Remember the once-great Singing Fig?
Well, Lunchtastic was right to predict its doom back in August 2007 - the Fig is, unsurprisingly, no more, and has been replaced by Faff. In a pleasing circularity, Faff is owned by Dave Wallace, who was the original creator of the Fig (back in the days when it was a pleasure to visit).
The first aspect of change is the decor - gone are the giant, off-putting nudes, replaced by bright, cartoonish canvases of brinjals and garlic and oranges in primary colours. There are luxurious brocade banquettes at the back of the room which help to absorb some of the sound, although the fact that the restaurant was no more than a quarter-full when we ate - on a Friday evening, nogal; where was everybody: credit-crunching? - kept the background chatter and gentle tango music muted to comfortable levels.
The USP is attractive but risky. Eat off the menu, or go for a Dégustation Plate and select three mini-portions per course on the same platter. Attractive because the menu is so chock-full of good stuff; risky because you need a kitchen full of chefs with good timing, and a highly organised front of house team.
My first course was a delightful slice of salmon tart, but I barely remember it. My attention was fully focused on the main course, for which I chose gnocchi with field mushrooms, brown hazelnut and sage butter; ostrich frittatella (meat balls) on creamed potatoes, roasted vegetables and gooseberry jus; and oven-roasted salmon fillet with braised red cabbage, creamed potatoes and ginger and honey jus. There's a test for any kitchen: meatballs, pasta and fish to go out on the same plate at the same time. And that's not mentioning the choices of my other three companions.
The main course was masterful: intense, gamy, ostrich meatballs with a rich sauce, and fantastic gnocchi whose sauce was packed with flavours of autumn - mushrooms, hazelnuts and herbs. The salmon was perfectly cooked, and came with a spicy sauce studded with tiny shards of cloves, a wonderful combination with the strong flavours of cabbage and salmon. Criticisms? We-e-e-ll... if pushed I might gently mention that the ostrich meat had been over-processed, giving it a slightly pâté-like texture rather than the proper grainy resistance of classic frittatelle.
Desserts did not quite - almost, but not quite - live up to the sublime delight of the main course; the excellent lemon tart did not need the fatty crème fraiche that accompanied it; the chocolate torte, which came with a wonderful drunken berry compote, had a horrible base rendered gritty with undissolved granulated sugar, like eating chocolate truffles on a sandy beach during a gale. My grumpiness at these minor faults was, however, mollified by the flaky apple crisp and its sphere of pale toffee-coloured cinnamon ice-cream.
My evening at Faff was quite the best meal I have had in Johannesburg since the old Singing Fig days. The friendly and genuinely helpful service still needs some tweaking; the minute the manager (?) head waiter (?) left the restaurant (a delightful young man with the most amazing, sculpted hair) the waiting staff relaxed somewhat, to the extent that it took nearly fifteen minutes for the bill to arrive.
Things aren't totally perfect; pastry seems to be the restaurant's only weak point, and even then I managed to finish almost the entire dessert plate, bar the gritty-bottomed torte. No, it's not cool for customers to walk past an untidy linen store in order to visit the loo; yeah, it would be nice to see a couple more dessert wines available by the glass; okay, if your menu needs a glossary to make sense of it, rewrite the menu in plain English. But on the whole, I reckon Faff is currently the finest restaurant in Johannesburg.
Dinner for four, with a couple of 250ml carafes of wine (another excellent idea which should be promoted more actively by the waiting staff) came to a little over R1200 - great value for money by anybody's standards.
44 The Avenue
Tel: (011) 728 2434