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.
136 Florida Road
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.