Saturday, 11 August 2007

Josephine's, Montagu

Montagu is slightly confusing; while at first sight it appears to be a little Cape winelands dorp, if you explore a little through the streets you find that actually the higher end of town (away from the Kogmanskloof river... which floods spectacularly every few years) is filled with very larnie residences owned as holiday homes or weekend getaways by rich Capetonians. As a result, the town has a couple of decent restaurants, and we decided to visit Josephine's, a lovely little 19th century house on Bath Street, right in the middle of town.

The innovative menu includes Cape Dutch, Malay, Indian and Thai dishes: I had red Thai chickpea and banana curry, followed by tiramisu. The companion had kudu fillet in red wine sauce, with pear crumble tart and cream. A lovely fiery curry was packed with aromatic flavours, but the tiramisu was very odd and really rather nasty - consisting of layers of dry sponge cemented together with unsweetened cream cheese, dredged in cocoa. No coffee, no marsala, no fun.

The companion raved about his kudu, and it looked lovely, with a rich, wine-dark sauce and beautifully-cooked vegetables; while I sneaked a spoonful of his robust pear tart, topped with crunchy crumble. The friendly but very flustered waitress was utterly overwhelmed by four tables of customers - God only knows what would have happened if anyone else had arrived for dinner - and forgot a couple of drinks orders. She also made the mistake of switching on the overhead lights three-quarters of the way through our meal, transforming the dining room with a flick of a switch from a dusky, romantic space lit by paraffin lamps and candles into a shabby parlour illuminated by a couple of bare and glaring overhead bulbs. Not a good idea.

I'd be delighted to have a local restaurant like Josephine's in my home town, although I wonder how often the menu changes - I didn't notice any daily specials, and a limited menu could get boring quite quickly.

63 Bath Street
Eastern Cape

Tel: (023) 614 3939

Friday, 10 August 2007

Beads, Stellenbosch

The biggest disappointment in South Africa? For a long time it was a very pedestrian meal at Île Maurice in Umhlanga. But now, ladies and gentlemen, I am delighted to say that we have a new winner: Beads, in the lovely university town of Stellenbosch in the Western Cape.

I was told in London about this new South African restaurant, Beads: "Fantastic" they said; "really innovative and interesting," they enthused. When we arrived in Stellenbosch our hosts blanched when we mentioned that we were visiting Beads: "But it's so expensive", they bleated. "I mean, they really are charging London prices". Initially I assumed this was the usual South African hyperbole, but with main courses at the rand equivalent of around £10+, Beads is priced within UK ranges - and is consequently very pricey by local standards.

Now, the location, in one of Stellenbosch's delightful oak-lined streets, is wonderful; and on a warm evening, with the sun setting through the trees and the cicadas beginning to chirp, there is nowhere lovelier. And the restaurant itself is beautiful: we sat outside on the stoep, listening to a party going on in the restaurant's gardens, and had a glass of wine. And another. And another. And then, just when we had almost finished the bottle, and one whole hour after ordering, our food arrived.

I had chosen kingklip; which arrived not only undercooked, but actually still freezing cold in the middle and with the unmistakeable grainy, watery flesh of something that has been zapped from frozen. I sent it back. It reappeared, the same fillet, still uncooked, still cold inside, and piled back on top of the original vegetables, which had clearly been left on top of the pass while someone threw the fish in the microwave for another five minutes, and were consequently by this stage also cold.

The manager had the honesty to admit that the kingklip was frozen, which made me feel even more resentful, since Stellenbosch is very close to the sea. Why is an apparently prestigious restaurant, only 10 miles from the nearest harbour, serving frozen fish at 120 bucks a pop?

Polite but painfully slow service; dreadful, dreadful food; a complaint that elicited neither surprise nor sympathy from the manager (let alone a refund); and an overambitious menu which, on the evidence of our visit, offers breathtakingly poor value for money.

I would rather stick pins in my legs than go back to this restaurant. I am even diffident about giving its address and telephone number in case some poor sap suffers the same sort of piss-poor meal as ours. But that's a chance I'm going to take. If you've had a good experience there, please let me know - surely by the law of averages they must occasionally produce something edible?

Cnr. Church and Ryneveld Streets
Eastern Cape

Tel.: (021) 886 8734

Fournos Bakery, Rosebank, Johannesburg

I've been going to the Fournos Bakery in Rosebank for years. It's one of my grandmother's favourite places for lunch. When we visited with her on a sunny Tuesday morning I chose poached egg and smoked salmon, which for some reason comes served on a scone (note to Fournos: please change this - it's hideously sweet; what's the matter with a bagel?). Gran wanted something eggy, and chose scrambled egg on toast. She received a huge pile of freshly-made, creamy scrambled eggs on hot toast and ate her way through the lot, smacking her lips with satisfaction.

We finished off - oh, the greed! - with three freshly-baked Danish pastries (you simply wander into the bakery shop, sidling carefully around racks and stacks of fresh buns, flapjacks and golden loaves of bread, and pick what you fancy) and three cappuccino coffees: the total bill came to R175 + tip.

The baked goods are wonderful; the Illy coffee superb, but the loveliest thing about Fournos Rosebank is the care and friendliness of the staff, delightful people, who take such effort to look after an elderly woman.

Fournos Bakery
33 Baker Square
Cnr. Baker & Cradock Ave.

Tel: (011) 447 3392

The Singing Fig, Norwood, Johannesburg

When I first went to the Singing Fig in Norwood's main drag, the restaurant was at the height of its success. Plaudits and prizes, rave reviews in Highveld Style and the Star. A few years on, my cousin suggested that all was not well. "It's changed hands," he said. "My mother-in-law used to go there all the time, but she doesn't like the food there now."

My cousn''s mother-in-law is a Very Scary Woman, so it seemed sensible to get on her good side by visiting and reporting back.

The restaurant has certainly been refurbished (although it ain't air-conditioned yet, sadly): low and spacious, with a sort of stripped-wood, colonial vibe going on, and added life given to the room by the charming array of nudes and other pictures hanging on the wall. We were seated in one corner beneath a giant minge painting - an impressionist daub of a couple of legs topped with the biggest, blackest pubic bush - which reduced my companion to giggles within moments of sitting down. "Is it Lily Allen?", he whispered. Whispering was an unnecessary precaution, as the restaurant was empty. At 7pm. Not promising.

Companion ordered veal scallopina in a Jack Daniels jus with gorgonzola butter, followed by creme brulee with Grand Marnier and berry compote. I had five-spice root vegetables with spinach risotto cake, and fig ice-cream.

A vast portion of veal appeared - five scallopini, or about three-quarters of a pound's weight of meat. They were served on a cold potato salad, not mentioned in the dish's description in the menu, whose cold, thick mayonnaise combined with the hot cream sauce to create an unappetising lukewarm, greasy soup, and which contained an equally unadvertised blast of chili. The creme brulee was lovely, although the thick compote which accompanied it was more like jam than compote.

The vegetable platter was inventive and tasty, although the French-style cream sauce was redundant on a dish containing such strong Oriental flavours and influences. The risotto cake was perfect - I mean, absolutely perfect: creamy grains of just-cooked rice. Unfortunately the accompanying green beans were leathery and inedible. The fig ice-cream would have been far better made with dried figs or fig jam, as the use of fresh figs resulted in a watery, sweet vanilla cream containing slimy pieces of fresh fig utterly devoid of flavour.

Service was cheerful but amateurish, and a far cry from the snappy, NY-style professionalism of our first visit. The total bill, including a bottle of wine from the excellent wine list (particularly strong on dessert wines) was R567 for two + tip.

In general the restaurant has an air of distraction that bodes ill; the cooking (judging by this visit) is distinctly inconsistent; service is sloppy, and its web site (which appears to have been recently suspended for non-payment - that, at any rate, is what the Google cache suggests) is at least 8 months out of date ("Menu will be subject to change in January 2007 when we launch our new menu!!", visitors are told in August 2007). If the owners of the Singing Fig want it to continue as a respected restaurant, they need a little more concentration on the basics of the business: consistently well-chosen and competently-cooked food, served with professionalism.

A little less bush, and a little more rush.

The Singing Fig
44 The Avenue

Tel: (011) 728 2434