Restau­rants judged by more than their food

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - LIFE -

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

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