I was vegetarian for nine years, four of which were vegan. Travel was often a nightmare. Feeding my cat made me queasy. My karmic lifestyle came to an abrupt end when anaemia set in and a Jewish friend in New York pressed a bacon and cheese hamburger on me as part of my cultural experience.
Ever since then I’ve been living in bad faith. I’m a vegetarian trapped in a beef-eating body. Religious and ethical objections aside, the arguments for vegetarianism on environmental grounds alone are compelling. The meat industry is too gross to contemplate.
But if you thought we were a meat culture, try Argentina. On a recent trip to Buenos Aires I saw much to taunt my herbivorous Jekyll with my salivating Mr Hyde. Steakhouses are the national passion. In their windows whole beasts, split open, simmer over coals. Portions are outsized and the meat bloody. Even the tablecloths are leather. Menus list innumerable cuts and some even identify the breed. Rump, sirloin, T-bone and fillet is about as far as we go. In a few upmarket establishments, such as the Savoy Cabbage, Chalmar beef is specified to ease the conscience — a supplier that prides itself on happy grazing cattle, no antibiotics in the meat, no trucking to abattoirs and humane standards of slaughter.
There is a bumper sticker that reads “vegetables are what food eats”. So if you don’t cook meat at home and you’re watering for a good juicy steak, where’s the beef? There are a few independent steakhouses that tenaciously survive — such as the Nelson’s Eye in Gardens in Cape Town — but others have embraced the brave new world. The Hussar, started back in 1964 in Rondebosch, recently expanded into a franchise. Apparently it’s a favoured haunt of our city’s carnivorous mayor Helen Zille. They have added a grillroom in Green Point and a new flagship in Camps Bay. The decor at the original was spruced up to suit the polished new style: walls of wine bottles, half-opened wooden wine crates, racks of leather-bound books and black-and-white photographs of fleshers at work.
It serves seafood, poultry, salads and pastas, but the emphasis is on the beef. There is always some game on the menu, including springbok loin carpaccio, wildebeest paté and grilled warthog ribs. Rump and sirloin come in various weights (from 200g for R92 to just approaching the smallest Argentinian portions at 400g for R129). The fillet (which recently shrank from 250g to 200g) is R115, as is a 500g T-bone. These prices are reasonable as diners get complimentary creamed spinach and cinnamon butternut, with a choice of chips, rice, baby potatoes or, if you ask, a green salad. Sauces include that wonderful local concoction, monkeygland, that makes foreign tourists scream. It’s only vegetables and chutney, but don’t tell them — the portenõs will be disappointed.
The specialities are circa 1975. Hardly a metrosexual joint, the Hussar offers a sirloin covered in a creamy blue cheese, and a carpetbagger, a fillet stuffed with smoked oysters and cheeses topped off with a brandy and wholegrain mustard sauce. If you order the Chateaubriand, be prepared — it is set alight in front of you.
Let’s hope its corporate expansion won’t trim the beef.
The buzz right now is around newly opened HQ — a long, narrow restaurant with two rows of tables alongside a steel open-plan kitchen. It has a simple and attractive interior (also bookshelves) with face brick in keeping with its historic Heritage Square location.
The menu is straightforward: “You can have anything you like as long as it is salad, sirloin and chips” (R140). The result is a tasty, dependable and balanced meal. A novel concept locally, it is based on Europe’s L’Entrecôte restaurants (where you pay €17 including service). The vinaigrette is delicious, but I’m not a fan of iceberg lettuce. The lean sirloin is good, but the highlight is Hussar’s secret recipe for Café de Paris butter. There is a choice of popular regular-fare desserts.
Quick service and the prix fixe should make this a hit with the business-lunch crowd. All wines are served by the glass, which in these sober times I wish more restaurants would emulate.
Hussar Grills: 10 Main Road, Rondebosch. Tel: 021 689 9516; 108 Camps Bay Drive, Tel: 021 438 0151; 107a Main Road, Green Point. Tel: 021 433 2081. Open and closing times differ slightly between establishments so call ahead. HQ, 100 Shortmarket Street, Heritage Square, Tel: 021 424 6373