The tapas thesaurus
I think I have at last found the best tapas-style cuisine in Cape Town and some of the finest food in the city. It is served in a food store where you sit on little metal stools at long, daringly narrow communal tables. Chefs Warehouse and Canteen opened just two months ago in the historic Heritage Square precinct.
Irish-born chef Liam Tomlin has been cooking in restaurant kitchens since he was 14. He arrived in the Cape in 2004. Since then he has been mostly flying under the radar, running his food consultancy, helping establish places such as Pierneef à La Motte Restaurant, offering cookery classes in Franschhoek and acting as a judge for the Eat Out awards.
He made his mark in Australia in the 1990s, when that country was in the process of inventing a national food identity and at the fulcrum of fusion cuisine. That legacy is still very much apparent in Tomlin's preparations.
The original Chefs Warehouse shop was somewhat tucked away on New Church Street, where it took me several years to find it. Now relocated and with the addition of a restaurant, it takes the Bree Street food renaissance to a new level.
The Warehouse consists of a shop full of the finest cookware and pricey imported utensils, and the crowning delight to the eye, a floor-to-ceiling wall of cookery books. While there, pick up a copy of Tomlin's handsome cookbook, Season to Taste. It includes a very handy and concise compendium of 96 basic recipes (from chicken stock to puff pastry) and 11 basic techniques to master (from shucking oysters to blanching capsicum and preparing artichokes).
Mystery to most
Food is served in the canteen surrounded by shelves of superior dry produce and imported brands. The top shelf is a mystery to most: neatly packaged boxes of ingredients for molecular cuisine and gastroenterological interest – things like kaolin, malto, kappa, calcic, xanta, glice and gellan, the last of which – on the off chance you didn't know – is a water soluble polysaccharide emulsifier produced by Pseudomonas elodea bacteria.
No such exotic ingredients are apparent, to the eye at least, in the simply marvellous dishes Tomlin and his young chefs export to diners from the kitchen. The canteen offers a lunch menu – a soup, a fish, a fowl, something vegetarian and a meat of the day. Sometime in March, the "leg of the day" wasn't lamb or springbok shank, but frogs' legs with parsley purée and truffle dressing.
On weekends and after 4pm on weekdays (the kitchen closes at 8pm), tapas is served at R240 for two people sharing. Eight dishes arrive on a lazy Susan and they vary daily, depending on the pantry and what takes Tomlin's fancy. Each plate is delicately staged on elegant tableware, giving it that handmade, picture-perfect feel. The attention to detail is rigorous. The dishes are a rewarding mélange of textures, fresh and cooked ingredients, familiar and the exotic, an astute balancing act of sweet and acid, though this Irish lad has a proclivity for saltiness.
As the title of his cookbook suggests, Tomlin is avowedly in favour of using only the best seasonal ingredients and allowing them to speak for themselves. "I always look at a finished dish and think about what can be removed from it rather than added," he writes.
Tapas seems to be a natural expression of this philosophy, keeping the purity of ingredients and yet enhancing them through artisanal seasonings, stocks, sauces, dressings, purée, jus, reductions and emulsions. It is deceptively simple. Complexity emerges from the way he uniquely pairs ingredients; Tomlin is literally a walking taste thesaurus.
Here is one tapas tray I had: tomatoes still on their vine, roasted, with basil and black olives; sashimi style tuna with dyed fish eggs; raw salmon with lime and chilli strings; spicy Singapore chicken with fluffy al dente rice; rich, meaty rabbit with salty al dente rice; a mini breakfast pan with quail egg, bacon and fried pig's head; duck salad; and arancini balls.
Novel takes on classic tapas, Asian dishes and fusion cuisine happily sit side by side, giving the meal another level of complex pairing above that already in each dish.
Tomlin has a formidable repertoire. On another occasion, having polished off a complete spread of eight dishes, I cheekily asked if we could have another smörgåsbord with new dishes. The waiter said she'd check with the chef, but it was rather late. Within minutes she returned, smiling, and soon enough yet another eight impressive dishes magically appeared: raclette suspended above tealights with the cheese still bubbling; Cantonese duck with crêpes; entrepôt steak with roast potatoes; Persian chicken; a mushroom risotto; Thai fishcakes; figs with prosciutto; brisket with mustard mayo.
I can't wait for his plans to open an Asian street food lunch cellar to materialise.
Look out for Tomlin, now with his own restaurant located on what is becoming an exciting food artery of the city. He should appear as a fast-moving, very bright light on your food radar.
Chefs Warehouse and Canteen, 92 Bree Street, Cape Town, tel. 021 422 0128