Thursday, 14 December 2006

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

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