The finest meal I have had this year — or in any other, for that matter — was last week at David Higgs’s new restaurant, 500 at the Saxon. Higgs, who won Eat Out’s best chef and best restaurant at Rust en Vrede in the Cape for 2011, has just opened his own fine-dining restaurant at the Saxon. It’s worth the aeroplane fare from Cape Town alone.
It’s strange to think that for a city of Johannesburg’s size there is such a dearth of good fine-dining establishments. 500, named for the room that was demolished at the boutique hotel to make way for it, now joins Chantal Dartnell’s Mosaic and, perhaps, Marthinus Ferreira’s DW eleven-13 as one of the city’s best restaurants.
I visited 500 a few days before it opened. The room was bare. The floor was being polished and shopfitters were installing the wine cellar. In the kitchen overlooking the restaurant, Higgs and his staff were peeling off the plastic wrapping of his new Charvet range. It is a thing of beauty — thick, heavy brushed steel — and runs almost the length of the kitchen. The nonstick plancha on which seafood would be cooked was so shiny I could see my face in it. There were also two burners and, further down, a larger flat top. It all looked a little minimal for the amount of cooking that would be taking place, but two countertop sous-vide machines were yet to be installed. Higgs refused to say how much it cost or even mention a ballpark figure, saying only that the range and kitchen were his “company car”.
The surprisingly small kitchen has been designed for five people: a pastry chef, one chef on meat, another on fish, one in the larder and the plating chef, who is in charge. The range runs down the middle of the kitchen and there’s less than a metre between it and the counters on either sides.
The beauty is that “no one goes anywhere” and the chefs won’t be running around the kitchen. They stay at their stations, but the ovens run straight through under the range, allowing access from both sides.
The kitchen is on display to diners instead of being stuck behind swing doors. Higgs’s idea is that the preparation of the food should be part of the experience and wants his chefs in the dining room, providing explanations about the meal and adding the finishing flourishes.
As executive chef for the whole of the Saxon, Higgs says you cannot run a fine-dining restaurant out of a kitchen that also serves other venues, including room service.
“If you’re dealing with plating an intricate dish with 12 different components and then you get an order for scrambled eggs, it’s quite distracting. For fine dining you need to be focused. If you look at the top 20 restaurants, they all have stand-alone kitchens.”
Another problem that typically pops up at restaurants in hotel kitchens is the change of shifts and its attendant disruption. At 500 there is “one team, one kitchen staff, one service staff. If there are problems I can sort them out quickly.”
“We’ll accentuate South African flavours, but it won’t be modern South African cuisine … We won’t be doing a deconstructed bobotie or some shit.”
He believes bobotie has “been overdone”, but the elements are worth revisiting, such as the curry and the egg custard.
What is clear is that “it must be something that you can’t cook at home”.
I ask about the fickle South African palate: How will he reconcile those after delicate foams with those with a big appetite who are expecting the food to fill the plate?
“There’s always downstairs,” he says, adding that his restaurant has “revisited the avocado ritz” and there are oversized crayfish platters.
500 offers a four-course menu with a choice of three dishes for each course. There is also a six-course set menu. Both can be paired with wine.
Speaking of high-end restaurants, Higgs says he’s worked with Claire Clark — Thomas Keller’s executive pastry chef — at a charity event in Amsterdam, where she told him how the Keller’s French Laundry kitchen, in California’s Napa Valley, is run.
“Every container is organised. Each piece of food has its own Tupperware. Each label is printed out and put on straight.”
He says he can teach anyone to cook, but it comes down to the prospective chef’s attitude. A negative attitude is one thing he cannot stand and one suspects that a glass-half-empty kind of chef is not going to last long in his kitchen.
On designing the menu, he says that he will start by looking at what’s available. Perhaps suppliers will have some good aged beef or ox cheeks or red potatoes and then he’ll start a process of elimination. How to prepare it? Sous vide? Carpaccio? Tartare? What about spices? Sumac? “No one’s using that at the moment.”
Higgs and his chefs will also think about variety on the plate: something cold, something hot, as well as visual texture (“you can see if something is going to be crunchy”) or a purèe and then combine them into a pleasing whole.
“There are actually very few things that don’t go together.” He thinks for a second: “Peppers and white fish is tricky, and perhaps not artichoke and white chocolate, but fois gras and white chocolate works.”
The evening of the meal arrives. I get there early and am greeted by the maître d’, cheif sommelier Francis Krone and Higgs.
The room is now fully dressed. It has an Eastern theme. There’s a carpet over the deep-red wood, a chandelier with flickering candles and about eight or nine tables laid out for the evening service.
Krone pours a glass of excellent Ruinart Champagne and then asks whether I’d prefer local or international wine. I tell him I’m in his hands.
The bread arrives: brown and white rolls and a shallow bowl with delicate mounds of butter between which are puddles of canola oil separately infused with curry, paprika and chive. A small set of bowls has four different kinds of salt.
The waiter approaches with the first course, followed promptly by sous chef Candice Philip, who explains that the perfect rectangle of seared tuna has a hot escabeche (marinade with chilli, lime, dill, onion, lemon zest, olive oil), prawn cerviche (a cold marinade with the same seasonings), thin slices of kingklip cured with salt, sugar, dhania, juniper, cumin and mustard and a cube of confit salmon suveed for 30 minutes at 40˚C. There’s a frozen oyster macaroon with a sour cream and chive filling and dark grains of puffed rice, dried ulva seaweed and a dusting of nori.
Discreet kitchen sounds filter out into the restaurant; stirring, clanking, whirring, the clicking of cutlery. This all makes the diner feel a little special, because it is all being undertaken on your account.
Course after course
Krone appears and pours Willi Schaefer’s Gracher Himmelreich Riesling 2010, explaining that its sweetness will offset the curry spices of the next course, of which the centrepiece is crayfish “sausage”.
Philip says the crayfish meat is blended with apricots, onions and dhania, forced through a tamis and formed into a sausage, wrapped and then suveed for six minutes. The sausage takes on the colour of a pale peach and is balanced on a butternut fondant in a pool of bright yellow corn custard. All of this is dusted with crumbs of pork crackling. Off to the side of the plate a corn salsa with strips of red pepper and a “bean bundle” offer pleasingly crunchy blanched green beans and a tiny piquant pickled onion.
Krone appears again, this time with a bottle of David Sadie’s extraordinary Aristargos, a “biggish white” blend of chenin blanc, granache, rousanne and viognier and a good example of what is now called the “Swartland revolution” of independent winemakers.
Higgs himself comes to the table with his favourite dish — a thick medallion of pork neck (suveed for 72 hours) served on a small dollop of cooked-down red cabbage with red wine vinegar and bacon and a springy red cabbage marshmallow, which bounces slightly on my plate as I try to spear it on my fork. He pours a jus made from beef and veal bones over the meat, which also comes with little pieces of cooked- down blueberries.
Once this is cleared away, Krone produces another glass — quite a large one this time — and serves the third growth of a Chateau Grand-Puy-Lacoste 2002; he terms it “approachable”. It is paired with a perfect tube of fillet, suveed for only a little more than an hour so that it is still pink in the middle, and four batons of king oyster mushrooms balanced on top with a pile of buttery sweetbreads off to the side of the plate. There is a pickled onion purèe, a beautifully turned piece of poached pear, beef jus and a small plate of foie gras, porcini and white chocolate mousse.
The next time Krone approaches, it’s with an Ashbourne Sandstone 2007 from Anthony Hamilton Russell.
It’s excellent and he suggests the “gunflint” finish complements what is quite a complicated cheese dish comprising a slightly sweet, hollow tube of sour cream jelly filled with soft Hilton Blue cheese. Cubes of pickled white watermelon and tiny, crunchy “samoosa” wafers, as well as the stamens of pineapple flowers, are strewn across the plate.
By this stage I’m beginning to flag, but Krone pours a glass of Uruguayan Pisano made from the Torrontes grape. This accompanies the dessert — a confection of suveed peach, yoghurt foam, cinnamon spun sugar, halva, candied orange rind and apricot and white peach sorbet.
The suveed peach has a strong taste of tea (no one can tell me why, because it is not part of the ingredients) … a memory from my childhood stirs and I begin to cry. The lights are low, however, and the waiters don’t appear to notice. As Higgs says: “This is theatre.”