/ 10 October 2009

Business and breakaways on Anderson Street

In an earlier life the Mapungubwe Hotel was the French Bank; the Ashanti Hotel, diagonally across the road, housed lawyers’ offices.

As hybrid hotel/apartments, they’re livelier and certainly better looking — the Mapungubwe in stunning Afro-chic and the Ashanti in stark black and white.

Both hotels have restaurants, as different from each other as their decor.

Twist, in the Mapungubwe, opened under new ownership in November last year after some months as a fair-to-middling restaurant called Black. Chef Christiaan Jordaan was working in the United Kingdom when Twist beckoned and has devised an upmarket menu, from pea and mint risotto with a pea foam to slow roast pork belly with cider, sage and mustard-seed oats and apple (seriously!) chips.

The (seriously!) is Jordaan’s addition; here and there the menu pokes fun at itself, as in “larney Scottish salmon carpaccio”. The carpaccio is larney indeed, served with tiny, insipid balls of pineapple jelly that go under the rubric of “pineapple caviar”, and surrounding a very fresh salad.

On a recent lunch visit, the veggies were firm and flavourful, the cream of tomato soup was brilliant and the malva pudding melted in the mouth, but the popular grilled springbok loin, according to a game aficionado who fell upon it, must be ordered “medium rare” because “medium”, she says, was seriously lacking in the pink department.

Most of the customers are people who work in the area — the mining houses are a short walk away — or business people staying in the hotel for a day or two.

The biggest seller is oxtail, which is marinated in red wine and whisky for 48 hours before it is braised. It costs R115. Prices for main meat meals hover around R95, but there are light lunch alternatives at half the price — for example, a city burger, with bacon, cheese and mustard.

Service is good — a nice change from the way it was in its previous incarnation, when service was clueless. The decor is worth the price of admission — funky black chandeliers and pillars of stacked chopped slasto to remind one of the ancient kingdom after which the hotel is named. There’s a bar lounge downstairs in the Vault, often rented out for private parties. And the parking is good: two garages under the hotel.

Across the road is the Darkie Café and, although parking is not laid on, it’s in a cul-de-sac with non-working meters, overlooked by a deck with umbrellas over the tables. The interior is beautiful in black and white — chandeliers dripping with little crystals, a plush white banquette. But where Twist is formal, Darkie is informal and has a sense of fun — probably the contribution of owner Charlotte Monakisi, who is charming, very present and who also owns a piece of a FashionTV lounge.

Why the name Darkie Café?

“You need a name that sticks,” she says. “If you call it any other name people say ‘What’s that restaurant called again?'” She mentions coffee beans (for “café”) and a play on the white interior.

There may be a fourth reason: you can get morogo, frikkadels and chakalaka; the risotto is actually samp, with butternut and spinach; and the menu promises homemade gemmer (ginger beer) made to magogo’s recipe. There’s chilli on a sandwich of mince, ham and slap chips, on steak, on — wait for it — smoked tofu, although not, unfortunately, in the samp and beans. Prices are reasonable and portions are generous.

The prego roll features a large steak and more delicious sauce than you can manage without its dripping somewhere, like on your shirt. It sits in a Portuguese roll, with a pile of perfectly cooked chips and a good side salad. Another big seller, pita with chicken livers, has a touch of chilli and mozzarella cheese and was a hit on a recent Monday afternoon. So were the cheesy pap puffs — golden bites of mielie pap with fresh Napoletana sauce for dipping.

If there is a problem, it is immediately set right. There was one on that Monday with peri-peri drumlets, which were pink, veering towards red, really a bad idea for chicken. The waiters noticed the drumlets weren’t being eaten, asked why, and immediately offered to replace them. The offer was turned down, but the chicken wasn’t charged for.

It was a pleasant surprise to see a complaint dealt with professionally instead of with the usual shrug; there are a number of Jo’burg restaurants that should send their waiters to Monakisi for training.

Darkie Café has a lot going for it — a friendly and attentive staff, a relaxed ambience, a menu that is varied enough to please assorted diners and live entertainment on Thursday nights.

Both hotels are on Anderson Street, on opposite sides of Ferreira. Twist (011 838 8128) and Darkie Café (011 492 1556).