/ 9 October 2009

The heart of Troyeville

I felt that I knew the Troyeville Hotel before I ever set foot in it: a friend, a talented artist who died young wrapping his car around a tree, used to try to get me to join him for Sunday fish gorges there; M&G Online‘s editor, Matthew Burbidge, told me not to eat the prawns — so that there’d be more for him when he went; I’d been told time and again by the most surprising people that it was ”the” fish destination in Johannesburg. Curious that I’d never set foot in the establishment until I went to review it.

It was full of preconceptions, built upon the myth of the Troyeville that’s woven into the tapestry of Johannesburg lore, that I arrived — not at a grand old Dame of a hotel as I expected, but a fairly nondescript mid-century claptrap at 25 Bezuidenhout Street, Troyeville. The only sign that this establishment is any different from the worst of the boarding houses and budget hotels in and around town are the calibre of cars parked outside, and the hefty security presence ensuring that the Mercedes and BMWs lining the curb are still there after their owners have finished dessert.

The picture in my mind was further shattered on entering — not the run-down and dusty but still stately interior, but a utilitarian gated entry with the bar on the left and restaurant on the right.

The bar had the distinct smell of 60 year’s worth of spilt beer and cigarettes, sport blaring on the TV and regulars as old as the place itself.

The restaurant — called the Pink Flamingo — takes that cue to illuminate itself with florescent pink lighting and a wall mural of flamingos with haunted eyes; flamingos that have seen too much.

Owner Lawrence Jones seems unperturbed by the staring flamingos as he joins us for a glass of wine; as founder of the Colour Bar at 44 Stanley, he’s using his restaurant expertise to save the Troyeville. When it went on sale four years ago, he partnered with five friends — all ex-Troyeville residents and long-time Troyeville Hotel customers — to give it a new lease on life.

As best he can figure, Jones believes the Troyeville was built around 1939. Its history is intrinsically linked to that of its namesake neighbourhood. When the area was predominantly Jewish — up until the seventies — it was a Jewish establishment. When the neighbourhood turned Portuguese, it followed suite, and it’s from its Portuguese heritage that it takes its gastronomic queue. Mozambican-style chicken, prawns and rich fish dishes are the order of the day.

We start with the calamari, and I’m relieved that the hype around the Troyeville’s fish is not overstated. The dish is simple, grilled with a lemon butter sauce, and enjoyable.

We then moved on to a selection of culinary specialities for the Johannesburg Spring Art Tour. The Tour uses the Troyeville as one of its destinations as it traipses around Egoli from galleries to talks to restaurants. Going by its façade, the Troyeville seems out of place compared to the other destinations on the list, but knowing a little of its history, it’s not surprising that it makes the cut. It’s been the meeting place of Johannesburg’s artists and bohemians for years — clearly they’re able to see past the aesthetic to the food itself.

Next was the ”Hot Pot” — a fish, mussel and prawn stew in a distinctly zingy chilli sauce. While I felt that the stew had sucked some of the life out of the prawns and muscles, my wife loved it. The line fish — barracuda — was sublime.

We followed that up with prawns in beer sauce. Perhaps an acquired taste, I found the beer made it all a bit bitter, and it was too similar to the hot pot to really stand out. Once again the prawns tasted pale.

And then we got to the main event: the grilled prawns. Forget about the other options — this is the dish to have. It’s the type of prawns that you used to get 30 odd years ago, tasting like they’d been beach-braaied in Lourenço Marques by a bare-footed chap named Vasco. They were outrageously good, and suddenly the pink lighting and scary flamingos didn’t matter anymore.

My wife described it as ”not a high heels kinda place”. It’s rich in history and stale beer, pink lighting and devil-eyed flamingos, and the best prawns this side of Komatipoort.

My friend, Blignaut van Huyssteen, who frequented the Troyeville and died in a car crash was once awarded the prize of Most Promising Artist in South Africa. I could picture him there — seeing beyond the façade to the heart of the Troyeville. I hope that the other artists and art lovers who hit the Troyeville on their tour appreciate its essence and not its appearance, and that they order the prawns.