16 Mar, 2015
Playing with Food at The Tasting Room
Starting with preserved limes and black pepper snow, finishing with an ice pick to crack a snow globe; words struggle to capture this visual feast and taste bud party.
My instincts sensed an adventure, a culinary expedition on this perfect February evening. We were to embark upon the African Surprise menu. Surprise is certainly the right choice of word. First of all, there is no menu which is surprising in itself. Each of the eight courses is a bolt out of the blue from a possible eighteen dishes that the chef and her team have created. Thus peering stealthily over at your neighbour’s table does not provide a reliable clue as to what will be coming your way next. The likelihood of dish envy raises its ugly green head but thankfully each of our courses was so sublime; we were simply grateful to have tasted them.
The second surprise was the spirit of playfulness that pervades the Tasting Room from the quirky decor to the altered states of food and to the fun style of the waiters. The Tasting Room is one of the 100 best restaurants in the world and while they clearly take their craft incredibly seriously in striving for excellence, they don’t seem to take themselves too seriously. I had imagined a hushed quietness, whispering couples, possibly a piano and dishes delivered in reverential tones complete with indecipherable ingredient names. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The waiters are down-to-earth and keen to joke along with the guests. My partner arrived with two litres of Dairybelle full cream under his arm much to the amusement of the staff who alternately offered to pop it into the fridge and thanked him for picking up the milk.
The third surprise is that locals rule. Super local even common ingredients are rendered in crazy new forms. Think amasi ricotta alongside nasturtium mousse fashioned into the shape of a shongololo. Coco pops inside a snow globe. Sour figs swimming with a Saldanha bay oyster in a pool of vichyssoise (maybe our favourite dish?). Lekker locals man the tables too. Real live guys from the ‘hood complete with South African accents. The waiters spoke knowledgeably and with first hand knowledge of every dish. I felt that they expertly nuanced their personal style to the needs of every table. Formal if required, chatty if possible and attentive if encountering the needy. And the hooch was a celebration of our burbs too. Wine from the valley and beer from the neighbours.
The fourth surprise was the nature of the “wine” pairing. To start we were served pink Miss Molly Methode Cap Classique from Môreson. Here, the flute was flouted and the bubbly arrived in swimming pool glasses. The classic Champagne Coupe, Very 70’s, Very Miami, so very happy and frivolous. Some seriously interesting and stunning wines followed especially a new taste for us in the Vin Dorrance kama chenin blanc. The third course was octopus teamed with radish, cucumber and sorrel nori and at this moment, we had another shot of sparkles in the form of the Graham Beck Brut Zero 2008. As a bubbling fan, I loved this but it is apparent that you are free to repeat a previous wine, skip a wine or move onto the next one. Again in the spirit of The Tasting Room, the pairings are brilliant and talented suggestions but there is no prescription or rigidity about it. Each to their own tastes. After the Excelsior Viognier with that oyster dish I am still dreaming about, I was given a craft beer! Boston breweries Whale Tale Ale to go with salted kabeljou. Served in a sherry glass, this was a refreshing accompaniment and in the perfect volume. At the same time, my partner was offered a special cocktail with his duck in salt. Unfazed by his decision to decline the bespoke drink, the waiter offered to top up any of the previous favourites. More of the delectable Vin Dorrance kama chenin blanc, of course!
All is not what it seems in Tasting Room, the cacti are crocheted; as is the rock on one of the tables and the sunset on the wall. Yet, the ultimate in altered states was the finale; the arrival of my snow globe with accompanying miniature ice pick. Perfectly crafted, exquisitely fine, completely translucent, the little orb of sugar rested in my plate ready to be smashed. One sharp crack and shards of snow globe shattered over plum, ginger and coco pops.
To have a top 100 restaurant just down the road with the talents of Margot Janse is another notch in the remarkableness of South Africa. We are truly lucky to have her and her team on our doorstep as a top 100 experience is far less accessible around the globe.
I made some quick investigations by way of comparison.
The French Laundry, a state-side winner, comes in at $295 for nine courses without wine. You are welcome to bring one bottle of your own (per couple) if it is not on their wine list for a corkage fee of $150. Some of the dishes come with a surcharge of between $75 to $150 on top of the $295. The legendary Fat Duck in Berkshire was GBP220 for the tasting menu without wine before it closed for refurbishments.
The Tasting Room is R1335 with wine pairings. If you can afford it; you should go and be surprised.
The Tasting Room at Le Quartier Francais
021 876 2151
Find the Dorrance team at Heritage Square in Cape Town.
021 422 0695
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