With the Eat Out Mercedes-Benz Restaurant awards coming up next month, we can begin to sum up where we’re at this year. What have top South African restaurants been serving? What impressed the judges? What can diners expect in the coming months?
Chefs are making diners smile with their imaginative creations, telling stories, pushing boundaries and celebrating local ingredients and people.
Bread has been elevated with the use of amasi and ash butter as accompaniments, and buttermilk is in everything from dressings to desserts. Pork is still big – cheeks, jowls and belly, slow-cooked and pulled – but beef has also been celebrated at restaurants like Camphors at Vergelegen in Somerset West (tender tongue, cheek, sirloin, brisket and rump) and Jordan Restaurant in Stellenbosch (aged Chalmar rump with herb crust and veal sweetbreads).
Vegetarian dishes are also very exciting and imaginative, and chefs are showing more consideration of sustainability, especially for seafood.
Floral notes of rose and jasmine are at the forefront of desserts – I’ve seen hibiscus glass broken into splinters and made into powder – and meringue shards are another new texture, even appearing in smoked form in a duck dish at the Test Kitchen in Cape Town.
While the food is always the priority – it makes up 70% of the judges’ scorecard – service is improving too. It’s been amazing to see the standard of wine service soar. Young sommeliers’ personalities are coming through, and their approachable and unassuming manner is a breath of fresh air.
I have had plenty of outstanding dishes during the past judging season, but one of the truly memorable was chef Michael Broughton’s vegetarian ravioli at Terroir in Stellenbosch. Soft and silky pillows of courgette-filled pasta were accompanied by parmesan cream and porcini purée, and then smothered in a beautifully light and acidic tomato-butter sauce. A plate of heaven.
Then, at La Colombe’s new spot up on Silvermist Wine Estate in Constantia, I loved chef Scot Kirton’s “tin of tuna”, which, incidentally, will be served at the Eat Out Mercedes-Benz Restaurant Awards.
The tongue-in-cheek concept is a tin can that you peel open to reveal the most delicate Asian tuna amuse-bouche.
The Belnori Forest Phantom cheese by chef Gregory Czarnecki at Waterkloof wine estate was also on another level: a round of goat cheese rolled in ash and served with slices of truffled pear and pistachio brittle. The dish really celebrated the cheese and was a great example of how simplicity on the plate doesn’t mean it’s easy to execute.
The standout dish at Restaurant Mosaic just outside Pretoria, in the trademark playful style of 2014 Chef of the Year Chantel Dartnall, was the Alchemist’s Infusion. For this minimalist dish, a selection of flowers, from gladiolus and rose to hibiscus and fennel, was infused into an aromatic broth in a glass globe right at the table, and then poured over three medallions of West Coast rock lobster. Phenomenal.
Food of the future
Where South Africa’s top chefs go from here depends on their philosophy. Some want to cook more simply, focusing on quality ingredients that become the hero on the plate. Then there are chefs who are constantly working to offer the customer a culinary journey of mind-blowing imagination.
Restaurants of this standard have just one chance at wooing and wowing the customer on that special occasion. Sustainability will also be a focus in future. Not one restaurant can say it’s fully sustainable, but a lot of the chefs have this thinking entrenched in their philosophy, and Eat Out will be acknowledging their passion and commitment at the awards this year.
Tickets to the Eat Out Mercedes-Benz Restaurant awards at Mistico Equestrian Centre near Paarl on November 15 are available at eatout.co.za.