Perhaps if the Test Kitchen was in Kruishoutem or Larrabetzu and not the Old Biscuit Mill I would appreciate its special genius more.
Sceptical as I am about the “50 best” restaurant awards, I do get a food nerd’s kick out of seeing which ones I’ve eaten at when they are announced each year. I need to get out more. But even though the list seems to be about popularity, the top 50 generally deserve to be there. These are the restaurants you’d be crazy not to eat at if you happen to be going to Kruishoutem or Larrabetzu or Yountville.
In some cases, the restaurants alone warrant the trip. I can say this about all of the few gastro-shrines on this year’s list that I have been lucky enough to eat at – Celler de Can Roca, Dinner, Daniel … Yes, yes, I name-drop shamelessly. But I’m not sure I can say that about The Test Kitchen, 48th on the 50 best list.
It troubles me. Eating at the Test Kitchen in Cape Town does not remind me that I need to eat there more often, the way eating at its small-plates counterpart, the Pot Luck Club, always does. This is a popular opinion, which troubles me too. Am I not the target market? But I’ve eaten at elBulli!
The Test Kitchen has all the credentials of a top 50-restaurant: hipster interiors; open kitchen; excellent wine list; multicultural influences; hen’s teeth reservations. It has the London-born chef who cut his teeth in Europe and Asia. And it has the right address, although I have to say that locating its non-top-50 sibling, Pot Luck, in the more dramatic setting has made their target market very happy. (I saw Graham Norton eating there recently and I’m sure he’d agree.)
Perhaps if the Test Kitchen was in Kruishoutem or Larrabetzu and not the Old Biscuit Mill I would appreciate its special genius more. Perhaps Ferran Adrià was right when he said: “The journey should remind you of your hunger.” It’s quite likely the residents of Yountville do not appreciate the French Laundry.
Would a meal at The Test Kitchen be worth a transatlantic trip? I’ve only eaten there a few times, but I find the food never stays with me beyond digestion. A great meal should keep me awake at night, thinking about whether it’s sacrilege to order the same dish twice. I should be wondering whether I could recreate that dish myself. Perhaps I have just not had that dish at the Test Kitchen yet.
There is no doubt Luke Dale-Roberts knows what he’s doing. It’s just that he’s doing quite a lot of it without considering the diner. His dishes are exquisitely plated – there was a tomato garden and an assiette of mushrooms that were masterpieces – but these deconstructions are only memorable because they elevate the star ingredient. He is lauded for his unusual combinations – smoked bone marrow, the ubiquitous XO sauce, yuzu, dashi, miso, a proliferation of foie gras – but often the ensemble overwhelms the production.
I love sweetbreads, for example, and the morel-glazed sweetbreads with mushroom and duck liver Chawanmushi (Japanese custard), sprinkled with crispy kataifi (shredded Greek pastry) were superbly cooked, probably the best sweetbreads I have ever eaten. The Japanese custard and kataifi were just annoying. Still, I remember those sweetbreads. I also remember the foie gras in a dish that didn’t need the rabbit ham; an intensely delicious seafood reduction served with Franschoek trout and the rapt expression of my steak-frites loving dinner date, who’d never seen food not look like food before. And maybe that is the point.
I am lucky enough to have eaten some very ground-breaking food. At the risk of sounding like a Rutger Hauer speech, I’ve eaten things people wouldn’t believe. The result of my adventuring is that, while I appreciate a masterful technique as much as the next person, I don’t want to be reminded of it while I’m eating.
And even if the “50 best” is about popularity, it’s all the more incredible that Dale-Roberts has sneaked in above the great Tetsuya Wakuda and is just four beneath former number-one Thomas Keller. This is not to mention the fact that he’s left my favourites St John (London), Momofuku Ssäm Bar (New York) and Le Quartier Français (Franschhoek) in his porcini dust.
Of course what makes the Test Kitchen different is that Dale-Roberts is doing something new with every menu. He isn’t foraging for heirlooms or going molecular. He isn’t resting on his laurels, or trotting out the same pork-belly crowd-pleasers – he sends those up to the Pot Luck Club.
He is being an artist and he is enjoying himself tremendously.
In the latest menus there appear to be some pared-down combinations and nods to South African tradition – Springbok skilpaadjies, braaied meringues, a pork “Smiley” – that make me want to pick up the phone and attempt to book. Because a meal at the Test Kitchen is undoubtedly an event; you want to hold on to every moment, so they are not lost in time.