Don’t duck the duck – tuck in!

THE MER­CURY ON

The Mercury - - FOOD & WINE - Frank Che­maly

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.

PIC­TURES: JAC­QUES NAUDE AND FRANK CHE­MALY

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...

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