Thursday, 14 December 2006

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

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