Wednesday, 20 December 2006

1860 Indian Restaurant, Croydon, UK

What a brilliant find!

Tucked on an unprepossessing high street in Croydon, 1860 looks like a slightly sleazy cafe from the outside, and this impression isn't entirely dispersed by the low-key furnishing and sparse decoration. It's run by a husband and wife from Durban in South Africa, and serves a brilliant selection of South African Indian dishes. With their reliance on fresh flavours and aromatic, complex spices, the cuisine of South Africa's Indian population is very different from the creamy, oniony Bangladeshi food that most British "Indian" restaurants serve.

The food at 1860 is utterly wonderful. Our party ordered a selection of dishes which included bunny chow and a range of vegetarian side dishes. Bunny chow was perfect: a rich, densely-flavoured golden gravy packed with soft potatoes and chunks of chicken. Each of the other dishes had individual flavours and spicing - very different from other Indian restaurants, which often use the same sauce for everything; they ranged from the intense aniseed and fennel flavours of the lamb to the gentle, garlicky dhal.

Breads were generously sized and had the steamy golden crust of a freshly-made roti.

I cannot recommend 1860 highly enough. If you've never been to a South African Indian restaurant, don't be put off by the unfamiliar names - put yourself in the hands of the owners and trust them to make you a wonderful meal.

28 South End

Tel. (020) 8688 3839

Thursday, 14 December 2006

Madiba, Brooklyn, New York

I’ve only ever been to one shebeen, when I was a teenager. It was owned by a gentle, permanently stoned poet called Zeke, and occupied one bare room of his mother’s house in a township on the South African coast. Zeke’s shebeen consisted of a fridge, several plastic patio chairs and twenty cases of Lion lager, and on more than one occasion I found my way through the township’s anonymous streets to the house by following the smell of the fragrant, blue dope smoke that escaped from its windows.

Madiba is a world away: they don’t let you smoke dope, for a start. The restaurant is on Dekalb Avenue in Brooklyn, a short subway or bus ride from Central Manhattan, and was filling up by the time we arrived, early on a drizzly Saturday night. The interior is shebeen-chic—kitchen tables and chairs, and jam-jars instead of drinking glasses—while the lighting is rather like Jade Goody—dim, starts off cute, but quickly becomes irritating. (Later we watched, trying not to snigger, as guests on a nearby table passed round a miniature keyring-torch to read the menu.)

Since all three South African beers on the wine list were out of stock, the waiter suggested that we tried Krait beer, which he described, straight-faced, as Indian beer brewed in South Africa. In fact, it is British—Krait is the export version of Cobra—and is brewed in Poland, as he could have realised if he read the label. Sadly, the spelling mistakes and grammatical errors that litter the menu suggest that the ability to read, write or use the spell-check function are not seen as a priority by Madiba’s owners (the web site boasts proudly, “Our restaurants boast a South African atmosphere and traditionally prepared specialities like none other offering The South African Experience, first of its kind, in the United StatesMadiba [sic]”, while the menu offers, among other things, mushroom saurce, baked potatoe and yello rice).

The menu covers South African cuisine from traditional Cape Dutch and Malay dishes like bobotie and pickled fish, to Indian cuisine like samosas and breyani, and includes home-style dishes from the black culinary tradition like uputhu (maize porridge) and chakalaka (a sort of spiced vegetable salad) that rarely appear on restaurant menus even in South Africa. The South African wine list offers a reasonable selection from US$28 (£15) per bottle upwards.

I chose hake and chips with calamari, while my companion had mutton curry bunny chow. The curry was drier than most Durban versions, but tasty and presented in a generous half-loaf of brown bread. The large portion of hake was perfectly cooked, with wonderful, vinegary chips wittily served in a newspaper wrap, but the calamari rings had been hastily dumped into the fryer in a single handful and had fused into an inedible accretion of over-seasoned batter the size and shape of a Scotch egg.

From a list of desserts that included koeksisters and Dom Pedro (an ice cream confection known as the alcoholic’s milkshake) we chose malva pudding and melktert. The melktert was superb: a thick, creamy filling topped with swirls of cinnamon. The malva pudding was served with a rich rum sauce, also excellent.

Our bill appeared while we were eating pudding. Irritating, and also poor business practice, since high profit margins make after-dinner coffee and drinks lucrative sale items. Not that the utterly disgusting coffee served by Madiba would encourage any customer to linger. Including a cash tip of slightly over 15%, the bill came to US$85, or about £45 for two main courses, two puddings, three bottles of beer, and one cup of coffee. After paying the bill I discovered that US$2 had been added, presumably in error, to the credit card total. Perhaps this was the percentage of its proceeds that the restaurant tells us it “is honoured… to give… back to the people of South Africa”, although if you are making a boast like that on your web site it might be more convincing if you tell your public precisely what percentage you are donating, and to whom.

Dinner at Madiba isn’t the most expensive meal you’ll ever eat in New York, but the bill was rendered bearable only by the weakness of the dollar against the pound: some months earlier, when the dollar was stronger, the same meal would have cost nearly £55. That is a lot of money to pay for street food. At Zeke’s, his mother used to make you a plate of golden uputhu and tasty tripe stew for a couple of rand. And I bet she knew how to spell sauce.

195 Dekalb Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
United States of America

Tel: (718) 855 9190

Ile Maurice, Umhlanga

There are two English brothers, living by the South African coast. The older one needs a haircut, smokes a fair bit of dope and has an Indian girlfriend. He has become progressively more liberal as he has become older, painting his home in bright colours and listening to hip-hop as he builds a new swimming pool. The younger brother is conservative, wealthy and fastidious. He dresses in Lacoste slip-slops and drives a white Jeep. He has just had an extra layer of razor-wire installed on top of the high wall that surrounds his house. He doesn’t know his maid’s surname, but he can tell you the current value of the property next door within a margin of error of plus-minus R5,000.

The first brother is Durban, the stately city that grew up on the shores of the Indian Ocean in the 1840s. The second is Umhlanga, a high-rise holiday resort a few miles north of Durban. In some ways Île Maurice spans both of them—it is a French-Mauritian restaurant that used to be located in Durban’s ‘Restaurant Mile’, Florida Road, but moved a couple of years ago to an old colonial-era house overlooking Umhlanga’s beach.

Seated on the verandah next to a party of beautiful, bored Italians who drank red wine and chatted constantly on cell phones, we were ignored by the owner? Manager? At any rate, by the middle-aged man who squeezed past our table a couple of times to relight the candle lantern behind me without an apology or acknowledgement. Even when I tried to pin him down to ask about the restaurant he shrugged off any attempt at interaction and made his escape as quickly as possible.

The waiting staff on the evening we visited was composed almost entirely of handsome, young white men whose hearts were not really in it; I cherish the memory of one surf-god who managed to carry three plates at the same time—his tongue literally sticking out with the concentrated effort of doing so.) In the tortuous social codes of apartheid-era South Africa, for expensive restaurants to employ white people as waiters or bus-boys was often one of the most effective ways to signal luxury, privilege and—in every sense—exclusivity. Twelve years after liberation, in Umhlanga at least, some things haven’t changed.

All of which I could ignore if the food had exceeded my expectations. Unfortunately it barely met them. The menu veers between French haute cuisine of the most predictable kind (Vichyssoise, soupe crabe) and local fish presented at eye-watering prices. Daube de poisson au Captain Sarno (Salvatore Sarno leads South Africa’s Americas Cup team) was a generous fillet of line fish in a watery tomato sauce which bore no evidence of the promised coconut. It came with a tiny portion of vegetables, and a vast bowl of stewed, wet brown lentils which combined with the tomato sauce to form a sort of grainy, brown soup in which chunks of line fish bobbed.

I turned down the banane au coco flambée, crêpes Suzettes and other sweet offerings that nobody in the Northern hemisphere has put on a menu for the last thirty years. My companion had crème brulée and reported that it was very eggy and barely brulée. Two main courses, a pudding, coffee and a bottle of Steenberg Reserve Sauvignon Blanc came to R440. Good value for money? Hardly.

The logo that the Mauvis family has chosen for Île Maurice is a charming device depicting a dodo. The dodo, you recall, came from Mauritius; it was luxuriantly built, slow-moving and incapable of flight or innovation. It became extinct.

There’s a metaphor in there somewhere.

Île Maurice
9 McCausland Crescent
Umhlanga Rocks
South Africa

Telephone: (031) 561-7609

Bistro 136, Durban

Has Darwin come to Durban? Are the principles of ‘survival of the fittest’ being played out in that most relaxed of Indian ocean cities? It certainly seemed like it when I visited Bistro 136 on a wet Wednesday night. The restaurant is located on Florida Road—the ‘Restaurant Row’ of the fashionable eating-and-shopping Morningside neighbourhood. Just a few hundred metres away, at the bottom of the hill every available inch of kerb was packed with cars, double-parked by customers queuing to get into the groovy and very stylish Bean Bag Bohemia. But at the top of the road pavements were empty, and every plate-glass window framed a glum waiter staring out of a deserted restaurant into the rain: imagine the shop windows of Amsterdam’s red-light district remodelled by a depressed caterer, and you may begin to get the picture.

As we walked into Bistro 136, which occupies the ground floor of a magnificent Victorian galleried building, the staff snapped to attention: newspapers were whisked under the counter and gossipy conversations ended in mid-sentence at the appearance of the first customers of the evening. The restaurant has recently changed owners, and there was a crisp eagerness on show that contrasted with the complacent air sometimes pervading long-established restaurants. In contrast, the menu reads like some sort of cruel spoof of an old-fashioned, bourgeois German restaurant menu: a list of different body parts of farmyard animals cooked in a variety of cream sauces. No surprise, then, to discover that the previous owner is Swiss, a nation whose enthusiasm for innovation may be judged by the fact that Swiss women did not get the vote until 1971.

My companion, whose childhood holidays were spent eating cream cakes in dull-sounding German cities, fell on the menu with little whoops of longing and, misty-eyed with nostalgia, chose Veal Switzerland. This turned out to be a vast pot packed with strips of veal in a hot cream and white wine sauce with herbs, steaming and aromatic. “Just like the hotel in Bad Muenstereifel when I was ten,” he whispered, his voice cracking with emotion. And if the waiter had scowled and banged down the plate in front of him, before walking to the front door and lighting a foul-smelling cigarillo, the authenticity might have been complete.

Being by the sea, I chose fish—curiously, with the exception of the Fishmonger franchise, whose restaurants are of inconsistent quality, it is almost impossible to find a fish restaurant in South Africa. We both began with a rich prawn bisque, chunks of tail meat in a rich soup scented with brandy and saffron, and I followed this with fresh kabeljou (“it came in from the fisherman this morning”, the manager said), simply grilled, with rosemary potatoes. It was perfect, and to my delight came with a pot of properly-made sauce tartare (fresh mayonnaise packed with finely chopped gherkin, capers, parsley and boiled egg, rather than the pale green, viscous, vinegary devil’s spunk usually found occupying a ramekin alongside a portion of greasy haddock).

We picked a bottle of Vergelegen Mill Race Merlot-Cabernet: delicious, cherry fruit with a whiff of cedar and chocolate. And the chocolate theme continued: not only did my companion select an excellent chocolate mousse for pudding, but I chose what was described on the menu as home-made cassata. I suspect the—admittedly excellent—cassata was actually bought in; hilariously, in the great South African tradition of adding unnecessary calories to an already sugar-laden pudding, the generous slice of ice cream had been dipped in dark chocolate before being drizzled with van der Hum liqueur. All it needed was whipped cream and a glace cherry, and I could have had my coronary right there.

This enjoyable three-course dinner for two, served by charming and helpful staff, came to a very competitive R427 plus tip. As we were leaving a second group of customers arrived in the restaurant, but the profit on six dinners will barely have covered staff wages for the evening.

“I think the menu will be changing,” the manager confided to us: well, I hope so. Survival of the fittest, in hospitality terms, means that if your menu doesn’t fit, you become extinct. Adapt or die—not even the Swiss can fight Darwinism.

Bistro 136
136 Florida Road
South Africa

Telephone: +27 31 303 3440

**Please note, since my last visit to Bistro 136, new owner Paul Dinsdale has relaunched the restaurant as the Thunder Road Rock Diner. Best wishes for success, and I am looking forward to visiting next time I am in Durban.

Die Volkskombuis, Stellenbosch

“Stellenbosch is a little like an Afrikaner Disneyland,” my companion said thoughtfully over pre-dinner drinks at Die Volkskombuis. “You expect to see a parade going down Main Street every afternoon, with drum majorettes, dancing slaves and a giant, inflatable Simon van der Stel…”

One of the main differences, I argue, is that the catering is startlingly better at Stellenbosch—and Die Volkskombuis provides excellent support for my thesis. The traditional Cape restaurant has been going for nearly 30 years, and has recently expanded to include a deli and traîteur and fine wine shop. On the evening we ate in the courtyard—secluded enough to feel like somebody’s private garden—the weather was just cool enough to make us thankful for the huge brazier burning nearby, filling the air with the sweet scent of wood smoke.

I was expecting a fiercely formal set-up, and was reassured to see customers of all ages: ranging from a student pair in shorts and T-shirts, to a staid, British couple being entertained by a real estate agent intent on selling them a little slice of South African heaven. The informality was underlined by the professionalism of the friendly staff: solicitous and helpful.

Our main courses were superb; I was tempted by the thoughtfully composed vegetarian option: baked butternut with spinach, mushrooms and feta cheese, served with oven roasted vegetables and risotto balls flavoured with the South African delicacy waterblommetjie—a pond flower that tastes a little like asparagus. However, I eventually chose a soft, lemony risotto topped with prawns and seared scallops and enveloped in an aromatic saffron sauce.

On the other side of the table my companion sliced a huge rib of pink, juicy Karoo lamb into neat chops, nodding approvingly at the crunchy roast potatoes and scents of rosemary and sweet, caramelised garlic. I enjoyed a dessert platter bearing three sweets: malva pudding, koeksister and—breaking with the theme of Cape Dutch cuisine—sherry trifle. With the exception of the delicious koeksister, these did not quite match up to the perfection of the main course—the malva was a little too moist and spongy for my taste, and the sherry trifle was served in a little sherry schooner whose waist was too narrow for my teaspoon to scrape out the sherry-soaked sponge.

My companion chose white chocolate pudding—a baked confection somewhere between a mousse and a cake. I snatched a spoonful and spent the next twenty minutes grinning foolishly, on a sugar high induced at least partly by the condensed milk with which the pudding had been generously basted before cooking.

One of the pleasures of Die Volkskombuis—in common with most Stellenbosch restaurants—is a brilliant wine list featuring wines difficult to find in the rest of South Africa, let alone overseas. We enjoyed a bottle of Vergelegen Merlot 2003, which matched the Karoo lamb brilliantly and went surprisingly well with the risotto.

The bill, including mineral water and tea after dinner, came to R404 plus tip—a bargain by anyone’s standards.

Die Volkskombuis
Aan de Wagen Road
South Africa

Telephone: +27 (0)21 887 2121

Mana, Devon Valley, Stellenbosch

Occasionally, very occasionally, you stop chewing, lay down your fork, look around and think, “Can this get any better?” (Think of succulent apricot tart and golden Vin de Constance in Ian Shapiro’s The Restaurant in Sea Point; braised lamb shank in the potted-palm and red velvet splendour of the Royal Grill in Durban.)

It happened to me again on a Thursday night in Stellenbosch, at a restaurant called Mana. Mana’s owners, husband and wife team Heather and Jon Taylor, opened for business in 2005 after moving to South Africa from the United Kingdom, where Jon worked at the Michelin-starred Grosvenor Hotel in Chester.

Heather told me that they immediately fell in love with the property, and it’s easy to see why: the road winds through the green vineyards and woods of the Devon Valley until you arrive at the gates of the J. C. Le Roux wine estate. Guests follow the track up to the thatched Cape Dutch building on top of the hill, and take a seat on the terrace overlooking Le Roux’s vines and the hazy, purple mountains in the distance, before looking through the menu.

And what a menu: it has clear modern British influences—tastes are fresh and light, with flavours from the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Far East—and makes great use of local produce. My companion chose to begin with salad of seared kudu venison fillet, pink and melting inside, tossed with palm sugar, lime and chilli. I started with smoky, pan-fried mushrooms on black olive tapenade toast, followed by kabeljou on a creamy Parmesan, pea and chive risotto—flaky, perfectly-cooked fish on a bed of green-flecked risotto studded with peas, all topped with a light tarragon cream sauce. My companion enjoyed a golden confit of duck: slow-cooked until tender, with a crisp skin. This came served with sweet potato mash enhanced with a hint of chilli, and spinach flavoured with Indian masala spices.

The pudding menu is short but carefully composed: I selected an intensely flavoured warm almond and prune tart, while my companion chose Eton mess, made with mixed berry compote, and washed it down with a fragrant white port, Spirit of Chenin, from the nearby Asara estate.

Our bill came to R694 (about £60) for three courses, wine and coffee but, to be fair, we did choose the most expensive wine on the list—a R255 bottle of Meerlust Pinot Noir, packed with flavours of mint and cherries. Our charming waitress—all the staff are local residents, recruited and trained by Heather and Jon—had pointed out on arrival that we could choose from the à la carte menu or from the light supper menu, which offers dishes like sausage and mash, steak sandwich and steamed mussels for between R45 and R60 (£4 to £6 approx).

A friendly welcome; sausage and mash cooked by a Michelin-starred chef; and a view of the mountains; all for under R60. You know what? It can’t get any better than this.

J. C. Le Roux Estate
Devon Valley
Western Cape

Telephone: +27 (0)21 865 2662

96 Winery Road, Somerset West

96 Winery Road was a surprise. It is owned by winemaker and restaurateur Ken Forrester, whose green, luscious vineyards border Winery Road. Having dropped into the restaurant one afternoon to buy a half-bottle of Forrester’s magnificent but unhelpfully-named dessert wine, T (picture the scene: “I’d like some T, please.” “Sorry, sir; this is a wine merchant… you want the café next door.”), I flicked through the menu and was intrigued by the freshness and originality of the dishes, so we reappeared for lunch the following day.

It was a hot summer’s day so we sat outside in the shade of the trees, breathing in the scent of the lavender hedges that surround the restaurant. Our fellow guests were a well-heeled crowd: ladies who lunch (Ray-bans, diamonds and mineral water); a mob of elderly locals conversing in the piercing, crystalline accents of pre-war British public schools; and half-a-dozen Johannesburg businessmen halfway through a Cape Wine Route jolly, whose flushed complexions and loud voices indicated that they may have ignored their guide’s—and, possibly, their mothers’—advice to spit rather than swallow.

Despite the attraction of the starters (surely it would take a heart of stone to resist ostrich carpaccio with tuna dressing, deep-fried capers and Parmesan cheese; or butternut, rocket and feta salad with pine-nut brittle and lemon and black pepper dressing?) I eschewed them in favour of one of the main course specials described by our charming waitress: Cape salmon in a lemon sauce.

Me, I’ve got a heart of stone.

My companion was convinced by an earnest paragraph in 96 Winery Road’s menu proclaiming that the restaurant has built its own cold room in order to age its beef to perfection, and chose rump steak with Béarnaise sauce.

Both main courses were served with potato wedges, courgette, carrot and—unaccountably—beetroot. Why three root vegetables, and why beetroot? I hate the stuff, not only for the disconcerting way it combines piercing sweetness with a distinct aroma of mud, but also for the bright, fuschia smears it leaves when I drop it down my shirt front, as I invariably do. In any case, its brash and striking flavour and appearance do not merge easily with other foods; serving beetroot with Cape salmon is like inviting Dame Edna Everage to present a Monteverdi recital.

For a venue which lays such store by its beef, it is disappointing to report that the rump steak was tough, chewy and overcooked. The Cape salmon was delicious and perfectly cooked, but the plump, flaky fillet arrived swimming in a heart-stopping pool of melted butter. For pudding we enjoyed a perfect crème brûlée and the kitschly-named Lindt Chocolate Chocolate Chocolate, which turned out to be a rather damp but delicious chocolate brownie in a tuile basket.

Brilliantly, 96 Winery Road has a number of wine selections at a bargain price—each ‘flight’ is priced at between R50 and R60, changes regularly and gives you the opportunity to taste four different glasses of wine from local producers. My companion chose a selection including Longridge Merlot, Constantia Uitsig Unwooded Chardonnay (lemony and perfumed), Uwe Mira Sauvignon Blanc and silky, intense, Onderkloof Cabernet Sauvignon.

Forrester is a justly revered winemaker and a talented restaurateur—his Johannesburg restaurant, Gatrile’s, was legendary. The bill at 96 Winery Road including coffee came to R340; while the meal was perfectly enjoyable, it was disappointing that the much-trumpeted steak was not chosen and cooked with more care. And—please—lose the beetroot: if you won’t do it for me, at least do it for my dry-cleaner.

96 Winery Road
(Off the R44 road between Somerset West & Stellenbosch)
Somerset West
Western Cape
Telephone +27 (0)21 842 2020

Airside News Cafe, Johannesburg International Airport

Mention Johannesburg to a visitor and watch his or her eyes narrow. “Ooh,” he or she says, “you won’t catch me going to Johannesburg. You get robbed as soon as you leave the airport,” before launching into a story about a neighbour who was mugged near the Carlton Centre in 1996. Distressingly, I have to report that daylight robbery now takes place inside the airport. In the Airside News Café concession in the International Departures terminal, to be precise.

I have an awkward relationship with News Café. I love their coffee, but I have harboured a vague sense of resentment against the company ever since an unsmiling blonde in their Hatfield branch in Pretoria served me a microwaved muffin so hot that I blistered my mouth when I bit into it—leaving my lips puffy, weeping and peeling for a week like the aftermath of a bad collagen job.

The News Café in Johannesburg International should be great: it abuts one of the new, vast glass walls of the terminal, overlooking a runway. The layout is excellent, with a mixture of fast-food style seating on one side of the unit, and more relaxed and sophisticated hardwood bar tables and ostrich-leather armchairs on the other. A polite staff member brought us menus, and we ordered a cinnamon bun, chocolate chip muffin, one cappuccino coffee and a glass of orange juice.

Apart from the British actor Jim Broadbent, who was sitting at a neighbouring table, the area seemed strangely empty: perhaps all the other customers had left the café when their eardrums began to bleed. You see, somebody at News Café has decided that the way to attract customers is to play what is known in the music business as Adult Contemporary, or AC for short. That means Sheryl Crow, U2 and Aerosmith. And it must be played at so loud a volume as to make normal conversation utterly impossible.

The primary purpose of this noise may be to mask the squeaks of disgust when customers receive their order. My cinnamon bun arrived coiled warmly on a plate. The microwave zapping it had received (is it compulsory to microwave all baked goods at News Café?) had caused its original layer of glace icing to slide off and congeal at its base in a solid, crystalline mass. To replace the icing, the waiter had, on his own initiative, poured a generous helping of single cream over the bun, which combined with the microwave treatment to give it a warm, glossy exterior and hard, leathery inner core—think Paris Hilton on a plate. The muffin had also been microwaved to within an inch of its life, and arrived without its advertised butter and jam.

The coffee was perfect.

And the daylight robbery? Well, as so often happens, the victim doesn’t realise it until much later. In fact, it wasn’t until I was sitting in the aeroplane waiting for us to taxi onto the runway that I pulled out the payment slip and had another look at it. The bill came to R53.80 plus tip, which is on the steep side for coffee, fruit juice and two inedible cakes. In fact, the News Café branch at Johannesburg International Airport charges about 15% more than the menu prices currently listed on News Café’s web site. Even more galling: because the café is located airside, the 14% VAT in its menu prices usually paid to the taxman instead goes straight into the company’s pockets. Ker-ching!

So now, when I tell people that I was robbed in Johannesburg International Airport by someone carrying a knife, I don’t generally mention that the man who took my money was also carrying two pastry-forks, an order-pad, and a bottle of ketchup for the people at the next table.

That ruins the story.

Johannesburg International Airport
Kempton Park
South Africa

Telephone: +27 (0)11 390 2084

Chaplins, Melville, Johannesburg

There is a special hell reserved for restaurateurs who use the word ‘cheeky’ to describe a dish on their menu: a Hades of pastel tints in which demons dressed by Bill Blass torment their victims to an endless Kenny G soundtrack. Kitsch menus invariably tell you more about the person who wrote the menu than about the food itself—and if a restaurant describes a dish as ‘cheeky’ or ‘decadent’ (or ‘vindictive’ or ‘sardonic’, come to that), usually it is just as well to be forewarned.

Thankfully this is not entirely the case at Chaplins, an established restaurant in the upmarket shopping suburb of Melville. The building is a fine 1930s house—old by Johannesburg standards—next door to a lively bistro with the same owner, and is one of the few restaurants in the city open on Monday nights.

Chaplins’ menu is an old-fashioned hybrid in which recipes from the classical French repertoire sit—not always entirely comfortably—next to elaborate contemporary dishes, many of which appear to contain at least one ingredient too many. Steak tartare is flanked on one hand by Entrecôte maître d’hôtel and on the other by a dish of grilled medallions of lamb, venison and beef fillet served with a black pepper, red wine and strawberry sauce… and astute readers already begin to see what I mean about one ingredient too many.

Our party began with chilled lettuce soup and crispy duck and vegetable spring rolls, forgoing the already mentioned “cheeky tomato, basil and onion tart”. The soup was fresh and delicious, but finished with a ball of over-sweet basil and tomato sorbet shot through with ice crystals the size of marbles. The spring rolls were tasty but lacked any discernable evidence of duck.

With nearly half the starters meat-and fish-free, I expected a decent array of vegetarian main courses. It was a disappointment to see just one vegetarian offering (described coyly as being “for our vegetarian friends”)—pancakes filled with cheese, vegetables and a mushroom cream sauce. If this unimaginative artery-clogger is what Chaplins serves its vegetarian friends, I dread to think what awaits its vegetarian enemies.

Our party did better, plumping variously for Beef Wellington from the day’s specials, and sole pan-fried with mushrooms, mussels and prawns in a Pernod and thyme sauce. The Beef Wellington was impeccable: a generous portion of tender fillet, perfectly cooked in a puff-pastry lattice case. The sole was delicious, but to combine five strongly flavoured components in a single dish veers dangerously close to the thin line separating ‘creative confection’ from its evil twin, ‘hodge-podge’.

The prospect of cinnamon ice cream impelled me to try Chaplins’ Cuppa Cappuccino: “layers of frozen chocolate parfait, cinnamon ice cream, toffee fudge sauce, chocolate mousse and Chantilly cream”. Not a success: the sauce had an odd, grainy texture, once again shards of ice crystals were very much in evidence, and the vast size of the portion—presented in a cappuccino cup—diminished its charm. Less is sometimes more: on this occasion I would have been very happy with a demi-tasse-size version featuring half the number of ingredients but prepared with twice as much care.

Dinner for four people, including a bottle of Allesverloren Shiraz and a generous tip, came to R1,050. Service was pleasant and attentive, which makes me wonder whether the snottiness displayed when one of our party telephoned earlier (to ask about bringing our own bottle of wine) is characteristic or a singular lapse. BYO is common in South Africa; Chaplins’ menu explicitly discourages it—although it does, confusingly, display a R75 corkage charge for those guests courageous enough to brave the proprietor’s disapproval—but to suggest, as the person at Chaplins did, that a customer’s own wine could not possibly compare with the magnificent vintages available from Chaplins’ own list verges on discourteous.

Cheeky, in fact.

85 Fourth Avenue
South Africa

Telephone: +27 (0)11 482 4657

The Bell Pepper, Kensington, Johannesburg

When I used to live in Kensington, Queen Street was a residential street lined with squat, Edwardian tin-roofed bungalows. Over the last ten years it has been transformed into Kensington’s own chi-chi slice of suburban sophistication—the bungalows have become bookshops, antique shops, restaurants and cafés. The only thing that hasn’t changed is the traffic, which is still intolerable: making me wonder why people insist on having lunch outside on stoeps that overlook the swishiest rat-run in southern Johannesburg.

During the evening things calm down a little, but the tables in the tiny yard outside the Bell Pepper restaurant were booked on the evening we visited, so I reluctantly agreed to sit inside. Reluctantly, because the Bell Pepper has the most savage and unfriendly acoustic of any restaurant I know. It’s worse than the upstairs bar at the National Portrait Gallery; noisier than Tate Modern on a Saturday night; Wong Kei in London’s Chinatown is a restful, oasis of calm by comparison. The long, dark, narrow space is uncluttered by upholstery or any soft furnishings that might absorb the noise, so that laughter and talking are magnified and bounced from wall to wall until they begin to sound like a savage mob baying for blood… which may be why Jacob Zuma doesn’t often eat there.

I am bound to say, however, that the quality of Clifford Correira’s food transcends the negative environmental aspects of the restaurant itself. Every meal I have had at the Bell Pepper has verged on the sublime. On this occasion I enjoyed tuna steak on a bed of roasted vegetables. The steak was perfectly cooked—pink within, smoky, seared and blackened outside—and came with a pot of freshly-made yellow mayonnaise. My dining companion ordered medallions of beef, served with red wine and pepper sauces: tender, generously-sized rounds of beef with a pair of rich, fragrant sauces.

For pudding I chose berry millefeuille—a dish which seems to have been on the menu since the restaurant opened. Fresh berries between crisp sheets of filo pastry, my sole complaint being that my millefeuille lacked its advertised layer of pistachio butter. My companion went for white chocolate crème brulée, which—oh, happy day!—had the correct soft, creamy consistency and a contrasting crackling, burnt topping. Why should it be, do you think, that every single South African restaurant offers crème brulée, and yet so few of them prepare and finish it correctly? Invariably crème brulée turns out to be a solid, eggy lump sealed into its ramekin under a pale yellow disc of melted sugar.

We chose a glass each of Amani Merlot from the Bell Pepper’s excellent wine list and finished off the meal with a glass each of Jordan Noble Late Harvest—no dessert wines were listed by the glass, but our charming waiter managed to find us a couple of glasses of this golden, aromatic wine.

The bill for two main courses, puddings, wine and coffee came to just R340 before tip—even if we had finished off a bottle of the Merlot between us we would have got away with little more than R400—which makes the Bell Pepper, despite the atrocious noise, one of the best-value restaurants in Johannesburg.

176 Queen Street
South Africa

Telephone: +27 (0)11 615 7531

Banjaara Indian Cuisine, Johannesburg

I don’t often regret having given up smoking.

Usually it take a great deal of red wine to make me yearn for a puff, but after five minutes in the Banjaara restaurant I was itching for a Camel and a box of matches. I have the architect to thank. You see, whoever laid out the restaurant complied with South African law by providing a wholly enclosed space in which smokers can light up. In a brilliant piece of topsy-turvy planning, the architect decided that the smoking area should occupy the area alongside the only external windows, so that in order to enjoy the view across south-eastern Johannesburg, you must sit in the smoking section. Clearly Bobby Singh, the owner of the restaurant, enjoys a ciggy now and then—or perhaps he simply has a perverse and mischievous sense of humour.

The Bedford Centre has changed from the squat, concrete mall where my cousins and I used to go to the cinema as teenagers (which reminds me: the movie director Penny Marshall still owes me for the 1½ hours I wasted there watching her film Jumpin’ Jack Flash in 1986). It is still squat and concrete, but now has covered parking—filled with slightly stoned fourteen-year-old boys trying not to fall off skateboards under the amused, avuncular eyes of the security guards.

Inside, a recent redevelopment has seen the Centre relined with Carrera marble and treated to glass lifts and new, shiny escalators—and with its red silk walls and gilded fittings, Banjaara continues this vaguely decadent theme. The menu, however, is admirably businesslike, focusing on chicken, lamb and vegetables. In fact, Banjaara offers a comprehensive and imaginative vegetarian selection including unusual dishes such as paneer (Indian curd cheese) with cashew nuts and cream, and dal maknie: a fragrant, buttery dish of spiced black lentils cooked with kidney beans. I had a wonderful fish curry, freshly made and suffused with typical African-Indian flavours of aniseed, curry leaves and red chilli. My companions shared a selection of mild curries, of which the typically South African lamb keema masala (spiced mince with peas) met with particular approval.

An outstanding aspect of Banjaara’s cuisine is its breads: naan was light and sweet, with an appetising crunch where its crust had been seared in the tandoor. The huge, flat romali roti (flat griddle bread) was hot, dry and perfectly cooked, while the aloo paratha (flatbread stuffed with spiced potato) was rich with ginger, chilli, mint and coriander. Our friendly (if occasionally slightly distracted) waiter seemed disappointed that we were unable to finish all the food he had put before us: on reflection, three main dishes between four of us, plus plenty of rice, would have been ample.

Indian food in southern Africa is not always the cut-price bargain that it is in the United Kingdom. However, it was a pleasant surprise when the bill for four of us, including beers all round, came to just R402 plus tip. At that sort of price I could almost afford to start smoking again.

Shop M10
The Bedford Centre
Smith Street
Bedford View
South Africa

Telephone: +27 (0)11 615 1513