once I discovered that waffles are a secular off-shoot of communion wafers and that the word ‘walfre’ is found in 11th century French (and occurs throughout medieval Europe as wafre, waufre, gaufre, goffer) I was off.

The earliest known written waffle recipe is to be found in the 14th century manuscript Le Ménagier de Paris which is an instruction manual penned by an unknown husband to his new, young wife. Across hundreds of years I could feel the wife’s pain as I tried to replicate the ‘wafre’ recipe. There are no precise measurements and the description of method is so vague as to make any woman long for a divorce. The recipe simply states “beat some eggs in a bowl, season with salt, add wine. Toss in some flour and mix, then fill, little by little two waffle irons at a time with as much paste as a slice of cheese is large. Then close the irons and cook both sides. If the dough does not detach easily from the iron, coat it first with a piece of cloth that has been soaked in grease.”

I wanted to smack Monsieur de Paris and tell him to make his own bloody waffles. As measurements go “as thick as a piece of cheese is large” is infuriating. To tell a novice cook to grease the waffle iron only after she has already put the batter into the afore mentioned device is stupidity that borders on cruelty. I don’t own a 14th Century waffle iron but I got married in 1994 so I do own a 20th Century non-stick contraption. I initially tried to make this recipe without the greasy cloth and the mixture did indeed stick. Maybe I got the cloth thing wrong but I had no luck getting my wafre to come out intact until I used 21st Century Spray and Cook.

Despite its didactic shortcomings and propensity to stick, the rest of the recipe was quite interesting. It includes no raising agent and predates easy access to sugar in Europe by several hundred years. My limited knowledge of wine in days past suggests that the grape varietal was probably a form of Muscat and thus the liquid would have added some sweetness.

The use of the term ‘paste’ made me guess that the mixture should have a relatively high ratio of flour to liquid. I have no idea what the width of a medieval piece of cheese might have been but the description sounded more like a dough than a pourable batter and 1cm was the thickest I could go and still get my ‘wafre’ to cook through in the centre.

Given his failure to mention the greasing of the waffle iron until it was too late I wondered if he had completely left out the stage whereby his wife was supposed to leave the pastey dough in a warm place for some fermentation/ raising to occur. I was pretty certain that I could have created my own yeast (and hence a more bouffant wafre) had I done so. In the name of being an obedient 14th century wife I did exactly as I was told and baked my paste immediately. The results were perfectly edible. Like a slightly boozy, heavy pancake.

The Dutch 15th century recipe entitled Om Ghode Waffellen te Backen is slightly more helpful than the version provided in Le Ménagier de Paris in that it gives partial measurements and there is the addition of sugar and spices. It states “Take grated bread. Take with that the yolk of an egg and a spoonful of pot sugar. Take with that half water and half wine and ginger and cinnamon.” There is no record of what sort of bread – I used bread made from wheat flour because rye sounded too heavy. I wasn’t sure how much bread I was supposed to grate or how fine the crumbs were supposed to be but the waffles in Brugel paintings look very much like modern Brussels waffles so I aimed for a dropping consistency. The texture was dense but the ginger and cinnamon gave these waffellen a recognisably post crusades, ‘low countries’ flavour.

This time I did try and ferment a batch of batter. Perhaps I left it too long. Perhaps 21st century South Africa is so much hotter than 15th century Holland. Either way the fermented batch tasted not unlike Sesotho ting sour porridge. That soured taste is seldom found in European cuisine so I am guessing that this was not right.

The first sign of a raising agent explicitly in the list of ingredients is in the 16th Century Belgian Een Antwerps Kookboek recipe for Groote Wafelen which advises cooks to “take flour, warm cream, fresh melted butter, yeast and mix together until flour is no longer visible. Then add ten or twelve yolks. Those who do not want them to be too expensive may also add the egg white and just milk. Put the resulting dough at the fireplace for four hours to let it rise better before baking it.” The lack of sugar, salt and spices made this one bland but pleasant – not unlike a modern brioche dough. This recipe seemed to be an ancestor to of the modern Liège waffle (brioche based dough and pearl sugar crust) which is first described in print in Marie-Antoine Careme’s 1822 masterpiece Le Maitre d’Hotel Franҫais.

I found the units of measurement used in the 17th Century De Verstandige Koek Dutch manuscript very helpful until I got to the ‘little tin bowl’. This recipe states “for each English pound of wheat flour take a pint of sweet milk, a little tin bowl of melted butter with 3 or 4 eggs, a spoonful of yeast well stirred together.” So that is about 4 cups of modern white wheat flour, 2 cups of milk and about 1 cup of egg. Who knows how much melted butter there is in a little tin bowl. Unless it is a huge amount this recipe still makes a dough/ paste that is much more solid than a modern Brussels waffle.

It is not until the early 18th century that the word waffle first appears in printed English. The 1725 Court Cookery; the compleat English cook by Robert Smith instructs bakers to “take flower, cream, sack, nutmeg, eggs, yest of what quantity you will, mix these to a batter and then let them stand to rise, then add a little melted butter and bake one to try. If they burn add more butter. Melt butter with sack, refined sugar and orange flower water for the sauce.” There are no proportions given but the word batter rather than paste is used so I worked on an assumption of equal quantities of dry to liquid ingredients. It took me a while to work out what sack was but once I knew that it was a dry white wine formerly imported into Britain from Spain and the Canary Islands I was very partial to this floral, wine-laden caramel sauce.

In 1789 Thomas Jefferson returned from 5 years in Europe with a waffle iron and a recipe for what he called Flemish waffles which instructs the chef to “take deux litrons of flour and mix it in a bowl with salt and one ounce of brewer’s yeast barm. Moisten it with warm milk. Whisk 15 egg whites and add that to the mixture, stirring continuously. Incorporate ‘un livre’ of fresh butter and let the batter rise. Once the batter has risen take your heated iron, made expressly for these waffles. Wrap some butter in a cloth and rub both sides of the iron with it. When the iron is completely heated make your waffles but do so gently for fear of burning them. Cooked take them out and put on a platter and serve them with both sugar and orange blossom water on top.” Deux litrons is 7 cups. Un livre of butter is 490g. I couldn’t get on with this recipe – the butter oozed out and burnt. Perhaps it was my modern waffle iron was too hot. Whatever it was I made an awful mess.

By the beginning of the 19th century it starts to get a bit boring. All the major European regional waffle genres have been recorded and standardised. After that the only major development is the replacement of yeast by baking powder in the USA for the bastardised version of a Brussels waffle that Americans know as a Belgian waffle. This is a term that was (until recently) completely unknown in Belgium. My favourite version of this recipe is given below.

And that dear reader is the history of the last 800 years as told from the point of view of the waffle family. Except to say that when my friend and I pitched at Aroma Gelato and Waffle Lounge in Pretoria we discovered that (while the rest of the establishment is open) the waffle maker is off on a Monday. Feeling flatter than a 14th century waffle I buried my disappointment in a glass of Riesling (it was as close to sack as I could find) and a very pleasant Caprese-style salad. Now that I am a fully-fledged waffle nerd, I plan to go back.

Martha Stewart’s American (‘Belgian’) waffles (serves 6)

6 tablespoons melted butter
2 cups cake flour
1/4 cup light brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons  baking powder
pinch teaspoon salt
3 large eggs, separated
2 cups buttermilk
Vanilla essence to taste

 

  • Pre-heat the waffle iron.
  • Sift together the flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, salt.
  • In a separate bowl, whisk egg yolks, buttermilk, melted butter, vanilla and mix this liquid into the dry ingredients.
  • In a third bowl beat the egg whites into stiff peaks and fold into the batter.
  • Ladle batter into the hot waffle iron and cook through, about 3 to 5 minutes. The waffles are done when steam stops coming out the sides of the waffle iron

 

– Anna Trapido

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Rossouw’s – the printed guide – is relaunched

DINERS CLUB LAUNCHES 2015 RESTAURANT GUIDE
 
SA’s five star restaurants announced
 
The Rossouw’s by Diners Club South African Restaurant Guide 2015 was launched at the Steyn City Golf Club in Johannesburg today, and 20 restaurants were awarded five-star status. The guide has identified the country’s top establishments – 13 in the Western Cape, six in Gauteng and one in KwaZulu-Natal.
JP Rossouw, publisher of Rossouw’s by Diners Club South African Restaurant Guide 2015, says the guide has been introduced under the stewardship of Diners Club. “Diners Club has restaurants in its DNA,” he says, “and I’m really happy with this alignment.”
 
Fans of the guide will see it now has a new format, to echo its new status as a sister title to the popular Platter’s by Diners Club South African Wine Guide 2015, but Rossouw’s by Diners Club South African Restaurant Guide 2015 keeps to its tradition of rating ‘like with like’ when it comes to restaurants, therefore casual places are compared against other casual places, and not against finer dining establishments. There are four categories: luxury, smart-casual, casual and ‘on the edge’.
 
Commenting on the tough rating system, Rossouw adds, “Rossouw’s by Diners Club South African Restaurant Guide 2015 remains the guide that truly ‘tells it like it is’, as reviewers visit every restaurant anonymously and pay for the meal, for ultimate independence and integrity. We review restaurants according to their type – casual to casual, upmarket to upmarket – in order to be fair to the establishments. Achieving five stars in the guide is a real feat – only 20 awards have been given, out of more than 300 restaurants reviewed.”
 
Anna Trapido, renowned food critic and editor of Rossouw’s by Diners Club South African Restaurant Guide 2015, believes the guide reflects South Africa’s dynamic and diverse culinary culture. “We are increasingly enjoying flavour repertoires that reflect our glorious terroir,” she says. “We are blessed with a great mix of iconic chefs of long standing, and superb young talent. Our award winners reflect this deliciously inviting combination.”
 
The Rossouw’s by Diners Club South African Restaurant Guide 2015 recognised a number of chefs during the launch event, with the following special awards being presented:
 
The Consistent Culinary Artistry Award
 
For a senior chef in order to recognise a long track record of abiding epicurean excellence: Jean Mauvis at Ile Maurice, Umhlanga
 
Unsung Culinary Excellence Award
 
For a long-serving, seldom recognised but skilled and creative stalwart of a kitchen brigade: Leah Tsonye at The Leopard, Johannesburg
 
The Most Promising Young Chef Award
 
Lehlohonolo Mogadime at Indochine, Stellenbosch
 
The Superior Service Award
 
Abou Bakar Fofana at La Madeleine, Pretoria
 
Culinary Patriotism Award
 
Jeera Restaurant at Suncoast Towers Hotel in Durban, for having the courage to take Durban Indian Diaspora flavours out of the ghetto and into the posh-nosh mainstream
 
In Memoriam
 
In Memory of Chef Lunga Maqwelane of the Savoy Cabbage, Cape Town who was gunned down in January 2014 as he left his child’s crèche, to go to work
 
The five-star winners are:
 
Western Cape
 
• Aubergine, Cape Town (Luxury)
 
• Bread & Wine, Franschhoek (Casual)
 
• Carne SA, Cape Town (Smart Casual)
 
• Chefs Warehouse & Canteen, Cape Town (Casual)
 
• The Greenhouse, Constantia (Luxury)
 
• Île de Païn, Knysna (Casual)
 
• Jordan Restaurant, Stellenbosch (Smart Casual)
 
• Kyoto Garden Sushi, Tamboerskloof (Smart Casual)
 
• Overture, Stellenbosch (Smart Casual)
 
• The Pot Luck Club, Woodstock (Smart Casual)
 
• The Restaurant at Waterkloof, Somerset West (Smart Casual)
 
• Terroir, Stellenbosch (Smart Casual)
 
• The Test Kitchen, Woodstock (Smart Casual)
 
Gauteng
 
• five hundred, Sandhurst (Luxury)
 
• Japa, Rivonia (Casual)
 
• The Local Grill, Parktown North (Smart Casual)
 
• Restaurant Mosaic, Elandsfontein, Pretoria (Luxury)
 
• Qunu Grill, Sandhurst (Luxury)
 
• Ritrovo, Waterkloof Heights, Pretoria (Smart Casual)
 
KwaZulu-Natal
 
• The Snack Bar at Spice Emporium, Durban (On the Edge)
Available in all good bookstores soon. And look out for the website also to be refreshed with the new content. 
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My Favorite Plate; Chef Jonty Nicolson

“I suppose my favourite recipe to cook and eat on my menu is our Confit Duck Quarter with Olive-Sherry Jus. I like it technically. It is so satisfying to make. Done right the confit process ensures consistency of that fall-off-the-bone texture to your meat. I love the way the salty olive and the sweet sherry compliments the rich generous duck. When it comes to food on other people’s menus. I think my favourite dish right now is the Hot Tom Yum Soup at Taste of Thai in Hilton.  I love it because the flavours are strong and bold but still balanced. They are not flavours one gets to have too much in this area so they are extra special around here! Also, Chef Patron Witt has put his own spin on the traditional Tom Yum by adding whole rosa tomatoes which pop with sweetness in your mouth – love it! In general I love people who aren’t scared of chilli heat in their dishes but this one is particularly good.”

Nicolsons ad2014

Nicolson’s Restaurant; Garlington Estate, Hilton, KwaZulu-Natal; 033 329 5200.
 
 Taste of Thai; 39 Hilton Avenue, Hilton, 3245, KwaZulu-Natal; 074 180 9450.
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My Favorite Plate; Jackie Cameron

Jackie Cameron is leaving Hartford House after many wonderful years. You can read more on this here. Earlier this year, we asked her for some personal favourites – from her own menus and elsewhere. This is what she said:

“My favourite dish on my own menu changes because I work with ingredients that are seasonal and what suppliers bring that looks best on any particular day but I think perhaps my “Wonderbag” cooked Wild Boar and Bone Marrow with crispy “Esposito” Parma Ham, “Gourmet” Greek Yoghurt, Guinea Fowl Puree and Breast is my favourite at the moment.

In general, I tend to like food to conjure up personal reference points. Obviously I reinterpret tastes from my past through my subsequent experiences but I do like to bring something of myself to each plate. This dish takes me back to a memory and a cooking process which I was brought up with…Wonderbag cooking was a big thing with my grandmother. It was such a feature of my childhood – Gran cooking with the Wonderbag. For those who didn’t have a grandmother who used such a thing, it is a portable, non-electric bag-like slow cooking contraption. It saves on fuel because you heat up the food and then take it off the stove and use thermal insulation to cook it through. They seem to have gone out of fashion but they are a great way of slow cooking – good for the environment, good for getting those rich slow cooked tastes and good for the bank balance too.”

JackieCameron-5883B&W

“It’s not just the cooking method that I love. I like that this dish celebrates the best that the KZN Midland’s has to offer. It has many different textures and a wonderful warmth and richness…Umami combinations that I crave.

As to a dish that someone else makes that I love, I don’t get out much but I had a fantastic Wayfarer Trout with a creamy artichoke sauce at Nicholson’s in Hilton. It had lots of capers and roasted baby potatoes-simple and delicious! I love this because it tastes great and also for reasons of regional patriotism. Wayfarer Trout comes from my region and it is a truly fantastic product!”

 Hartford House; Hlatikulu Road (off Mooi River-Grants Castle road), Mooi River. 033 263 2713. www.hartfordhouse.com
  
 Nicolson’s Hilton; Garlington Estate,033 329 5200, nicolsons@garlington.co.za; httpwww.garlington.co.za/amenities/nicolsons-country-cafe/
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Jackie Cameron; Lovely beyond any singing of it

Chef Jackie Cameron is leaving Hartford House. In the twelve years that she has been at the achingly elegant, Mooi River, KwaZulu-Natal country hotel she has won numerous local and international awards. Her last meal at Hartford will be on the 31st of July – so book now to avoid disappointment.

It is the end of an era. Chef Cameron (who was trained at Christina Martin School of Food and Wine) took over the Hartford kitchen from Chef Richard Carstens in 2002. She was three days shy of her 20th birthday at the time. Precocious individuals often get stuck but this has not happened to Cameron who has expanded her culinary repertoire over time.

She was born with an innate ability to create flavours that are direct and delicious. She arrived at Hartford House with strong classical technique and a grasp of understated epicurean elegance. Anyone who tasted the mushroom soup accentuated with shiitake powder or the hot butternut citrus cake of the early years will attest to the fact that her meals were lovely from day one. Over the years, she has increasingly given voice to the taste of her terroir. She incorporates a sense of identity and place better than any other chef in South Africa. In this task she has enlisted other members of her kitchen to ensure that authentic indigenous African flavours are part of every plate. We are all complicated, multi-layered beings, exposed to a broad range of influences. Cameron’s plates engage with the diversity of the South African sense of self. Classic tastes from across our cultural spectrum are reconfigured in modern manner that allows them to take their place at the international table of multi award winning, world class wonderful restaurants. From first bite of bread to last bon-bon her use of traditional flavours is subtle and sophisticated.

JackieCameron-5883B&W

Menus at Hartford change nightly but my most recent meal in early May 2014 started with amadumbi artisan bread and miniature steamed mielie buns with izaqheqhe (traditional Zulu curd cheese), handmade beer butter and sacred Baleni-soutini mineral salt.  Chef Cameron understands that her ancestors are as much a part of the Midlands melange as the Zulu speaking members of her kitchen and so it was that I was served a reconfigured version of her grandmother’s, slow-cooked wild boar and bone marrow. The Hartford version was topped with crispy Esposito Parma-style, Midlands-made ham and exquisitely paired with Grand Vin de Glenelly 2007.

She is serious in her commitment to sustainability, local ingredients and small artisan food producers. She uses only SASSI green listed fish. On my last visit I was served a gloriously light, green-listed Kob with nori-sesame crisp, green smudge of chlorophyll extracted from herbs in the Hartford gardens and moss (yes, real moss from the walls adjoining the kitchen). Her consommé with local Swissland goat’s cheese crème and Caversham quail egg was paired with local brewery’s Schwarzbier black lager.  Midlands Wayfarer trout shone in association with fennel, lavender and a generous spoonful of caviar. The afore mentioned moss is indicative of a broader interest in heritage and foraged foods.

When asked about her cooking style she observed that “my use of local and wild ingredients such as imbuya leaves results in flavours and textures which are unfamiliar and tantalising. I always feel if a guest leaves us having asked a question, learnt from the process and experienced something that they could get nowhere else in the world then their entire dining experience becomes memorable. That is what I live for as a chef.”

Cameron’s meals are serious but never pretentious. Her use of foraged ingredients is not only fun but also acknowledges that almost everyone’s great grandmother was a forager. At the end of my most recent feast, miniature doughnuts were stuffed with a wild berry collected on nearby Botha’s Pass. The berry is known in isiZulu as Umsobo and in Afrikaans as Nastergal. Every delicious mouthful offered up a shared Afrikaner-Zulu nostalgia.

Every plate she produces reveals a supremely talented, classically trained, well-travelled, witty, creative and thoughtful chef with an understanding of the time and space in which she finds herself. So, what’s next for Chef Cameron? She plans to realise a long held dream of opening Jackie Cameron’s School of Food and Wine in Hilton. The first students are set to arrive in January 2015. Asked about her departure she says “Hartford House has been an incredible training ground for me. I have had the opportunity to achieve many goals. For this I am most grateful to Mick and Cheryl Goss who took on a fledgling, novice chef and gave her wings. It is time for me to go it alone but I will always cherish my years at Hartford.”  As will we all. They have been (as novelist Alan Paton once wrote of the KZN countryside) “lovely beyond any singing of it”.

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Heaven was copied after Mauritius

The Mauvis family are KwaZulu-Natal legends. They have been cooking their French and Mauritian creole cuisine in the region for over 4 decades. In the late 1990’s loyal fans followed them from Durban’s St Geran into their current Umhlanga Rocks venture; Ile Maurice.

Umhlanga Rocks is a beautiful town but there seems to be an unspoken rule that the better the Umhlanga restaurant the worse the view. Harveys is on a main road with roaring juggernauts. Little Havana is in an uninspiring arcade and Ile Maurice (while technically next to the beach) is so hemmed in by hotel tower blocks that it has no sea view. Given the limitations of the location, décor does what it can to create a pleasant ambiance. The enclosed veranda looks out onto a concrete car park but the interior is prettily decked out in cool plantation style. The walls hang heavy with paintings and vintage photographs of Mauritian life. There are of course many, many Dodo’s included in the decorating mix.

Dodo engraving

Matriarch Elsie Mauvis was still supervising the kitchen well into her nineties but since her death in 2010 her son Jean has continued with his mother’s classic recipes. French influences are evident in superb bowls of Vichyssoise and delicious plates of red wine-braised rabbit. Crêpes Suzette (with just the right bitter to sweet ratio in the orange sauce) are flamed at the table. The French stuff is great but the draw-card will always be the Mauritian creole specialties. Rougaille de boeuf sees fillet simmered in tomato, ginger, chilies and coriander. Vindaye-style fish stews and octopus curries are bursting with turmeric, mustard seeds and palate-spiking mazavaroo chili paste. The menu has changed very little since my last visit five years ago but that is what I like about it.

Ile Maurice is definitely at the upper end of smart casual and not an obvious restaurant to go to with children but those who have done so find it hard to stay out of the kids’ menu plates.  Chef Mauvis makes the best fish and chips in South Africa.  His Rock Cod fish and chips are succulent and flavoursome. Throughout the adult and child bill of fare there is an admirable attempt at eco-epicurean use of fish with everything on the SASSI green list.

The wine list matches the mood of the food with a great combination of Francophone and New World.  Local and international wines are listed by region, varietal and vintage. Organic wines are listed separately. The dessert wine section is superb. The by the glass selection is very small – one red, one white – but it’s not that kind of place. You will want to linger over a bottle rather than hurry through a one glass meal. Service is very good and owner supervised.  Uniformed waiters are formal and knowledgeable yet  welcoming and warm. Quality glassware and cutlery are complimented by that most rare of restaurant creatures the ironed table cloth!

In 1896, Mark Twain quoted an islander as saying: “Mauritius was made first and then heaven; and heaven was copied after Mauritius.” Those who have tasted the Mauritian food at Ile Maurice agree wholeheartedly.

ILE MAURICE: 9 McCausland Crescent, Umhlanga. Tel 031 561 7609. Open Tues–Sun for lunch and dinner
 
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Harvey’s – a theatrical epicurean atmosphere

In a world where so many restaurants look and feel the same, Harvey’s is deliciously idiosyncratic. Chef-patron Andrew Draper has always favoured a theatrical epicurean atmosphere but in his most recent Umhlanga location he has really gone all out. Diners enter his eatery up a red carpet into a room dominated by a shimmering chandelier. If you ever dreamt of being a ‘50s Hollywood starlet, Harvey’s is the spot to play out that Oscar night fantasy. The afore-mentioned light fitting is as big as a Mini Cooper. Somehow the bling successfully mutes the busy road outside.

Décor is nicely high-end bondage meets travel nerd with a touch of Miss Havisham hoarding thrown in for good measure. The main dining room has black walls, gold convex mirrors and of course that chandelier. Crisply ironed white table cloths are topped with white roses in silver vases. The glass walled wine room is stacked with a suitably impressive selection of local and international liquid treasures. The lavatory walls are black leather. Serving staff (both male and female) wear waistcoats that lace up at the back like corsets which adds to the sense of having fallen unawares into 50 Shades of Grey-ville.

The inter-leading Harry’s bar has the same black walls but here there are shelves lined with vintage photographs, books and piles of National Geographic magazine. There are restaurants where piles of books are put out of reach for décor purposes alone. In one Johannesburg hotel bar they are literally stored at ceiling height. At Harry’s bar one gets the sense that the books are part of Chef Draper’s collection. It feels as if they were chosen by an individual following specific areas of interest rather than an interior decorator looking for pretty colours. I hope that other diners take the books down to browse because I certainly did. When the children at my table got bored, the very kind waiter brought them a pile of National Geographics to read.

The food is inconsistent – there are moments of brilliance and others that are really not. There are two menus; the main restaurant menu and the considerably cheaper bar menu. Some of my party chose from the main menu and others from the bar menu so I got to taste a bit of both. In my experience the main menu is much better than the bar menu.

The bread basket was served with what tasted and felt like supermarket baguette. The kitchen clearly don’t like making bread because, later in the same meal, a bar menu burger came in a similarly stale, seemingly mass produced, off the shelf bun. Olive oil and balsamic vinegar are provided with the bread basket but as one pours the oil it gives off the aroma of peanuts and has that slightly fatty, almost bacony taste that is a sure sign of rancidity.

Just as I thought all hope was lost my Caesar salad (restaurant menu) starter arrived. It was superb. Certainly the best I have tasted in many years. It had that exhilarating umami-laden, briny blast that happens when anchovy meets Parmesan in the perfect ratio. I am a purist when it comes to Caesar salads and I seldom approve of modern modifications but the deep fried white anchovies on the salad at Harvey’s added real value in terms of taste and crunchy mouth-feel. My restaurant menu duck confit was also just as it should be – soft and flavoursome with tantalisingly crisp skin.

So far so good, then a child at my table ordered the mushroom pizza from the bar menu. We all like a little charring on the bottom of our pizza but this was burnt black. The bitterness of the burnt base was made worse by a generous sprinkling of burnt hazelnuts. I am prepared to accept that, in ideal conditions, hazelnuts might work as a novel pizza topping but a burnt hazelnut is a terrible, palate destroying experience. The same child ordered a spectacularly good chocolate milk shake and had to fight off adults to get his fair share.

Harveys

My friend’s cow, pork, duck burger (also from the bar menu) was under-seasoned and bland – which is quite an achievement when animals as innately flavoursome duck and pig are involved. Served on a stale, unexciting bun it was held together with a porcupine quill. There are a million conservation web sites devoted to protecting porcupines against the quill trade. I have had a porcupine raid my vegetable patch so I know that they are destructive little buggers. I fully understand why farmers hate and hunt them but the fashion for porcupine lamp shades and other frippery has turned an age old, sustainable man verses beast struggle into a profitable genocide. Curio chic is decimating the South African porcupine population. The sheer volume of quills out there means that it is no longer possible to believe those who claim their stock are the result of natural shedding. In this context, it left a metaphorical (not literal) bad taste in the mouth to find one holding a burger together.

The world divides into those who want their brownies’ cakey and those who want them gooey. The chocolate brownie platter at Harvey’s cleverly provides both. There was a chocolate lava cake served hot in a ramekin and a biscuit-like version for those who fall into the opposing camp. I didn’t care for the blue cheese chocolate ice cream but the kids gobbled it up. The absolute star of the platter was a home-made fortune cookie which when you break it open contains a message that says “if you are happy and you know it and you really want to show it tip your waiter.” Witty and delicious – the moulded chocolate tuile-like biscuit out of which it was made was crisp and delicious. How is it that the Harvey’s pastry kitchen is putting in the effort to make their own fortune cookies and yet is seemingly serving day old bread from the Spar?

Service was superb. Well trained, well informed, friendly yet not overly familiar. Classic with a hint of cool. So we obeyed the fortune cookie.

Harvey’s; 189 Ridge Road Umhlanga; www.harveysrestaurant.co.za. 031 561 4977

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La Madeleine; Grown up Gastronomy

La Madeleine
Pretoria: 012 361 3667

LaMadeline Chefs Daniel & Ann Leusch

South Africa 2014 is the best of times and the worst of times to be a talented, young chef. The good news is that there are opportunities galore. A skills shortage means that many young people have been catapulted into senior kitchen positions. I have lost count of the number of times that 23 year olds have told me that they are executive chefs.

The problem with having risen with the rapidity of Bantu Holomisa through the ranks of the Bantustan Transkei Defence Force is that leading brigades (whether army or kitchen) requires experience – and even then it is not for everyone. Just because you get the title doesn’t mean you can do the job. Rise too fast and core training is missed. With experience, those with the requisite culinary and personal traits grow into leaders who understand the difference between creativity and showing off. Experience brings the ability to match a wish list to realism about what staff can and will achieve on a regular basis. It also engenders stamina and the nerves of steel required to manage the South African kitchen minefields of race, class, nationalism and gender.

Race, class, nationalism and gender might sound far-fetched for a food review but I recently interviewed an über-experienced, multi-award winning woman chef in Johannesburg who observed that “it’s impossible to explain to a customer that his meal was f***ed up because the Zimbabwean man in the salad section was refusing to listen to the Venda woman on the pass and I was trying to referee like some mad white, middle class schoolmistress in the middle of it all.”

When young people are pushed into positions beyond their current capacity they burn out. They become cynical. They leave the food industry. We are all left with the regret of what might have been if their talent had been nurtured by (to misquote The Sound of Music) ‘someone older and wiser telling them what to do.’

It is not always thus. Last week I ate a meal produced by a supremely talented young chef who has had her talent cultivated, cherished and mentored. Chef Daniel Leusch and his wife Karine have been running Pretoria’s ultimate posh-nosh dinner destination, La Madeleine, for over three decades. The restaurant takes its name from the shell shaped madeleine biscuit of which 19th /early 20th century French writer Marcel Proust once wrote that “it invades the senses with exquisite pleasure.” Karine has since retired but Daniel was very much in evidence on the evening of my visit. The restaurant and the chef looked much as they always have – that is to say Daniel still has a nicely mischievous twinkle in his eye and said twinkle still feels incongruously out of sync with the Biggie Best meets ‘80s pine furniture. The Heidi’s house décor is a pity because it undermines the gorgeous gravitas of the food.

Picking chairs is clearly not his thing but food Chef Leusch knows. He is always a very amiable host but on this occasion he looked especially pleased to be on duty. The reason for the spring in his step was that his daughter, Anne, had planned and produced the meal from start to finish.

Chef Anne LeuschAnne Leusch practically grew up in La Madeleine’s kitchen. She says that she can’t remember a time before she knew how to make a classic sauce. In her early twenties she spent two years in Paris, first training under Alain Ducasse and then as a pastry chef at Bistro du Sommelier. After a stint as a sous chef at Grand Province in the Cape she returned to Pretoria and has been slogging it out, night after night, in her dad’s shadow ever since. Anne has been ever gracious in her role as understudy but it would be inaccurate to say that that this apprenticeship has been without father-daughter tension. There have been times when the pair of them seemed to be struggling with the desire of the one to press the accelerator and the other to hang onto the hand break with a steely grip.

It was worth the wait. From the first cracklingly crisp crunch of baguette with achingly wonderful anchovy butter to the last silken mouthful of cheesecake with parsley coulis, Proust’s edible exquisite pleasure was much in evidence. Anne Leusch’s calamari topped with an espuma of mussels and saffron was silken perfection. The seafood espuma melted on the tongue like a wave retreating down the beach. There was a nice nod to the flavours of times past in her sweetbread on a mushroom risotto. The beef fillet with anchovy sauce was surf and turf gone glorious. Dessert of speculoos cheese cake with parsley coulis offered a cute trip from classic to innovative without passing through self-conscious-ville or trying too hard-town. The green, fresh, earthiness of parsley cut the cream and matched the nutmeg and cinnamon spices of the Belgian biscuit base.

It was a deliciously confident statement of continuity and individualism. There were hints of her parents on the plates but she wasn’t mimicking anyone. There was no disconnect between the promise of the menu and the delivery on the plates. She had planned a meal that her kitchen could make and that the waiters could explain. It was infused with classic references and sprinkled with creativity. Without wishing to sound like a very old fogey, it was a meal made by a grown-up who had been given the space to evolve into such a person.

Daniel Leusch is clearly grooming his daughter to take over the family business and Anne has undoubtedly earned the honour. Give them a year or two and papa Leusch might even let her chose chairs that suit the mood of the food…

Posted in Gauteng restaurants |

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My Favourite Plate

Andrea Burgener; Chef-Patronne The Leopard

Andrea was asked for a picture of herself but sent one of Sophia Loren looking fabulous while pondering meat

Andrea was asked for a picture of herself but sent one of Sophia Loren looking fabulous while pondering meat

 

On my own menu I love “the Pata plate. I never get tired of the flavour combination of fried spiced taro roll which we serve with apple atchar, yoghurt and pea-shoots. It is traditionally served on a puri bread but over the years ours has evolved and changed a bit so we serve it with flat-bread now. I love the spicy pata as it contrasts against the cooling yoghurt. The crunch of the pea shoots and the soft give of the apple atchar. The ratio of sharpness to sweetness charms me every time.”

The Leopard Restaurant

The Leopard; 63A, 4th Avenue, Melville, Johannesburg; 011 482 9356

 

On someone else’s menu my favourite dish is “the Cheung Fan at Shun Dek in Cyrildene. I love the duvet-like slippery rice rolls they are so finely done. Thin, thin slippery rice batter, rolled around whatever you choose. I know what a mission it is to make them, which makes them taste even better.   Do I have to choose just one? I also love the masala dosa at Dosa Hut in Fordsburg. Easily the best dosa in the city. Super-thin, crisp, good hot masala inside. Dirt-cheap and you watch them make it in front of you. Clearly I only like rolled up things…”

 Shun Dek; 23 Derrick Avenue, Cyrildene, Johannesburg. 011 615 7168
 
Dosa Hut; 48 Central Road; Fordsburg, Johannesburg. 011 492 1456 
Posted in Gauteng restaurants, Talking restaurants |

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