Saturday, 15 November 2008

Piccolo Prima Donna

If I could click my fingers and magic up a lovely little neighbourhood pizzeria, it would be pretty much identical to Piccolo Prima Donna. The restaurant is located on Norwood's main drag, Grant Avenue; from the outside it looks utterly minute... and it is, with a handful of tiny tables and a large, baying crowd of Norwoodites outside howling for pizza.

A pair of vocal locals had persuaded the proprietor of Piccolo Prima Donna to give away our (booked) table a couple of minutes before we arrived, so our party sat outside, grumpily waiting for another table to become available. On finally taking our seats twenty minutes later there was some barely-stifled squeaking and excitement from some of our party when they spotted a well-known soapie star sitting at the next table - which in a venue the size of Piccolo Prima Donna means that his elbow was practically in my lap - whispering sweet nothings to an attractive but distinctly vacuous-looking younger man.

The menu is standard pizzeria fare - pizze, pasta and a couple of salads, all christened with slightly arch, operatic names - and the pizze, when they arrived, were superb. Thin, crisp crusts with a floury, slightly burnt edge, and toppings made with top quality ingredients; bearing no relation to the flabby, wet, fatty offerings churned out by franchise chains like Domino's and Debonair's.

Service is brusque, quick and businesslike. Pizze, mineral water and two bottles of wine came to slightly over R500 + tip for five of us. The restaurant's tiny size and bustling ambience mean that it might not be my first choice for a romantic assignment, but as a destination for a group of friends, or as a local take-away it's unsurpassed.

Piccolo Prima Donna
38 Grant Avenue

Telephone: (011) 483 0089

Beads, Stellenbosch

I had a flip through Beads' current menu and was interested to see that the place seems to have reinvented itself along the lines of Cafe Pasta or the Olive Garden. Its menu has transformed from a sort of eclectic pseudo-French-meets-Pacific-Rim style to a pleasant, Mediterranean-style lunchtime restaurant (sandwiches, wraps, salads), and I bet they're turning over three times the number of customers as a result.

Beads was responsible, back in August 2007, for one of the most disappointing meals I've ever had - anywhere. The radical change of menu direction since then leads me to assume that the restaurant has changed hands since.

Hurrah! Change is good.

Friday, 14 November 2008


Window, Moemas
Picture stolen from here

is the hottest thing in the world of South African baked goods since... well, perhaps since the invention of the koeksister. It's a stylish patisserie in a zhooshy corner of Parktown North. The window is packed with enough good things to bring on a sugar rush: displays of creamy tartlets, eclairs, delicate little tarts topped with raspberries or mint leaves, and bowls of chocolate meringues artfully dusted with cocoa.

The high-ceilinged shop has a row of tables occupied by kugels in sunglasses, or old men with newspapers nibbling on slices of buttery goodness capped with streusel and icing sugar. The welcome is slightly distracted - I stood awkwardly for a couple of minutes while waiting staff impatiently brushed past me - and not helped by the rather odd layout of the shop: the widest counter you've ever seen, and displays so high that staff can be seen only occasionally skulking behind the plump salmon quiches and earthenware bowls of glistening hummus.

Disconcertingly, the counter is laid out with uncovered, unrefrigerated platters of savoury food. It looks beautiful, but I couldn't help thinking "sneeze-guard". And "flies". And no, half-a-dozen citronella candles dotted between the platters is no substitute for a cover; and that verdict is delivered with the full authority of someone who once held a Basic Food Handling Certificate from the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health. (I mean, that practically makes me into a doctor, doll...)

There are a couple of disappointing reviews online that infer that, in the past, the welcome at Moemas has been less than perfect for some customers. Service is polite but certainly brisk; and when I lay out R21 for a chocolate tart, I expect a smile and at least a bit of eye contact. However, the cakes are superb.

Shop 1 Parktown Quarter
Corner of 7th and 3rd Avenues
Parktown North

Telephone: (011) 788 7725

Wednesday, 12 November 2008


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

Louis XVI, Rosebank, Johannesburg

I was all ready to review Louis XVI, honest I was. And then at lunchtime one day last week I used the gents' loo in the TA Centre, which is the weird building on Jan Smuts Avenue where the restaurant is located. You know: where Thrupps used to be. (And had to fight and argue with the security guard before he would let me have the key... The TA Centre also has the dodgiest ever hairdresser - the size of Harrods, about 12 hairdressers' chairs, and never a single customer. I mean that, quite literally, I have never seen any customers in there, which does make me wonder in my cynical way how they manage to pay the rent.)

The TA Centre courtyard

Picture courtesy of

As I finished peeing, out of a lavatory cubicle, to the accompaniment of flushing, emerged a man in chef's whites and a blue apron. He walked straight out of the gents and entered a door just down the corridor, which appears from the layout of the ground floor to be a sort of back door into Louis XVI.

And didn't wash his hands.

So I skipped Louis XVI.

Louis XVI
160 Jan Smuts Avenue
South Africa

Telephone: (011) 447 6244