Don’t duck the duck – tuck in!
THE MERCURY ON
WHO says Durban doesn’t like duck? I’m sitting in Umhlanga’s newest food experience, munching away happily.
The duck is served with red cabbage, a crisp apple and fennel salad and quince purée, in a pool of tasty meat juices garnished with cherries. The breast is firm, juicy and cooked perfectly pink, the skin crisp and the confit leg section is meltingly tender.
“Trevor, you’ve got to try this,” as I pile a mound of duck carelessly on to his gnocchi. He concurs whole-heartedly.
Probably the best duck I’ve had in a long long time. Outstanding.
We’re sitting at The Chefs’ Table, a fine dining restaurant that’s opened in the new wing of the Protea Hotel. It’s a dry run, and some of the lights aren’t fitted and the plants aren’t in and the toilets still look like a building site, but the kitchen is firing. And it’s packed and very convivial.
It’s the chef, 23-year-old KaylaAnn Osborn, who tells me she was warned that Durban doesn’t do duck. And there is an element of truth here, but that’s simply because I’ve stopped ordering duck in Durban because it’s usually pretty grim. She tells me it was her top seller in Pietermartitzburg when she worked at Traffords, and is fast proving her critics wrong here. I’m not surprised she’s changing attitudes.
Later I try the duck a second time when the restaurant is properly open and all the little niggles ironed out, and it is just as good, this time garnished with roast apple. Young Luke gives it the thumbs-up. I’m polishing off the last morsel as I write this.
So what can one expect? As the name suggests, everything’s driven by the kitchen, which takes pride of place in an open square at the centre. There’s a bar counter down one side where you can watch the brigade at work, and tables down two sides spilling out on to a veranda that overlooks the scene in Chartwell Drive. There’s a bar at one side and a vertical garden. By day it’s light, at night it’s more let your hair down.
The décor is modern retro with deep banquettes in jewel colours paired with leather club chairs, exposed brick and murals, deco-inspired tiles and lamps and bespoke plates. These are handpotted and wonderfully organic
But back to the food. The chef ’s philosophy is the best ingredients and great flavours. And things will change regularly. The menu may make the food look a little more complicated than it is, but it’s worth navigating.
For starters I enjoyed Trevor’s winter Caprese salad. It’s a generous portion of grilled halloumi with balsamic roast cherry tomatoes and a coriander emulsion. Nicely done. My lemon and Parmesan risotto with egg yolk and black pepper ice cream too is a feast of flavours.
Later Luke and I try the pumpkin tortellini paired with bacon, a bacon cream, bacon biltong, and bacon dust. Ipredict this will be one dish the chef will not be able to take off the menu. We also relish slow-braised tongue on a marrow bone with sweet mustard and a gremolata cream. The tongue is testimony to great cooking and pairs beautifully with the mustard sauce.
Chef brings us out a taste of her beetroot-cured Norwegian salmon with crispy salmon skin (salmon biltong, as Luke insists on calling it) with pickled apple and beetroot powder. I enjoy it.
So what’s left for mains – besides the duck, of course? The lady opposite has the 300g fillet with tjips, bone marrow butter, caramelised onion purée and garlic cream and munches happily away, although she can finish only half of it.
There’s a free-range baby chicken, deboned and stuffed with a mushroom farce and mushroom jus, paired with what the menu calls textures of cauliflower. I assume that’s the Banting option.
And for lunch there’s a burger that is truly monumental, or a very posh club sandwich with smoked salmon, crispy bacon and egg mayonnaise.
Luke and I try the pork belly, served on baby heirloom carrots with a carrot and ginger reduction and a mild, curried apple sauce. Another great dish, the pork is beautifully soft and the carrot and ginger purée inspired.
Trevor’s gnocchi is an interesting dish paired with grilled broccoli, courgettes and asparagus, smoked feta and a truffle cream. The gnocchi itself may have been a shade lighter, but the vegetables and sauce work well with the dish.
Desserts take in chocolate and popcorn. I never get to enquire what that entails, but I go for the lemon posset and lemon textures. The posset itself is a nice light end to a meal, although I have some reservations about the textures in it, even if they do give a good lemon punch.
Later Luke and I shred a cheeseboard. Simply billed blue cheese with kumquat preserve, this is a blue cheese mousse with biscotti, the kumquat preserve and an orange sorbet – which you sort of eat like cheese and biscuits all piled up on top of the biscotti, and hope it doesn’t break twixt plate and lip. We enjoy it.
The coffee is top notch and as expected, the wine list is a classy affair with some real oldies available for selection in the cellar. Our gin and tonics are served with a bay leaf … a novel and tasty idea.
The Chefs’ Table is certainly cooking up a storm.
The Chefs’ Table Protea Hotel, Chartwell Drive, Umhlanga Call: 031 001 0200
Open: brunch Sunday 9am to 11am; lunch Monday to Sunday 11.30-2.30; dinner Monday to Thusday 6pm-10pm, Friday and Saturday 6pm to 10.30pm Starters R79.95; mains R145-R189; desserts R76-R79. Sunday brunch, two courses R165, three courses R195, four courses R240.
Head chef Kayla-Ann Osborn in front of her chef’s brigade at the new Chefs’ Table restaurant in Umhlanga.
From left, duck breast and confit duck leg with red cabbage, baked apple, and quince preserve in a rich jus; braised tongue on a marrow bone with mustard sauce and gremalata cream; pumpkin tortellini with bacon cream and bacon biltong; and lemon and...