There are few things in this world that elicit such unadulterated gastronomic joy as a home cooked meal. The kind of dish that pays no heed to calorie count, and incorporates heart-attack friendly components like gravy, pastry and cheese with reckless abandon. As someone lacking in any kind of culinary repertoire (steak and packet sauce is pretty much the pinnacle of my personal achievement in the kitchen), I’m left to forage for home cooking anywhere but within the confines of my own abode.
Whilst Cape Town’s restaurant landscape is as diverse as it is impressive, it tends to be partial to the kinds of flourishes seldom found in Grandma’s kitchen (to be fair, the only thing I ever found in my Gran’s kitchen was gin, but I’m working off intel acquired from reliable sources). Sometimes simplicity works best – constantly having to excavate one’s meal from beneath enormous piles of rocket and other garnishes can leave a person feeling exhausted and unhinged.
But there is good news for those of us without Martha Stewart-esque domestic tendencies – home-style cooking is alive and well in our city, and hiding in a quiet corner of Sea Point. The Duchess of Wisbeach, a quirky and elegant little establishment off Main Road, doesn’t immediately scream homely goodness – in fact the vibe is less Sunday lunch at Grandma’s than it is potluck Thursday at your bat-shit crazy aunt’s place. But in spite of the wide array of eccentric furnishings (among them a giant cow’s head and a selection of porcelain dogs) at its core The Duchess is homely and familiar, and boasts the same level of unpredictable mania that only the closest of family can usually provide.
Owner and chef Theresa rules the roost from her raised kitchen pedestal, and keeps things relentlessly irregular – the menu changes wildly and inexplicably from night to night, and she occasionally stalks through the restaurant, dog in tow, in order to loudly berate a staff member. Like all the best artists, her temperament is flexible, but her craft is majestic, and the only constant at The Duchess is the undeniable quality of the food.
A browse through the menu reveals a selection of old favourites – from hearty pies to roast chicken and everything in between. As I mentioned earlier, the menu is anything but an accurate representation of what is actually available to you, but it does provide a mouth-watering insight into the type of fare on offer. After being given a run-through of the evening’s substantially revised options, we elected to try out dishes that promised to put the stomach through its paces, packing a hefty punch of meat, potato, gravy and sugar, reminiscent of the most indulgent family feasts.
First up – lamb shank, cooked in an anchovy and olive sauce and sat atop a pile of buttery, smooth mashed potato. I’ve never been the type to back down from any sort of size-related challenge, but even my eyes widened when this enormous dish arrived before me. Kudos to the waitress, who was able to carry it unhindered, despite it resembling some sort of monstrous dinosaur leg. I soon realised that completing the mammoth task of consuming this meal was not going to be in the least bit problematic – the slow cooked meat just fell right off the bone, so tender and flavoursome that I could have carried on going until someone physically restrained me (I’m not proud of this but it’s true). Even the initially worrying addition of olives and anchovies (both firm members of my ‘Don’t ever serve this to me at a dinner party’ list) did nothing to restrain my delight, adding an element of salty tanginess to proceedings. I’m proud to say that I summited my gastronomic Everest in double-quick time, and a swift glance around the table indicated that even my most restrained friends had licked the bones clean. Suffice to say that, despite the groans of anguish that haunted the next hour, this was universally well received.
I’m proud/ashamed to say that I was the only one brave enough to tackle dessert after consuming my own body weight in shank meat, and, in spite of the fact that I’d lost large portions of sensation in my body by this time, I was still able to enjoy the hell out of it. Apricot sticky toffee pudding is one of the restaurant’s specialities, (apparently it’s available most nights), and lived up to its bidding in the most spectacular fashion. Again, something that I’m viciously opposed to ended up actually enhancing the dish, with the sweet apricot flavours really adding an extra dimension to an old classic. The pudding was moist and incredibly tasty, and, added to the mound of meat already in my stomach, came very close to killing me, but what a spectacular and enjoyable death it would have been!
The Duchess of Wisbeach is everything you could hope to find in the pursuit of homely goodness. Like all family meals, it begins with excitement/dread (depending on your family), escalates to varying degrees of madness and culminates in a stomach so full you’re forced to stagger home, beaten and broken (but in a good way). If you like your food and your family a little on the crazy side, this is definitely the place for you.
For bookings call (021) 434-1525 and for more info, follow the Duchess on Twitter @DuchessWisbeach