The Mother City of the Rainbow Nation is enjoying something of a culinary renaissance these days with ambitious young chefs indulging in deliciously creative dishes embracing the city’s diverse cultures.
These trendy restaurants have transformed former run-down working-class neighbourhoods into veritable hipster centres. Suddenly they’ve become hot. But which are the stand out restaurants? Andy Mossack picks out two of his personal favourites.
The Shortmarket Club
Hidden away in a narrow city centre, lane squeezed between Bree and Loop Streets is a remarkable restaurant co-owned by British chef Luke Dale Roberts. He also happens to own The Test Kitchen, currently Cape Town’s most popular restaurant. First of all, it has no obvious signage at street level, just a nondescript door with the number 88 on it. But go through, climb the stairs and it’s a whole different story.
At first glance, you might feel you’ve travelled back in time. There’s a distinct Edwardian era meets speakeasy feel about the main dining room with stained glass encased sliding doors, leather banquettes and copper lamps hanging down from the rustic high vaulted ceiling. A wash of framed butterflies adorns the far wall.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before all this, as you turn at the top of those uninspiring stairs an open plan kitchen greets you. Well, you might as well let the punters see where the magic happens before they sit down.
This is a tidy bar area where perhaps you might just want an early evening drink while you watch chef Wesley Randles (Dale Robert’s top man from The Test Kitchen) create dishes you won’t be eating. Then again, you could be waiting for a table, in which case you are witnessing a theatre of food.
Speaking of which, back in the main dining room it is just that. Pure theatre. Many dishes are finished tableside with much pomp and ceremony; various additional ingredients materializing from props like a wooden crate, or you might even get a glimpse of a dish before it’s taken away to be finished. Either way, it’s all very entertaining. Having said that, the food has to match the billing, and of that, there is no doubt.
A locally caught yellowfin tuna starter (R160) is presented briefly before lime juice and coconut oil is added. Utterly delicious. As is our other starter; Fig and black truffle (R160) with smoked burnt aubergine puree and rapini in lemon juice and hazelnut oil.
The main acts follow after a brief pause, long enough for me to check out my fellow diners’ dishes. No one, it seems, is looking unhappy with their choices.
A sumptuous Zaatar baked cauliflower with a hazelnut, mint and lentil dressing, aged balsamic, avocado oil and goats cheese (R150) is up next. The collie crunchy, the zaatar sensational. You also might think a 40-day aged prime rib (R390) would be a little boring considering the previous cast of characters. But this one comes with roasted celery root which could be mistaken for a perfect roast potato, sauce Diane and truffle jus; not a hint of boring anywhere no this plate.
Our desserts come with recommendations. Peaches and cream with ricotta and wild honey and lemon (R100) and a chocolate fondant (R160) which is 80% Valrohna chocolate, but more like 80% indulgence with popcorn ice cream and peanut butter cookie dough.
The Shortmarket Club is hands down a terrific night out and a real statement about the quality of dining in Cape Town. Just make sure you find it!
Chef/owner Giles Edwards makes no bones about his choice of decor. “You might call it shabby chic, I call it all I could afford at the time.” The interior of La Tête is more like a workers canteen than a restaurant that has exploded onto the Cape Town food scene. It’s also, by Edward’s own admission, “right next door to one of the most dangerous streets in town.” Yet there is no doubting the passion and effort that has gone into this. It’s a result of years of learning his chops (if you don’t mind the pun) at famous London meat restaurants like J.Sheekey and St John where offal is celebrated rather than thrown away.
La Tête is all about head to tail cuisine; ensuring that all parts of an animal are treated with equal respect. “Lots of chicken breasts are eaten but the hearts and livers are thrown away,” Giles tells me before delivering a delicious plate of chicken liver toast. (R55) as a tasty nibble.
Make no mistake this is meat eater heaven. Cured beef, beetroot & horseradish (R95) Wild boar rillettes (R90) crispy pig tails and aioli (R90) crispy pig cheek, chicory and apple (R185) lamb liver, peas and bacon (R180).
The signature dish on a menu where, up to this point, the most expensive dish is R185, is braised whole leg of lamb, squash, mint and crème fraîche for four people at R1600 which is excellent value. La Tête to me feels like a cross between an authentic Bilbao tapas bar and Smithfield chop house.
The key message at La Tête is sustainability. ” Maine lobster flown in is wrong,” Instead, locally sourced food is king here. Local farmers with small land parcels growing organic foods. “If they don’t know how to grow organically, we teach them.”
Hence, the menu changes every day depending on what’s available.
Whilst meat eating is clearly front and centre, there are still seafood, fish and vegetarian options on the menu. The octopus, fennel and sea spinach (R95) is excellent, as is the mussels, leeks and bacon (R95). The mushrooms on toast (R160) is not too shabby either come to think of it.
Giles is a very talented chef and somehow manages to create these really tasty dishes from a kitchen so small, he has to make up many of the dishes out front.
You know, it is really gratifying to find a restaurant that is clearly right up there on the Cape Town food scene, still completely grounded. No fancy frills, no pretentious waiters, just great dishes at very affordable prices.
Here’s a little secret suggestion. Take a bag of just-baked hot Madeleines (12 for R84) home with you. You’ll love them for breakfast.
All images except the featured image (c) Andy Mossack
Tell me more about Cape Town’s best new restaurants
The Shortmarket Club, 88 Shortmarket St, Cape Town City Centre, Cape Town, 8000, South Africa
Tel: +27 21 447 2874
La Tête, 17 Bree St, Cape Town City Centre, Cape Town, 8000, South Africa
Tel: +27 21 418 1299
Getting to Cape Town
Parking at London Heathrow