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Dine in the dumps

Newspaper editors are supposed to know all sorts of things. Will President Jacob Zuma get a second term? Is the ANC intent on establishing a media tribunal? Who is really in charge of economic policy?

I get asked these questions by friends of friends, foreign correspondents, businesspeople, diplomats and the leaders of international NGOs almost every day, and I do my best to sound plausible in reply.

One issue, however, not only consistently stumps me but provokes something approaching genuine existential dread. It goes more or less like this: “You must eat out a lot. My boss is coming to town. Where should I take her?”

In Johannesburg, there are very few good answers to this question — and none at the upper end of the market. At all.

A restaurant recommendation is a gift, with all the complex economics that that implies, and all the risk of profound self-exposure. If I am what I eat, then where I tell you to eat offers you insights I might not otherwise casually offer, not only about me, but about what I think of you.

Cracking the code
Since I moved to Johannesburg I have become a stingy and a cautious giver, and all offerings are hedged with asterisks.

At first I thought this was down to my newness in town. I would crack the code eventually, I assumed, and find the perfect neighbourhood boîte, the immaculate fine-dining option, the thrilling surprise.

I’ve now been eating out at editor pace for two years exactly, and asking questions of every native Jo’burger I meet who cares even a little about food. I now feel ready to say it out loud: for all its creativity and cosmopolitanism, for all its monuments to material consumption, this town is a culinary desert or, perhaps more accurately, parking lot — which is what you will find yourself looking on to from most of the very few places I do feel able to recommend.

The fine-dining scene is most impoverished. Not a single serious restaurant in Johannesburg sets the national food agenda in any way. They don’t even try very hard to follow the big global trends a few months in arrears, as so many Cape restaurants do, or to give them local relevance as the best South African chefs are able to.

To be sure, there are expensive restaurants. I can’t bring myself to eat at Auberge Michel, not only because of Paul Mashatile’s famous lunch, or the links between its owners and the tenderpreneurs of the Mbeki era, but also because its Asian-influenced French menu looks like a hollow pastiche of what Jean-George Vongerichten was doing with such panache in New York a decade ago. And no one who is interested in food as more than a backdrop to deal-making seems to like it at all.

Rote and exhausted

Le Canard in Sandton seems a plausible alternative, marooned amid the office towers in a pleasant house, but the food is rote and exhausted, and the service old school in the bad South African sense, which means among other things that the waiters know the menu but don’t seem to understand it.

Then there are the places that are a notch less pricey, and inexplicably popular. Orient in Melrose Arch has glam decor and a meaningless pan-Asian menu that segues from the most innocuous dim sum to noodles with cotton-wool prawns. It is a sort of airport of a restaurant, contextless, globalised and utterly unconnected to the vital reality of any particular place or culture.

Moyo pulls off the same cheap trick with Africa, substituting cashew nuts, face painting and innocuous spicing for real engagement with the poorly understood ingredients and traditions of our continent.
In the yawning chasm where a real food scene might be, Jo’burg has steak. And lots of it.

At the Butcher Shop in Sandton Square the red-meat model reaches its faux Manhattan apotheosis. Giant suspended carcasses in the walk-past fridge almost convince you that the place has some sense of the provenance of what it serves. In my all too regular experience, it has no idea, and far too much of the beef is grain-fed and dull. The wine list, of course, is a famously extensive product of Alan Pick’s well-publicised auction shopping. Sadly, almost everything on it is at least five years too young. This is drinking on the Chinese model — by label and price tag.

From good to extraordinary

As if to illustrate the seriousness of the steak problem, the corner of 4th Avenue and 7th in Parktown North has three steak joints within 50 metres of each other (I would opt for the Local Grill, where Llewellyn Mateza is an avuncular host, and the menu offers grass-fed options that you can trace to their origins, over the more celebrated Wombles).

Of course it is possible to eat well in Johannesburg. At Assaggi in Illovo it is worth paying a little over the odds to sit in a noisy corridor and eat classic Italian dishes that range from good to extraordinary, and drink from a wine list that appears to have been chosen by a human being rather than a marketing consultant for Distell. Cucina di Ciro, also in Parktown North, is pleasant and reliable.

Yamato, in an utterly banal strip mall on Oxford Road, has proper Japanese food, carefully made. Elegant, precisely cut sashimi, delicate yet intense Chawan mushi, and plenty from the hearty side of the spectrum too — local Japanese descend on the place for its occasional curry udon special.

In Cyrildene you can, if you choose right, get some excellent Chinese. At offal specialist North’s slices of pork liver loll in rich sauce, and cabbage leaves crunch brightly through intense chilli oil. It is acceptable to skip the ox pizzle.

And of course it is possible in Fordsburg to gorge yourself on brilliant Indian food.

Dynamic restaurant culture?
In this context DW Eleven-13, in a parking lot under a bunker of a mall in Dunkeld, seems better than it would in a place with a more competitive dining scene. It has a menu of updated classics competently executed, excellent service and decor that is on the soothing side of slick. R120-something for a plate of hake in sauce vierge (olive oil, diced tomato and herbs) is a bit outlandish, especially at lunchtime, but I’ll pay it if it means I don’t have to sit in a cloud of braai smoke eating cow.

None of this, however, amounts to anything like a dynamic restaurant culture.

As far as I can tell, this is a failure of leadership. Johannesburg seems to have no chefs thrilled by the time and place in which they find themselves and inspired to communicate their beliefs to diners.

Apparently there was a bit of a renaissance in Greenside six or seven years ago, but there’s little evidence of that now amid the clubbing kiddies and double-parked cars.

Instead of chefs we have restaurant entrepreneurs competing to extract money from your wallet, and no model does that more predictably than a plate of meat and a bottle of turbo-charged red.

Great cities need great restaurants, and the lack of them in a town so dedicated to other kinds of consumption is diagnostic of a more fundamental problem in the city’s idea of itself.Give me a gift: tell me I’m wrong.

Do you have any recommendations for our hungry editor? Let him know on Twitter (@NicDawes), using the hashtag #MGfood.

For all the M&G‘s latest food and wine stories click here:

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