Dining With The Duchess – A Family Affair

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.

Some of the Duchess's unique décor

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.

Table Top Puppies (To be fair my savage friends put them in this particular position)

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.

Delicious Dinosaur

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!

Sticky Toffee Delight

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

 

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Viva La France!

I’m a complete sucker for any kind of themed event – I find the predictability proffered by a defined set of parameters strangely comforting, as it caters nicely to my control freak tendencies. So whether it’s an ‘80’s roller disco evening or a Halloween party, you can expect me to be in attendance – fully clad in requisite regalia and an embarrassing amount of enthusiasm.

Interesting Interiors

So you can imagine my excitement when I found out about Sotano’s Mediterranean-themed fortnights, whereby each of my favourite ocean’s countries are allocated 2 weeks to show off their respective cuisines. I was particularly excited to try out their Egyptian menu (I mean have you ever thought about what Egyptians actually eat? Yes they build pyramids and empires, but how do they sustain these efforts?!), but was sadly slow off the mark and had to ‘settle’ for an evening entirely dedicated to the culinary stylings of France.

Sotano, part of the Caveau group, is one of my favourite places in Cape Town – on a summer’s day there is nowhere better to enjoy a gentle sea breeze and a stiff drink or two. I’ve only ever experienced the charming Greek taverna-style outdoor section, but thanks to an unseasonal South-Easter bollocking its way through the city, this particular trip led us indoors – an area of the restaurant I’d only ever seen in the distance through a cocktail-soaked haze.

I can report that the interior is every bit as attractive as its outdoor counterpart, boasting a host of really unusual and stylish fittings, as well as a most awesome feature fireplace, which is more aesthetic than functional but really who cares.

The menu Francais

It’s not like we live in Siberia.

And so to the main point of the evening – the gastronomie francaise. I’ve never been what you’d call a fan of French food – I sometimes find it a little too delicate and fussy for my liking, and I’m immediately suspicious of a culture that prizes fare like aspic and frog’s legs so highly. I also feel that many restaurateurs in this country have come to believe that the inherent ‘Frenchness’ of food somehow makes it more fancy, and use this as an excuse to serve outrageously small portions – at such exorbitant rates that you may as well book a flight to Paris and try out the real thing.

Reservations aside, at a glance the menu had me salivating, so we dove in without further ado. The deal on offer is amazing – 3 courses for just R110 – so we opted to share all 5 available dishes. A wise move indeed, given that I feel my life would be infinitely poorer for having missed out on any one of them.

Starter number 1 arrived in double quick time – a deep fried camembert, served atop a toasted brioche. Whilst it looked an awful lot like an oversized fish finger, once it hit the taste buds, the similarities to processed seafood vanished swiftly. I’ve gotta hand it to the French (and Sotano’s chef) – they really can do a lot with very little, and this unassuming dish hit all the right marks – oozing cheesy decadence and indulgent bready chewiness combining to form a powerhouse combination of flavour that won’t soon be forgotten. Viva la France!

Camembert Finger

Next up – a heavenly tarte flambée, another example of a simple concept executed with flair and skill. Although it sounds ridiculously extravagant – a result of its French labelling (something I will excuse given the obvious thematic relevance) – it essentially amounted to a pizza-esque flatbread, topped with caramelised onions, crème fraiche and pork lardons. I only found out what ‘lardons’ are later, and I’m quite relieved, given that Wikipedia has revealed to me that they are in fact small cubes of pork fat. Nonetheless, I didn’t know it at the time, so no harm, no foul. This was a perfect starter dish – light and tasty, with a hint of meaty goodness (in my mind it was ham). Another score for team France.

A pork fat pizza

Our two main courses took me into somewhat unfamiliar, but very welcome territory. First up was braised rabbit, served with mushrooms and tomatoes and the most sensational boulangère potatoes I ever did taste. The first time I ate rabbit I could practically see it hopping off my plate, with nothing left to the imagination in terms of its anatomy. It was just a pot full of legs, and I found the whole experience just a little bit too….visceral. This particular bunny was served in a far more civilised manner, sensitively chopped so as to minimise resemblance to any kind of cute household pet. That having been said, I would have eaten this bad boy irrespective of its appearance – it was absolutely splendid! Well cooked, tender, and akin to a slightly more complex and robust form of chicken. God bless the French for being willing to eat just about anything – discoveries like this are the fruits of their labours.

Bunny Rabbit

A sensational Bouillabaisse was the next stop on our tour de France. I’ve never really ordered this dish in the past, simply due to the fact that it’s a ridiculously hard word to pronounce, and I feel stupid just pointing at things on the menu and sheepishly saying “I’ll have that, the um, buee..bueee…yes that one, thank you”. After this, I’ll make a point of perfecting my pronunciation, because seriously, what’s not to love? A ridiculously tasty fish stew, with a variety of textures and flavours contained therein – I was in heaven. The ecstatic groaning from the other end of the table confirmed that the verdict was unanimous – my frostiness toward the French had now thawed quite dramatically.

Bueell.....??! How the hell do you say it?!

The night was capped with a perfect vanilla crème brulée – crisp on the outside (but not so crisp you have to take a hammer to it just to get the bastard to break), and creamy and custardy on the inside, with a whiff of sweet vanilla to seal the deal. Magnifique indeed!

La piece de resistance

I’m now utterly confused, and unsure of whether to direct my affection solely towards Sotano’s exceptional chef, or to relax my slightly harsh attitude towards French cuisine as a whole. Either way, I’m definitely heading back to Sotano regularly over the course of their Mediterranean exploration – the food is exceptional and you’ll be hard pressed to find better value for money during the Winter season. Plus, who doesn’t love a good theme evening?!

Sotano is currently serving Portuguese cuisine as part of their special, and it looks every bit as yummy as the French menu. For updates as to where they are travelling next, follow Sotano on Twitter @SotanoCT.

Sotano is open 7 days a week for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For reservations, call (021) 433 1757

 

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Food for the stomach, the soul and the wallet

Good value for money is a true rarity in Cape Town. For three months of the year, when the winter deluge sends the city’s residents into a state of sleepy hibernation, and the tourist flood slows to a trickle, many top restaurants swing into specials mode, adapting their outlandish pricing structure to survive the fickle temperament of the city. But, as the south-easter blows her way back into town, and the temperatures creep steadily up, so too do the prices, and the dining landscape once again becomes the exclusive playground of the rich, fabulous and foreign.

For all you Capetonians worrying about the imminent return to normalcy, when you’ll be forced to restrict your eating out to Spur and KFC, there is hope. Good value is very much alive and well in our fair city – you just have to look for it.

Styling...

Watson Street, a non-descript back alley between Loop and Bree streets, is a good place to start. It is home to What’s On Eatery (Watson – What’s On, get it?!), a relatively new addition to the Cape Town food scene. On the surface it’s everything one would expect from a stylish new venue – chic, eye-catching décor, awe-inspiring mountain views and a sophisticated sense of charm. In short, it has “I won’t be able to step foot in this place come October unless I sell off my vital organs” written all over it. But all is not as it appears at What’s On Eatery…

I had the pleasure of visiting What’s On last week, under the pretense of a ‘working lunch’. Let it just be said that I have the most wonderful colleagues, and before long, serious business talk had been replaced by a flurry of g&t’s and some of the finest food to have traipsed its way down my ravenous gullet in quite some time. An initial scan of the menu had me foaming at the mouth with excitement, not only because of the vast and varied bounty on offer, but due to the outrageously reasonable pricing structure which is – and this is the best part – not season specific.

Stuffed Calamari

Encouraged by the prospect of returning home to relatively unscathed bank accounts, we set about attacking the menu with relish, commencing with a simple but heavenly stuffed calamari starter. Aside from the odd groan of satisfaction, this little show stopper reduced our usually loud table to complete silence, as we relished the subtle flavours of soft feta and peppadew, stuffed inside perfectly seared calamari tubes. Professionalism was a long forgotten concept as we scraped every last morsel off our plates, desperately clinging for one last hit of goodness. Served with a herb salad, this bad boy set us each back a grand total of R39, and let me tell you it was worth every penny.

Having been given a hint of what was to come, we wasted little time with chit chat and got heavily involved with the main course options. My colleagues decided on an oxtail risotto, which I barely had time to photograph before it went sailing down their pie holes with gusto. I obviously insisted on sampling (you know, for purposes of official review), and, from the small token helping I was allocated, I can tell you that this was just as spectacular as its preceding course. Beautifully presented, and swimming in meaty goodness, this was the risotto of my dreams – a perfect combination of tender, flavourful meat (generously allocated) and creamy, flawlessly prepared rice.

Oxtail Risotto

Luckily my order envy was assuaged by the enormous spectacle that arrived on my plate – a toasted ciabatta, filled with beautifully cooked lamb, caramelised onions and feta, served with the world’s most delicious onion rings and wedges. The experience of wolfing this down ranks high on my list of culinary adventures to date, and sent the level of ecstatic groaning into somewhat uncomfortable territory. (Let’s just say work the next day was awkward, very awkward). An exercise in simply constructed perfection, all for the whopping price of R42 – yes you read right. You’d probably pay more for a Nando’s meal and feel infinitely less satisfied.

Lamb, feta & caramelised onion ciabatta

Unable to stop ourselves from continuing our relentless surge through the menu, we dove in for our last dose of decadence. Now I’m really not a dessert person. My mother never fed us dessert and, as such, I don’t think I ever acquired the taste. That having being said, I could write endless sonnets about what arrived next – a hazelnut and dark chocolate fondant, served with amarula ice cream and butterscotch sauce, delicious enough to ignite anyone’s sweet tooth. The fondant was like a dark, heavenly volcano, oozing chocolate from its core and smothering the plate in a rich, inexorable sea of indulgence. Combined with the heavenly butterscotch sauce, and the rich amarula flavour of the ice cream, this was truly a divine experience – I could practically hear the chorus of angels singing above me as I knocked it back. And all this for just 40 South African ronts.

Hazelnut Chocolate Fondant...sweet lord

Stuffed, ashamed and covered in chocolate, we hurriedly paid our (very small) bill and headed in our separate directions, painfully aware that we’d possibly seen and shared too much. We’ll always remember our day at What’s On Eatery as a time when business met, and was then trampled upon by, pleasure.

I can’t recommend What’s On Eatery highly enough – the food is unbelievable, the setting sublime and the damage inflicted on your bank account will be minimal. However, I might suggest that you go with people you know well, who won’t judge you when they catch you licking your plate like a possessed maniac.

What’s On Eatery’s restaurant is open Tuesday to Saturday, from 18:00 – 23:00. The downstairs deli, which serves a variety of sumptuous breakfasts and lunches, is open Monday to Friday from 07:30 – 16:00. R39 weekday lunch specials are also available daily. For bookings, call (021) 422 5652. Do it NOW!

I've seen less pleasant views

 

 

 

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Braving the Barrack

Alternative dining options in Barrack Street. Image courtesty iOL

Barrack Street in Cape Town’s CBD is home to many a nefarious establishment, with the vile Home Affairs Department and Mavericks, the local distribution agent for the Eastern Bloc’s vast prostitution empire, amongst its list of less than glamorous tenants. Barrack Street is where good taste goes to die, so it was with a fair degree of trepidation that we slinked into Il Cappero, an unassuming new eatery that unfortunately shares part of its address with some of the aforementioned dives. The promise of authentic, Sicilian cuisine (more on what the hell that actually means later) proved sufficiently alluring for us to bite the bullet and brave the Barrack. And what a wise move it turned out to be…

I want to say that, upon entry into Il Cappero, I was immediately transported to another time and place, impervious to the somewhat grungy surrounds (that’s the kind of thing food reviewers say right?). This would, however, be a lie. The sights and sounds of the inner city are very much in evidence, with the giant iron entrance gates serving as a very real reminder of one’s location. The interior is simple and to the point, with beautiful Venetian panoramas, photographed by the restaurant’s owner, adorning the lilac walls, lest anyone were to forget this was an Italian restaurant.

Well, Sicilian – to be more precise. The difference between the two is subtle, but very apparent, and as I read through the menu I started to panic slightly, noting that almost every dish included some of, if not ALL of, my least favourite ingredients in the world. Ever. As my eye scanned over a myriad dishes laced with various forms of personal kryptonite (aubergines and olives featuring most prominently), I started preparing myself for that awkward moment when I’d be forced to smile sheepishly at the waiter and say, “Nothing for me thanks – big lunch”, all the while surreptitiously hurling complimentary bread down my gullet like a rabid wolf.

(I must just take a moment to pay my respects to the bread – absolutely out of this world!)

Kryptonite tastes good

Possibly sensing my escalating panic, Aldo, who runs the restaurant along with his lovely wife Cetti, whipped himself over to the table and charmed me silly, completely allaying my worries with a one-two punch of Mediterranean flair and endearingly broken English. After discussing the various menu options, we opted to let him make our decisions for us – a sensible move that paid off in the best possible way.

First up was a starter of Caponata di Melanzane, a traditional anti-pasto consisting of brinjals, tomatoes, capers and olives, drenched in a sweet and sour sauce. While I wouldn’t ever dream of consuming any of those ingredients on their own, the combination was mind blowing, with the salty tastes of the capers and olives beautifully off-set by the subtle sweetness of the sauce. The brinjals also added a meaty texture to the whole affair, and, as a pretty big fan of meat, this pleased me to no end. This was gobbled down at a rate of knots, savagely disposed of like a buffalo carcass by a starving pack of hyenas.

A Taste of the Ocean

Our main course consisted of a selection of speciality dishes, the first of which was the restaurant’s pièce de resistance – the Pasta Con Ricci, or sea-urchin pasta. Sea-urchin is not something with which most people are immediately familiar (I’m not even sure I know what one looks like), so let me try to explain it. The first memory evoked in my mind when I bit into the urchin was of summers spent at the beach, being dumped by waves in high-tide and acquiring a mouth full of sand and sea water as a result. Whilst that doesn’t sound especially appealing on paper (must work on my metaphors), it is actually surprisingly pleasant, and the palate seems to adjust to the shock of it all by the second or third bite. Slight hints of lemon and olive oil balance things out nicely, and, in spite of giant odds being stacked against it, this dish really works. Well.

Next up – a dreamy porcini mushroom risotto. (The restaurant serves only fresh ingredients, so the risotto changes daily – probably best to call in advance just to be sure of what’s available). Buttery, rich heaven in a bowl, this was, hands down, the best risotto I’ve ever tasted – cooked to perfection and infused with a subtle cheesiness that can still induce pangs of longing upon reflection.

Now officially stuffed, it was time for one last dive into the seemingly never-ending conveyor belt of goodness. Dessert came in the form of traditional Sicilian cannoli, legendary delicacies which I’ve only ever heard spoken of in The Godfather movies. Seems those Italian crooks are onto something because DAMN, what a find. A sweet ricotta filling wrapped in a crispy biscuit blanket has understandably earned its status as a bit player in mafia films, offering an ample hit of rich, sweet creaminess, without being overpowering. The perfect way to end a meal.

Food Fit for a Mob Boss

Il Cappero is a truly refreshing and unique dining venue, completely devoid of Capetonian pomposity, and oozing with its own charm and flavour. The menu really does reward the more adventurous palate, and you’d be well advised to go in with an open mind in order to have it well and truly blown. For the more cautious diner, there are more standard ‘meat and potato’ options, but I strongly suggest you explore the full spectrum of the very varied menu, and you might be surprised at what you find.

Il Cappero is open from 12:30 to 14:30 on weekdays, and from 6:30pm from Monday to Saturday. You can find it, and you will have to look quite hard, at 3 Barrack Street, CBD. For bookings, call (021) 461 3168 or e-mail reservations@ilcappero.co.za

 

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Nacho, Nacho Man

Generally, when I think about Mexican cuisine, I tend to envision plates of cheesy, greasy nachos and tequila-soaked, sombrero-clad party girls screaming ‘Olé’ whilst swaying unsteadily from the bar counter. Whilst these types of margarita-infused nights of madness certainly have their time and place, I’ve been led to believe that Mexican food is about so much more than guacamole, salsa and blinding José Cuervo hangovers.

Homely goodness...or is it?

One of the city’s newest eateries purports to provide a more authentic Mexican experience, so I set off on a mission to explore exactly what such a thing entails. My journey of discovery took me to San Julian, an unusual little establishment, tucked away in a lower corner of Rose Street in De Waterkant. From what I’m led to believe about Mexico (and this is purely based on what I’ve deduced from movies and various, racially offensive Taco Bell adverts), this seemed like the genuine article. The restaurant feels a bit like a time capsule, with crosses adorning the walls and an air of small-town homeliness infusing the place with charm. It’s run by the delightful Garcia family (such fun to say in a Spanish accent – Gartheea), who have mastered the art of multi-tasking – they provide a hands-on entertainment experience that involves dress-up, singing, drinking and, at various intervals during the evening, eating.

These are some of the things I learned about Mexico and its cuisine after my evening at San Julian:

1 – Mexicans do NOT like Big Korn Bites

Despite what the adverts might have you believe, Mexicans are not mad for Big Korn Bites. They will, however, endorse them for money. Our waiter was, in fact, the star of the most recent commercial for the chip brand, having been discovered through some sort of casting system that clearly involved a fair degree of racial profiling. Kudos to Big Korn Bites for going the extra mile to find the genuine article. Minus points for them being unable to convince their primary brand ambassador to actually endorse them with any sort of conviction. “Disgusting!” was, in fact, the adjective used by our very lovely waiter to describe his feelings towards South Africa’s clearly inauthentic take on the nacho chip.

2 – Tequila also makes Mexicans go bananas

Turns out Mexicans are not immune to the charms of their wildly popular export drink. As the night went on, things got progressively rowdier as the margaritas started to flow. Out came the sombreros, the Mexican wrestling masks (more on this later) and the guitars, and our hosts got livelier by the minute, putting on quite the show for their initially confused, and later, slightly shit-faced clientele. San Julian is an experience of note, with food taking a bit of a backseat to the various forms of entertainment that are peddled through the restaurant during the course of the evening.

Olé!

3 – Mexican Wrestling Masks are really quite disturbing en masse

The difference between Mexican wrestling masks (think Nacho Libre on crack) and S&M attire is virtually nil. Add or subtract a few colourful tassles here and there but essentially, they’re the same thing. I was halfway through my slightly bland taco when I was accosted from behind and adorned with one of these delightful pieces of headgear. With tequila swimming happily around your belly this seems utterly hysterical, and, as more and more of these elaborate masks are whipped out and placed on unsuspecting patrons’ heads, the place begins to look like it’s readying itself for some sort of mass orgy. Whilst this was immensely fun at the time, the pictures the next day paint a rather disturbing picture.

See what I mean about the orgy vibe? Creepy...

4 – Guacamole should never be underestimated

Oh yes there was food too....

Whilst there was nothing inherently wrong with the meal I ordered (the Taco de Carne Asada, or tortilla with barbecued meat, guacamole onion & coriander), it was rather lacking in flavour and originality. Which is a pity, because, as I was chewing on what felt like nothing in particular, I was very aware of the fact that I was downing, and not particularly enjoying, an afternoon’s worth of hard work. All corn tortillas are made in-house, and freshly prepared each and every afternoon. I so badly wanted to enjoy the meal but, despite beautiful presentation, it failed to make any sort of impression on my tastebuds. The meat was under-spiced, the refried beans soupy to the point of being unnerving and there was a noteable shortage of guac, which I feel might have been able to save the day.

San Julian is a fantastically vibrant and eccentric spot that offers diners a truly original and unique experience. It’s less about the food than the vibe, and is definitely a place to which I’d return, although possibly just for drinks next time. The margaritas come very highly recommended and, whilst slightly expensive (just under R40), they do the job in double-quick time, and will be sure to reduce you to a singing, mask-wearing deviant in next to no time.

San Julian is open Monday – Saturday, 17:00 – 23:00. Call (021) 419 4233 to make a booking.

My next trip down Mexico lane takes me to the effortlessly chic Twitterati favourite, El Burro, for a glorious dose of goaty goodness. Stay tuned.

That's some scary shit

 

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