Restaurants judged by more than their food
A WARDS ceremonies are to the restaurant industry what fashion shows are to wearable fashion. You wouldn’t want to wear much of what a model wears while sashaying down the catwalk with pouty lips and sultry eyes. (Although sometimes I think that what’s going on behind the eyes is, “Left leg, right leg, left leg...”) Not that I’m suggesting that chefs (or models) are bimbos, or even that the courses they bring out for the annual Eat Out awards ceremony are anything you wouldn’t want to eat.
But let’s be honest: cooking for an awards function at this level does push the boundaries a bit. They know their peers are all going to be watching their every morsel.
On Sunday night, for the 2009 awards – and the launch of the 2010 Eat Out magazine annual – the four chefs chosen to cook the gala dinner were Laurent Deslandes of Bizerca, on the Cape Town Foreshore, Luke Dale-Roberts of La Colombe, in Constantia, Michael Broughton of Terroir, near Stellenbosch, and Richard Carstens, who is currently posted to Reuben Riffel’s Franschhoek restaurant.
All four, note, are from the Cape’s ever-splendid crop of chefs. With few exceptions, it seems there’s not much happening in the Joburg and Durban restaurant industries. But more on that (and the extraordinary inclusion of a Durban parking lot eatery in the country’s top 10) later. These are four chefs I respect, and the awards dinner in the ballroom of the Westin Grand hotel on the Cape Town Foreshore offered a fascinating chance to see chefs of this calibre in competition, however tacit.
Deslandes was first up with a starter of a raw Norwegian salmon salad served with creamy goat’s cheese and a shallot, ginger and soy dressing. Fresh and light and lovely.
No surprises that Dale-Roberts’s first main course was top-notch, although to me it looked more like a second starter. This was served on one of a range of four beautiful plates specially designed for La Colombe by Andile Dyalvane, of Imiso Ceramics, in collaboration with Adriaan Landman, of the College of Cape Town, and his students.
On the gorgeous rectangular plate, based on a strip of bark with red splashes of what you presume to be sap, was a neatly pressed terrine of foie gras and smoked quail with cured duck breast and caramelised Jerusalem artichokes, almond and cardamom puree and an espresso reduction.
This, as you’ll find if you visit La Colombe, is typical of Dale-Roberts’s complex culinary concoctions. Absolutely yummy – he does not win these awards for nothing.
The second main was Broughton’s rolled loin and braised neck of Karoo lamb with pea and marjoram ravioli. This was a good meal, perfectly cooked and presented, but you will find dishes of a similar standard in any number of Cape restaurants. It did not push the boundaries for me.
Carstens always pushes the limits. He’s had some tough times recently, losing his short-lived Nova restaurant in the City Bowl after only a few months. I found a certain edge to him on Sunday night, as if he was asserting himself, saying, hey, I deserve to be here. up next, followed by The Roundhouse, Camps Bay, The Restaurant at Grande Provence, Franschhoek, The Greenhouse at the Cellars, Constantia, and Roots in Joburg.
But would somebody please explain to me why Durban’s 9th Avenue Bistro is deemed worthy of a place in the country’s top 10? I just don’t get it. And yes, I have eaten there, only three months ago. I’m not knocking the place. I had a lovely lunch there, beautifully sauced, tender, well presented, no problems at all with the food.
But I have had similarly good food at any number of Cape Town restaurants with better decor and, well, better settings. Perhaps it’s just because the judges are too embarrassed to give most of the awards to Cape restaurants. Hey, we’ve become a world food capital. We’ve worked hard for it. The truth is the truth, and shouldn’t be manipulated so as not to offend readers from other provinces. Better to give all the gongs to the best ones, even if they are all from the Cape, and see that as a challenge to Durban restaurants to up their game. It seems they need to.
Like Bizerca, a bland little place with great food which gobsmacked many by being included in last year’s top 10, 9th Avenue Bistro just isn’t up to this level of competition, only because a great restaurant is not measured only by its food.
Interestingly, this year the organisers decided to introduce a new award for best bistro, because, as Eat Out’s Abigail Donnelly explained, it was felt there should be an award for a restaurant which might not have great decor but still served great food.
So this year that went to Bizerca. I commend this decision. But that’s where 9th Avenue should have been in contention. That would be a deserved win.
Finally, sharing 10th position were two of the best restaurants in the Western Cape, both of which I feel should have been higher up in the commendations.
How on Earth is 9th Avenue Bistro, which has a nondescript al fresco area overlooking a plain-as-chips parking lot, better than the Tasting Room at Le Quartier Francais and Margot Janse’s fabulous cuisine, or master chef Bertus Basson’s Overture with its world-beating view?
And hey, if you’re from Durban and reading this, let us know which Durban restaurants you feel are worthy of this level of recognition. I reckon they must be there, but if 9th Avenue is the best you can do, I wouldn’t bother.
First published on Tony Jackman’s blog at www.sliver.co.za
‘With few exceptions, it seems there’s not much happening in the Joburg and Durban restaurant industries’
Had he been invited to cook because his Nova would have been nominated had it not closed? I don’t know. But that would explain his presence in a line-up of chefs who, otherwise, were nominees on the night. Either way, let’s salute a great chef.
For his dessert he offered an affair as clinically white as the decor of the deceased Nova (which, poignantly, had been marketed as “the brightening of a star”). His star was certainly bright on Sunday. His rose yoghurt sorbet was a dream. The best sorbet ever. You wanted to adopt it and keep it in your freezer to multiply forever. Rose creme, gel (a cubed sliver of jelly), litchi and pistachio crumbs. This was not for the hungry, but most pleasing to eye and palate.
And then, to the awards. Restaurant of the year was La Colombe, in Constantia. No arguments there. The runner-up was Restaurant Mosaic, in Pretoria, of which I cannot pass comment, not having been to that capital for some... well, decades. But the chef of the year was Mosaic’s Chantel Dartnall, not Dale-Roberts, who won both categories last year. Can’t say I follow how that is justified, but hey, they’re just awards. Love to try her food.
In third place was Rust en Vrede, in Stellenbosch, whose debonair chef David Higgs also collected the gong for best service, an award which has gone to Terroir several times. But Terroir was