Chefs start to tart it up
Restaurants are telling their stories in inventive, inspiring ways. This year, I really saw each area developing an identity. While South African ingredients and dishes have been growing in profile for a few years, foraging, kitchen gardens and hyper-local ingredients have meant that different regions of the country are beginning to express a unique character.
Chefs are creating dishes conceptually, creating food that makes you think – about how they constructed the dish and about its inspiration.
Here are the top 10 food trends that I've identified on the plate for 2013.
Bread and butter
Chefs have really started to elevate and experiment with bread and butter this year. Again, it's not just the quality of the ingredients, they're also starting to work with bread and butter conceptually.
I've seen butter moulded into cylinders or to look like paint on an artist's palette, and scrumptious alternative spreads like baba ghanoush, tapenade and even biltong-dusted beef dripping. Chefs are also taking inspiration from ethnic breads, serving lavash (an Armenian flat bread), Indian parathas and chilli bites, and even Swedish bread soup as part of the line-up.
Pork, hake, corn, peas and cauliflower
Every ingredient has its day, but this year I've seen a lot of peas, corn and cauliflower in purées, foams and tempura. Pork is appearing on every menu – and not just pork belly, either. Chefs are serving cured pork, pork neck, pork fillet and even pigs' tails.
On the fish side, humble hake is getting gussied up. A great sustainable option, it's been brined to firm it up, roasted, pan-seared and served with new ingredients.
Charcoal, ash and embers
"It's okay to burn your food now," Makaron's chef, Tanja Kruger, told me after her recent trip to Sweden and Copenhagen. Smoked ingredients are still big, but we're now also seeing charred corn, leeks, and burnt-black spring onions. Charcoal powder is being used too, as a garnish and to flavour oils and sauces, or just as magical dust on the plate.
On the other end of the spectrum, chefs are starting to serve up underripe fruit. Green mulberries, strawberries and almonds, fresh off the tree, demonstrate a different thinking, where tartness is celebrated.
There's still a place for silver service, but many fine-dining restaurants are moving away from stiff, formal service. Chefs are leaving the kitchen to chat to diners and waiters are involving people in the preparation process. At Five Hundred in Johannesburg, certain dishes are served from a trolley with chopsticks, while at Rust en Vrede in the winelands, the cheeses are beautifully plated, with a smudge of truffle honey or a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, right in front of diners.
Alternative drinks pairings
Wine pairing has long been a speciality of fine-dining restaurants, but in 2013 I've also seen beer matching and even a non-alcoholic juice matching. Also, more international wines are being added to the mix on wine lists.
Edible pebbles, stones and mussel shells: chefs are playing with diners' perceptions, serving sweet items that appear to be savoury, and vice versa.
At the same time they're also playing with non-haute-cuisine techniques: Bertus Basson of Overture is using a sandwich toaster for his toasted brioche sandwich filled with steak tartare.
Local cheeses are really shining, and chefs are going out of their way to source magnificent specimens. Cheese platters are being beautifully presented and paired with wines. At Pierneef à La Motte they're even serving a cheese soufflé as part of the platter.
The macaron remains popular in fine-dining establishments, but certain restaurants are beginning to experiment with inventive alternatives. At the Tasting Room diners are served "mushrooms" filled with lemon cream at the end of their meal, along with tiny, tart, hibiscus-flavoured meringues. Jellies and salted caramel are also popular, along with sweet "pebbles".
Pickling and fermentation
An old technique of preserving seasonal foods is becoming more and more popular as chefs take their inspiration not only from traditional European pickles but also from Asian dishes such as Korean kimchi.
For tickets to attend the Eat Out DStv Food Network Restaurant Awards, contact Beatrix Galloway at [email protected] or 021 417 5165. The winners will be announced on November 10 at The Lookout at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. Tickets are priced at R1 450 a person and seats are limited. Visit eatout.co.za for more information. Follow @Eat_Out on Twitter to join the conversation and see live updates on the night (#eatoutawards #DStvfood) and like the Eat Out Facebook page. The Eat Out magazine for 2014 will be available at the end of November.