Sunday, December 29, 2013

9th Avenue Bistro

A lot has been written about 9th Avenue bistro (almost all of it good), now open for almost thirteen years, and consistently considered one of Durban's best restaurants.

Like many excellent restaurants, it is more concerned with the food than with the exterior view, and is found in the Avonmore Centre in Morningside, an unremarkable location with an inadequate parking lot and a view of... well, just the parking lot really. Having said that, the place has undergone a revamp sometime in the last year or so since we last visited, and the interior is no longer entirely minimalist. A small, enclosed terrace is lined with accents of raw wood, and the interior is painted in cool grey tones. A feature wall carries a collection of paintings and photographs of aloes while the opposite wall holds some of their excellent wine collection. Simple hanging bulbs create a welcoming light, and my only quibble with the interior was the use of plastic flowers (fake protea pincushions) on a high shelf.

The wine list is short enough to read through, but long enough to mean business, and includes offerings from several boutique Cape wineries. We ordered a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc No 7 from Hermanuspietersfontein, a winery we were lucky to visit earlier this year. Platter's gives it four stars - I give it a delicious.

The menu itself is tight and focused, with around ten starters and ten main courses over two pages. We didn't get to dessert on this visit (birthday cake!) so no comments on that front. Prices are on the steep side, but in line with the level of service.

To begin, we selected the pork and chorizo stuffed squid and the crispy fried calamari, which seemed a good combination. The calamari was tender, well battered, hot and delicious and came with two dipping sauces, a Vietnamese and a roasted jalapeno aioli. Both sauces were tasty, but didn't do full justice to their names - they could equally well have been described as a soy sauce and a chili mayo - it would have been good to taste some real smoky flavours from the roasted jalapenos. Presentation was on a wooden board, which I liked, sitting on a paper serviette, which I didn't (soggy serviette, bad).

The squid was artfully presented, the plate painted with squid ink and piled with a rustic couscous, the stuffed tubes, a scattering of Cajun prawns and a dusting of some kind of powder in one corner, which looked good, but was almost flavourless. The pairing of pork and squid was great - although I think that can be said of all pork pairings (bacon chocolate anyone?).

We were well satisfied with our starters, as were the majority of the table, with the exception of the soup of the day (field mushroom) which was rather weak - blandly presented and thin.

Main course was a tough choice, with the pork belly and duck options vying for attention. In the end I went off menu for one of the nights specials: suckling pig (under three months old - I asked, and then felt guilty), roasted whole, pulled off the bone and packed into a slab, topped with crackling and served with a warm salad of potato, apple and basil and a roasted carrot.

The picture doesn't do it justice - it was one of the most wonderful things I have ever eaten. The shredded pork meat was amazingly soft, with just the right proportion of fat, enough to carry the wonderful flavours, but not enough to overpower the senses. The highlight, however, was the crackling, which was thin, crisp and yielding, unlike some crackling, which can be hard enough to break a tooth on. The side salad nicely balanced the pork, with just a hint of apple with the potato. By the time I was done, nothing was left on the plate, and I was sorely tempted to pick it up and lick off any remaining sauce.

I have mentioned before my misgivings about ordering risotto (too often underdone). Happily, 9th Avenue's effort was spot on, with tender, gooey rice, subtly flavoured with leek, mushroom and soft cheese. The risotto was served with 'spring vegetables', which turned out to be asparagus, grilled courgette and peas - simple, tasty, and a welcome improvement on what normally passes for vegetables at most restaurants.

As we were visiting to celebrate a friend's birthday, we ended the meal with a delicious birthday cake, along with coffees (small and strong). We will have to visit again soon to review the desserts...

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Tasty Thai

Thai is a difficult language, with a pretty incomprehensible script that makes for cool tattoos, but does not facilitate easy understanding. Having said that, apparently the word 'aroy' (phonetic spelling, obviously) means 'tasty', which is why you see it mentioned often around Thai restaurants.

Aroy Thai in Westville, is definitely living up to its name. It's a small, fairly nondescript restaurant tucked into the Engen Centre, a strip mall on Rodger Sishi Road which also houses a Food Lover's Market and the A Tasca restaurant.

When visiting Thailand, I found that the ornateness of the decor was inversely correlated with the quality of the food, and the same holds true here. Inside Aroy Thai, simple plastic tables and chairs, tiled floors and office-like ceilings are the perfect complement to fantastically tasty Thai food.

As it was our first visit, I wanted to try the Tom Yum soup, which to me is the acid test of a Thai restaurant's quality. Too often in local establishments the hot and sour flavours of a good Tom Yum are dumbed down to an over salty broth housing a few sad prawns. Happily, this was not the case here. The soup, when it arrived, was a beautiful sight with a bright red-orange slick covering the broth and islands of dried chilli, spring onion and mushroom peeping above the surface. Diving deeper there were plump prawns to be found and flavours of lemongrass and lime leaves.

We also tried the wonton soup (the restaurant does several Chinese influenced dishes) and found it equally good, with delicious, fat dumplings.

We washed down out starters with Singha beers - Aroy is licensed and has a reasonable selection of beers as well as a small wine list.

Continuing with the classics, I wanted to taste the Pad Thai for my main course. We selected calamari as the protein, but were somewhat disappointed, as the dish was rather bland, with not enough fish sauce or shrimp paste to impart a good umami. We requested additional chilli, which arrived in a dried, powdered form, and improved matters somewhat.

Luckily we also ordered the creatively named 'Duck in a Jacket' which consists of a half duck, deboned and wrapped in a pancake. The owner (a Thai lady) clearly thought that this was a good choice, and seemed pleased that we had ordered it - perhaps next time we visit I will ask her to choose a selection of dishes for us.

The duck was crisp and dark skinned, wrapped in an egg-rich pancake and drenched in a sticky and sweet sauce that went well with the salty duck. Definitely a dish that I would order again.

Like most Thai restaurants, there were limited desert options, and we opted to buy a bag of White Rabbit candies on our way out instead.

With an extensive menu still waiting to be explored and three out of four excellent dishes on first attempt, Aroy Thai holds a lot of potential. Sushi is also served, and several patrons were eating it - it looked pretty good. They also do takeaways.

'Gin khao reu yeung?' is another useful Thai phrase. It's used as a greeting, similar in meaning to 'are you well?', but literally means 'have you eaten rice yet?'. I like the priorities the Thai have.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The oracle of Delphi has spoken

According to Greek Mythology, Delphi was the centre of the earth, as determined by eagles sent forth by Zeus himself, and was home to the Delphic Oracle. According to TripAdvisor, it is also the 76th best rated restaurant out of 160 in Durban (in its defense it has a 90% recommendation rate based on only 11 reviews), and is home to some of the best Greek food in Durban.

Delphi (they spell it Delfi) is found in Lilian Ngoyi (Windermere) Road in Morningside, and is housed in an unprepossessing building just off the road. When we visited, the place looked a little like the temple of Apollo with its tumbledown columns - the wind had recently blown down their patio roof.

Perhaps fortunately, I had forgotten my camera, as the interior is very Greek-kitsch, with lots of checked table cloths, faded posters, chipped plates on the wall (memorabilia from a big plate smashing night?) and tastefully arrayed plastic grapevines.

The wine list is on the minimal side, but luckily I had come prepared with a bottle of Waterford Rose-Mary in the boot, and their corkage is a very reasonable R15.

The place seems to do very well out of repeat business, which speaks well for it - there was much hugging of the owners, and plenty of people seemed to know exactly what they were going to order. It's a small restaurant, with only room for 6 or 7 tables. 

We ordered the meze platter for starters, as well as a portion of squid heads. The platter was the highlight of the whole meal, and featured fantastic eggplant, saganaki, kofta and dolmades. The squid heads were decent, but not as good as some.

The main course was less inspiring - my lamb shank kleftiko was very tender, but a little flavourless, with a thick, sticky gravy which did not add greatly to the experience. The side dish of rice was also cooked with frozen peas and carrots, a pet peeve of mine. The chicken souvlaki was served in a pita and was fairly good, but also lacked real depth of flavour, focusing mainly on garlic, with few other tastes coming through. I felt that it could have used more tzatziki, lemon, dill or mint.

Dessert - the halva and icecream was delicious - I need to make this at home, but the galaktoboureko was also a little plain. The less said about coffee the better.

Overall - it's a cheap and cheerful spot, with simple, hearty fare on a road with several other restaurants. If in doubt, pop in for the meze, and if nothing else takes your fancy - go for a roving dinner.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

This little piggy went to Market

When we arrive at Market for a leisurely brunch they are only just opening up at 9am, but Durban is like that. The place is well hidden, with a narrow pathway beside a fairly nondescript building in Gladys Mazibuko (Marriott) Road leading into a rather lovely courtyard. 

Beneath the trees, the gravel is scattered with fallen leaves. A bulky lady squeezed into a regulation maid’s outfit is attempting to gather them up with a rake. She is assaulting the leaves with relentless strokes, and moving more stone than leaf in the process. The source of her frustration is a ring of graceful Leopard trees surrounding a small stone pond. The pond features a fountain, which is anaemically pulsing tepid water through the moist air down to the koi that circle below. A man in tight fitting yellow pants and a white, v-neck that shows off his tattooed arms, carefully measures out a single scoop of pellets for the pond’s gaping inhabitants. Judging by his proprietary air, he is the owner of the fountain, the trees, and the restaurant that they form part of. 

At the table next to ours, a young couple takes their seats. She wears an orange sheath that complements her obvious fake tan, and the too-thick makeup which covers her face. Despite the breakfast hour, she has obviously spent time preparing her eyelashes, which are too long to be real and must have been meticulously applied with adhesive, like some kind of disguise. Her boyfriend is explaining something obvious to her, in an unconsciously condescending fashion: ‘No you have to go into the bank to change your account limit… No, they won’t let you do it online’. She looks admiringly at him, impressed by his mastery of the self-evident.

‘Are you ready to order?’ Our waitress has taken her style cues from the restaurant owner, or perhaps there is a dress code – like him, she has a collection of tattoos, Cyrillic script on the forearm, a religious symbol near her shoulder, and a fairy that adorns her ankle. We order drinks: freshly squeezed carrot and orange juice with extra ginger, and later, coffee. Both are excellent. 

For brunch we order croissant French toast with lemon curd and crispy bacon, and a potato rosti, salmon, crème fraîche and poached egg combinationThe croissant French toast is so good that I have taken to making it at home. The unusual pairing with lemon curd is fun, tasty and different. The rosti is equally good - a fairly regular breakfast arrangement, but the proportions of egg, salmon and crème fraîche are just right, making the medium sized portion sit perfectly - not too heavy, not too light.

As we eat, we watch the couple next to us and attempt to guess at their relationship. Now they are asking each other what type of music they like, what TV shows they watch. Is it a first date? Perhaps she has slept over at his place, and is wearing her makeup from the night before. He outlines for her his plans for workplace success: ‘I just need to score a couple of big deals’, he says, ‘then I’ll be ready for promotion when he retires’. She makes supportive noises, but seems more interested in her breakfast (she has also gone for the rosti with salmon and poached egg).

Before leaving we explore the retail space opposite the restaurant. Called Shoppe, it is full of art, ceramics and furniture from South African designers. They stock Lisa Firer, Sootcookie and many other artists, and the shelves are full of beautiful items that you normally see only in decor magazines. Think of it as dessert.

Monday, September 23, 2013

La Storia - hit and miss Italian Restaurant

It often seems to me that every other restaurant that one visits is Italian - there apparently exists a large portion of the South African restaurant going population that would be personally offended to arrive at a restaurant and discover that it offers neither pizza nor pasta. In popular imagination, Italy must be a magical place, draped in red and white checks where the penne arrabiata is bottomless, and the margherita pizza is free for kids every Tuesday.

So, when I read the menu at La Storia in Westville, I got a little excited. Yes there were the inevitable pages devoted to pizza and pasta, but alongside these stalwarts, some less obvious dishes made their appearance, including a whole section on risottos, and some locally inspired meals like the prawns Mozambique.

On our first visit to La Storia, we dropped in late after work and so settled for a simple order of pizzas and beer. I had the Tandoori chicken. The first thing I noticed, was that the pizzas are not round, but shaped into a rough oblong and sliced into rustic triangles. The crust is heftier than most wood fired artisanal pizzas, and bready, but in a good way, with a hint of yeast and with charred and blackened spots straight out of the oven. The topping of fantastic, fragrant tandoori chicken, interspersed with dhania yoghurt and scattered with mint leaves was a welcome change from chain restaurant standards, and overall, I was impressed.

On a second visit we took a little time and ventured further into the menu. The tomato salad was fresh and tasty. Simple ingredients, elegantly brought together, it made for a good starter, together with the antipasti board with home cured meats, pickles and bruschetta.

Next, with nervous anticipation, I ordered a risotto main course. Risotto, I believe, is not a difficult dish to make. It is, however, a slow dish to create. There are no shortcuts over the stove to achieve the perfect, oozing, glutinous and magical mouth feel of a good risotto. Which is probably why, every time I've ordered it at restaurants I have been disappointed. Almost without fail, restaurant risotto is undercooked, with a raw center of hard starch lurking in every grain.

My selection was prepared with calamari, chorizo, black olive and chili. The portion was reasonably large, without being generous, but a large proportion of the volume went to the toppings. I struggled to pull together a full forkful of rice to test, but when I did, was dismayed to discover that true to type it was under cooked, and over salted. The calamari and chorizo were tasty, but anyone would be hard pressed to make chorizo taste bad. Overall, the dish was a let down.

Happily, the desert went some way to rectifying the situation - a delicious affogato, three scoops of home made icecream, with a shot of hot, bitter esspresso.

With its laid back decor of mismatched chairs and tables, its friendly, noisy interior and its impressive pizza oven, La Storia feels like the kind of place that you could hang out at on a fairly regular basis. The old faithfuls are well rendered, and the more inventive options, even if they aren't quite there, are at least on the menu. Inconsistent, but you're more likely to leave pleased than peeved.

Not the same old Storia.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Lazy Sundays: Cape Town Fish Market, North Beach

Suncoast Casino and Entertainment World on Durban's North Beach, with its faux art deco styling does well to stand out as particularly tacky in a city that is known more for its riotous colour and laid back surfer vibes than for its restrained class and elegance.

Having said that, the position of the complex makes it a great place to use as a base for taking long walks on the promenade, and its beach frontage is particularly pleasant. It also hosts a lot of good events, like the Mercury Wine Week and the Taste of Durban, so I find myself drawn there more often than I would have expected (I have yet to hit the slot machines...)

We headed out recently on Spring Day to take in the atmosphere on the beach front and enjoyed a couple of hours walking up to Country Club Beach and back. The promenade is one of my favourite places in Durban, and its wide, flat walkway attracts people employing every mode of locomotion imaginable, with roller bladers, skate boarders and bmx-ers vying for space with tandem bikers, pedal cars, joggers and dog walkers.

The warm spring sun, salty air and sea breeze were making us hungry and thirsty so we decided to stop in at the Cape Town Fish Market which is located on the beach side of Suncoast and has a pretty good view over the promenade and onto the sea.

Now obviously CTFM is not what you would consider an upper end establishment, but as chain restaurants go it is generally pretty good, so a certain standard was expected. This standard was not met. On arrival we stood in the entrance and waited to be seated. Eventually a manager of some description wandered over to us and proceeded to shout like a fish wife (appropriately) for a waiter to show us to a table. Our waiter then gestured outside and suggested we help ourselves. The only table available had recently been vacated, so we stood and waited for it to be cleared. After a few minutes the same manager reappeared, and when I explained that we were waiting for our table to be cleared proceeded to shout at the waiters again, instead of simply picking up the plates herself.

Having sat down, we ordered beers which arrived together with dripping wet glasses, which we declined. I like it straight out the bottle anyway - cuts out the middleman. We chose the 'seafood plank' as a starter, and found it reasonably priced and rather good. Hot fishcakes, tempura prawns (which appeared to have been crumbed with Panko) and calamari strips. The 'tartare' sauce turned out to be mayonnaise, but otherwise it was just the thing to enjoy next to the beach with a beer.

Having overcome our initial poor service and enjoyed out starter, we decided to order a main course of calamari. Sadly, after waiting with increasing annoyance for about forty minutes we realised that the calamari was clearly still on its way from Cape Town. Twenty minutes after the waiter had assured us that the dish was almost ready, I issued an ultimatum to the manager - food on the table in five minutes or we're leaving.

As I write this, I wonder if the waiter found our abandoned table with the cash tucked under an empty beer bottle before or after the calamari was finally placed on the grill.

So long, and no thanks for all the fish.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Friday Nights: Sevruga, Gateway

Sevruga is part of the Caviar group of restaurants, which includes two venues in Capetown, and now two in Durban. Adverts for the restaurants appear regularly in TASTE magazine, and the Eat Out guide, and invariably feature long haired, blonde models whose enjoyment of the food appears to border on the indecent. The food-porn theme continues on their website, which is currently down, and amusingly offers the Freudian excuse that they are 'currently too busy servicing our guests'. Being of the opinion that good food photography does not require a side of high heels and come-hither glances, I was initially wary of visiting the new Sevruga restaurant at Gateway, worrying that they had chosen glamour over substance.

Happily, however, we had received several 50% off promotional vouchers at the Taste of Durban festival, so determined to take full advantage before they expired, we visited the restaurant twice in a month, once as a couple and once with friends.

The restaurant is located on the Eastern side of the mall, overlooking the Wavehouse and is an impressively large 300 seater. Front of house we were greeted (as expected?) by two bored looking model types, dressed for a night on the town, who ushered us to our table in their matching micro dresses before mincing back to their positions.

The initial service experience was frustrating, as we were descended upon by at least four different servers, each of whom offered us 'a bottle of water for the table', attempted to drape napkins over our laps and generally fell over one other. Once the help had settled down, however, and our eyes had a chance to adjust to the deep gloom of the restaurant interior, we were able to begin enjoying the experience, and page through the extensive menu, which features wonderful and exotic sounding 'regular' dishes (risotto balls with truffle aioli, deboned lamb ribs, marinated springbok) as well as a lengthy dim sum and sushi section.

We had come for the sushi, so the regular section of the menu will have to wait for a later review. To begin, we ordered a portion of Har Gau (translucent dim sum) filled with duck, honey and ginger. Service was prompt (our final waitress on our initial visit was lovely) and presentation was beautiful, with the three generously sized dumplings nestled in still steaming bamboo, and shaped in a way that I had not seen before, with a pretty tri-lobed finish. I would have enjoyed a more pronounced ginger flavour, but they were definitely delicious, with a wonderful soft mouth feel.

Next came a round of crispy, deep fried wontons, filled this time with beef, coriander and ginger. Again they arrived promptly, beautifully presented, hot and tasty.

An interesting offer on the menu was the bowl of Edamame beans. I had heard that these were a popular dish in Japan and China, but didn't realise until they arrived at the table that they are in fact simply immature soybeans, served steamed in their pods and eaten with salt. The characteristically hairy and rather drab looking pods, when broken open yielded up a surprisingly beautiful harvest of plump, shiny, jade-green beans. These offered a good test of my chopstick wielding abilities as I initially ate them one by one after manoeuvring them through a ponzu bath, before abandoning pretenses and popping them directly into my mouth.

The Tom Yum soup, which I tried on our second visit, was wonderfully fiery, with a dangerous red sheen across the bowl, and a good hot and sour balance. Since enjoying Tom Yum in Bangkok, I have been on the lookout for a South African experience which can compare to what we tasted there. This one was one of the better that I've tasted - perhaps too much emphasis on the chili, but I enjoyed eating it immensely.

Having visited the dim sum pages, we moved on to the sushi, and ordered a selection of California rolls, sashimi, something called a 'samurai roll' and the 'tuna crunch' which involved tuna tempura rolled with cream cheese before being tempura battered a second time (purists, look away).

When we visited as a couple, all of the dishes which we ordered were presented on a single plate, which was a nice effect. Generally all of the sushi we ordered on both visits was well constructed, fresh and tasty, although I felt that too much mayonnaise was in use, something which I feel detracts from the fresh, Asian flavours of really good sushi.

On our first visit we bypassed the deserts and ended instead with an apple martini lolly - there are several variants of these alcoholic ices, and they are served in a retro ice lolly shape. Good fun, and a great palate cleanser.

When we did try the deserts, they were out of the chocolate fondant that we had wanted to order, and so I had to fall back on the crème brûlée. It was a pretty good effort, with vanilla seeds spotted through the silky smooth custard, but I still felt a bit disappointed. I think that perhaps crème brûlée has been overdone to the point that only making them at home still holds much appeal - rather stick to the lollies.

With its sophisticated interior, extensive, well executed menu and great wine list, Sevruga is a welcome addition to the Durban restaurant landscape. If they can tone the service down to an unobtrusive level (without venturing into the neglect we experienced on our second visit) and perhaps sort out a few issues with availability there will be very little on which to fault them. Fun for a date night, or an evening out with friends, I rate it worthy of a third helping.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Lazy Sundays: Café Fish

If you're in Durban and you want to eat out on the water, you can't find a much better location than Café Fish. Situated on a pier that juts from the city into the ocean at the Durban Yacht Basin, one can easily take in the pleasure boats of the Point Yacht Club to one side and the tall red cranes and multi-hued container boats of the Harbour to the other. The venue makes the most of its position, with high floor to ceiling windows that spill light across the widely spaced tables, simply decorated in nautical blue and white.

Apparently if you are there at the right time you can watch the seafood being offloaded from a boat right at the kitchen door. I was happy to settle for watching it being offloaded from the arms of the waitress onto the table. Lunch had arrived, in the form of a traditional beer battered fish and chips and grilled peri-peri prawns.

Given the name of Café Fish, the eponymous dish needed to be good - and it was. The beer battered fish and chips were good value, with two large fillets of moist and flaky fish surrounded by a batter that managed to be simultaneously pillowy-soft and deep-fried crisp. The tartar sauce was generously spiked with roughly chopped pickles, the chips were hot and fresh and the whole dish went down very well drenched in lemon juice.

The grilled peri-peri prawns lived up to their simple name and arrived with the benefit of a large wire basket to gather the shells, which were picked completely clean before being discarded. The peri-peri sauce could have been a little hotter, but it was well balanced with garlic and lemon.

The menu looks as though it would benefit from a thorough exploration, with the Vietnamese style calamari  (chilli, mint, garlic, pineapple and peanuts) and the cajun linefish in particular catching my eye. Sadly, the pudding menu looked rather dull in comparison (unless you enjoy Banoffie Pie), so we opted to finish with coffee, which was good enough, but took a while to arrive.

Café Olé!

Monday, August 5, 2013

Hole in the Wall: Kebabish

Nothing says 'Durban' quite like a really authentic Indian curry. I don't mean those dull stews that masquerade as curry in most restaurants - anything that's been toned down for Western tastes, or is offered to you in 'mild'. Definitely not one of those meals for one from Woolies. I'm talking about a genuine, ghee-drenched, spice-studded, handed-down-for-generations, whole-chillies-floating-in-the-sauce kind of curry. This kind of no-nonsense curry tends to avoid fancy restaurants in the best parts of town, but can generally be discovered in places like Phoenix, Chatsworth or Overport, invariably out of dodgy looking takeaways down hard to find streets. This is the kind of curry found in places like Kebabish.

Kebabish is a small sit-down restaurant and bustling takeaway on the corner of Sparks and Felix Dlamini (Brickfield) Road in Overport. It sits alongside what appears to be a junkyard, complete with cars on bricks and a mean looking junkyard dog that barks at you as you walk past the chain-link fence. It isn't pretty, but the smells which carry across the street tell you that you've come to the right place.

On the forecourt of the building which houses Kebabish there is a hot, open charcoal grill that was manned on the Saturday afternoon we visited by two hard working staff. One man, sweating profusely, was bending over the hot fire and alternating between fanning the coals with a paper plate and turning enormous sizzling skewers of chicken and mutton. The other walked back and forth between the kitchen and the grill, arriving with buckets piled high with spicy, raw meat and leaving soon after, weighed down under platters of smoky, charred and dripping delights.

At the counter, which faces the street, six or seven people were passing orders to a large man with an even larger beard who shouted into a hidden kitchen and glowered at people who dithered over their choices. Driven into a mild panic by my failed first attempt at ordering ('no chicken seekh kebab curry!') and his generally soup-nazi behavior I settled on chicken tikka masala and a chicken korma with garlic naan, and was told to 'give me half an hour, ok?'

After the promised half an hour, a large plastic bag was pushed into my greedy hands with a smile (he smiles!) and we carried our treasure home, the car's interior filling with wonderful smells on the way. Impatiently unwrapping the parcel, we pulled out the fragrant naan, thick and misshapen, touched with spots of dark scorched bread, and the two curries. The tikka, dark red, and topped with vermilion oil (I tipped off the excess), and the korma, creamy and sultry in its thick sauce. Two small ziploc bags filled with cool, green raita, and a side salad were thrown in too.

Of the two dishes, the chicken tikka was the better - filled with chunks of chicken taken off the grill and fiery hot. The korma was calmer and richer, the sauce delicious, although the chicken pieces on the bone were not what I would have chosen. The naan was as good as it looked, bready and garlicky, alternatively soft and crunchy by turn.

I'm told by a friend who swears by the quarter chicken tikka that that dish is the best thing on the menu - but I'm not going to take his word for it, I'm definitely going back for more!

Kebabish gets a fourish out of five - for the flavour, and the experience.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Taste of Durban 2013

Surely the best part about settling into a new city is all of the novel restaurants to explore! No more will Friday evenings be spent mentally reviewing which restaurants you are currently boycotting. No time soon will you be offered your 'usual' the moment that you sit down (I defy anyone to find a better dish on Saki, PMB's menu than the honey, soy and chilli pork noodles). What better opportunity then, than the Taste of Durban festival to sink one's teeth into no fewer than nine of the city's best?

This is the second year that Durban has hosted a Taste Festival, and the organisation could still use a little fine tuning. There was an awkward payment system whereby patrons had to purchase booklets of R5 coupons (or 'Crowns') for all transactions. While this is a sensible enough way to eliminate small change and other tedious money issues, being greeted by a queue at the entrance to the show was a bit of a downer. At times I did also feel a bit as though I was converting from Imperial to Metric, and struggled to determine whether a 4 Crown glass of wine was a bargain or a rip off. Particularly after a couple of glasses.

That aside, the venue was pleasant enough, in an outdoor area adjacent to the Suncoast Casino complex, and the throngs of people, live music, and sounds and smells of competing restaurants made for the perfect atmosphere.

All of the restaurants represented were serving starter sized portions of some of their signature dishes, which meant that it was possible for us to taste at least one dish from every stand, and feel full but not stuffed by the end of the evening.

Showing great endurance and fortitude we visited each of the nine venues to sample their wares. Deep fried olives from Café 1999 were the perfect starter-starter - I need to try making these at home! BAR-BA-COA from Umhlanga was next, and served up some excellent mini burgers and avo dijon fillet rolls. I wonder if the actual restaurant will not fall into the same 'steak on a plate' category as Little Havana, but these mouthfuls were delicious. Alongside the burgers we tasted an aubergine carpaccio from the Beverly Hills' Elements Café which had the grilled aubergine perfectly creamy and silky smooth.

A brief stop for a glass of Hermanuspieterfontein Bloos Rosé 2011, apparently the first South African Rosé to be made from the five Bordeaux varieties. Beautiful to look at and to drink. Pretty.

Next we hit Freedom Café for 'corndog style' beef apricot and pistachio sausage rolls and mini Vietnamese pulled pork buns - good enough to warrant another visit to this restaurant. Caring nothing for logical order we followed that up with sushi and champagne from Beluga (good), Simply Asia chicken satay and noodles (so-so) and paused briefly to sample an odd assortment of flavoured tequila shooters. Bubblegum tequila is blue, I learned, and tastes of Wicks.

Entering the final stretch now we popped in to Palki Indian Restaurant (fantastic, spicy butter chicken) and paused a while to enjoy oxtail risotto from Hartford House, probably the first properly cooked restaurant risotto I've eaten anywhere (and full of hearty, robust flavours - my choice for best dish of the festival).

Just to finish off the Crowns (annoyingly only available in bundles of 20) we ended with nachos from Little Havana, which were served in perfect single bite servings, and another glass of the HPF Bloos.

Sitting and enjoying the cover band while we waited for our lift home from Good Fellas we soaked in the balmy Durban winter night and considered our options for future outings. Lots of blog posts to follow!

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Friday Nights: Little Havana, Umhlanga

A crisp, white tablecloth raises certain expectations of a venue. More formal. More sophisticated. More expensive... At Little Havana in Umhlanga's popular Chartwell Drive, white was the first impression that I felt as I stepped through the doors into this fairly large restaurant of about forty tables. We were seated (on white chairs) at a table close to an open window which allowed in a cool breeze that smelled of rain and the ocean.

Our waiter presented us with the wine list, which met with my expectation of high prices. The list did appear carefully curated and offered some less commonly seen bottles, but sparkling wine choices were limited, so I settled on a bottle of Krone Rosé which I had brought along as a backup. Corkage was R45.

Little Havana has to be commended on their starter options which, unlike their main courses, were varied and interesting. We settled on an oven roasted camembert and pancetta and an intriguingly titled 'deconstructed prawn samoosa'. The camembert was delicious, although the streaky bacon which it was wrapped in, while salty, crisp, and smoky against the smooth cheese, was certainly not pancetta.

The deconstructed prawn samoosa was the best part of my meal. A generous portion, it consisted of a Mauritian-style prawn curry, which was sweet and hot, piled high on a plate and interleaved with sheets of samoosa wrapper pastry that were crunchy on the edges and soft where they were soaked with the sauce of the curry.

Feeling confident that we had found a restaurant of above average quality, we turned to the main courses, and examined the steak options which are essentially a mix and match of cut, sides, and sauce. All steaks are seasoned alike, with salt, pepper, mustard seeds and thyme, and come with the obligatory choices of chips ('shoestring fries'), rice or baked potato. Side options included those horribly uninspired stalwarts, creamed spinach and cinnamon butternut. Feeling good after our starters, we decided that the minimalist menu was indicative of superior, no-nonsense meat, and not simply a lack of imagination on the part of the chef.

I ordered a free-range, grass fed rib eye steak, medium rare, with a side order of onion rings, chips and 'Cuban rum barbecue sauce', which was the most interesting sounding sauce on offer. Service was brisk, with my steak arriving less than ten minutes after ordering, despite the full restaurant.

To be honest, I don't know who is still impressed by the presentation of a steak that sits looking lonely on the middle of a large white plate, with one of those cheap ramekins of sauce as its only company. Yes, the steak was good, but no - it was not able to carry the whole course all on its own. The sauce tasted like catering grade 'BBQ' sauce with a splash of alcohol, and the chips were underdone. The onion rings, which were fluffy, hot and moreish, struggled manfully to rescue the overall impression but didn't quite manage, and the toothpick flag stuck into the meat didn't help to raise the tone of the dish either.

Our second order was a rare rump steak where the quality of the meat was unfortunately not good enough to match the short cooking time and which remained tough and chewy.

The pudding menu continued in the traditional vein introduced by the main courses, and not feeling like another crème brûlée, I settled for a cappuccino and a ten year old Laphroaig, which never disappoints.

Overall, we left the restaurant feeling disappointed. They would do well to infuse some Cuban elements into the cuisine beyond the name of the place and the Che Guevara shirts on the support staff. Where were the citrus flavours, the capers, olives or black beans? Where was the rum? The steaks for which little Havana is known are overrated, and sorely deficient in interest. The promise of the white table cloths was not met, and the commercial nature of the meal denied the revolutionary potential of the name.

More 1990s than 1950s Havana.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Lazy Sundays: Buds on the Bay

One of the tricky things about being a newcomer to Durban is mastering all of the recently re-christened street names. Cowey Road is now Problem Mkhize Road (tip of the hat to Mr and Mrs Mkhize) Victoria Embankment becomes Margaret Mncadi Avenue and so on. The improbably named Grunter Gully Street, however, has somehow evaded a name change, and remains the site of Buds on the Bay, down on the Durban docks.

Many of the reviews of Buds mention how hard it is to find, and I can imagine this to be the case, located as it is, without benefit of signage, at the end of a long industrial looking road which you probably wouldn't want to travel down at night. Google Maps lead me there without any difficulty.

Buds on the Bay is now apparently owned by the Prawn Shak people and is being renamed BayShak. If you have been to Prawn Shak, you'll find that while some of its menu items and decor have made the move to Durban, this venue does not share the fish braais or heavy drinking of its sister restaurant and remains more conventional in its approach.

The venue, once you arrive, is quite attractive, with views of remnant mangroves and small boats bobbing idly in the harbour. Several swings hang under an eave on one edge of the building, and the general ambiance is laid back, with chunky wooden furniture and dingy plastic chairs. Service is unhurried to the point of negligence, which is fine if you want to while away the afternoon. If another drink was needed, standing up and waving generally got things going again.

The menu is fairly eclectic, with a smattering of seafood, steaks, curries and a few Asian and Mexican inspired dishes. Prices are on the reasonable side. I ordered the 'Larney Prawn Bunny' which was two hollowed out rolls filled with prawn curry and served with an interesting apple curry sauce and chips. Other orders included 'Chips and Strips' (fried, battered chicken strips, chips, wasabi mayo) and a Vietnamese chicken curry on noodles. The prawn curry in my bunny was tasty, but lacked any serious chilli. The chicken curry was similarly mildly spiced - a disappointment by Durban standards. Chicken strips were better than expected, hot, well flavoured and nicely matched by the wasabi mayo.

Coffee drinking is frowned upon on the docks (so says the menu) and so cappuccinos were offered along with the disclaimer that they came out of a sachet - and they tasted like it.

Pudding was surprisingly good (twice in a row!) with the lemon meringue a traditional height, and without the towering stack of soggy meringue as popularised by Mugg & Bean. Another order was for a mocca something or other pie, which turned out to be chocolate ice cream on a bed of crushed Romany Creams - simple and delicious.

Buds on the Bay seems like a good place for a party, or a lazy afternoon. The soundtrack is straight out of East Coast Radio's playbook (we heard both the Macarena and Nkalakatha), but the effect was nostalgic more than grating and everybody had a good time. The food is nothing special, but it certainly wasn't bad either, and the beers were cheap and served ice-cold.

More about the buds than the taste buds.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Friday Nights: Cafe 1999

When the best restaurants in Durban are discussed, Cafe 1999 generally gets mentioned, and has done so for the past ten years. It was with some anticipation then, that we booked a table for Friday night, and having practiced my rusty parallel parking skills in the road opposite, headed inside.

With a restaurant that aspires to inspire as this one does ('iconic dining since 1999' is their tagline), first impressions do count. Cafe 1999 falls somewhat short on this count - it is situated in a small shopping centre, alongside several other restaurants, and does not have much in the way of street appeal. Entering the restaurant, the underwhelming feeling continues. There is an almost conspicuous lack of decor, with one wall completely bare, and the other containing only a long mirror. Tables are simply set with a tea light candle and a diminutive salt and pepper set of the sort that commonly graces tables at the Wimpy or perhaps your Gran's. Clearly the food here is left to speak for itself - not necessarily a bad thing.

The atmosphere is bustling, with waiters flying between closely spaced tables, and the clatter of conversation mostly drowning out the music, which is more Cafe del Mar than Katie Melua.

An amuse bouche is brought to the table, a single fish cake served on a spoon with a few microleaf herbs. Simple, but tasty.

Some reviewers have commented that the wine list is on the pricey side. We ordered a bottle of Ken Forrester Reserve Chenin Blanc  ('you can always trust old Ken', reckoned the waiter) which cost R175 (retail R75). The wine list is well picked, but short, so you might struggle to find something familiar. The Ken Forrester was lovely.

We each ordered a starter - one deep fried camembert (the peppadew jam is the revelation here) and one calamari and tentacles with chourico, beautifully crumbed and hinting at lemon, garlic and rosemary. After ordering starters we heard the specials, and promptly ordered the tuna sashimi starter too, which was probably the best of the lot. Raw tuna, served on a bed of avocado puree, and interspersed with pickled ginger and shards of crispy wafer.

For our main courses we selected a beef fillet on basil pesto capellini and, unusually for me, a chicken dish of thighs crusted with coconut and coriander and served on ginger sweet potato mash. The chicken was delicious - the sweet, smooth mash contrasting nicely with the crisp, salty crust of the thighs. The beef fillet was rare as ordered, tender and well seasoned, but unfortunately cold. We sent it back to the kitchen, from where it returned only marginally warmer - a bit of a downer.

Finally, for desert we settled on the chocolate brownies, a restaurant staple, with the white chocolate and poppy seed ice-cream the deciding factor. I often find desert to be the most neglected course when eating out, but was pleased in this instance to find the chocolate brownies intense, crusty, warm and oozing - everything a brownie should be, and the ice-cream a worthy accompaniment.

So, is it as good as it should be? Perhaps, reluctantly, I would have to say 'no'. The food was generally excellent, although the cold main course, and especially the way it was handled was disappointing. The menu is fairly short, and while full of interest, stops just short of throwing caution to the wind and being a little adventurous. Service was generally good, excepting the incident already mentioned. And as for decor - would it kill to get a few decent salt and pepper set on the tables?

I give it 1997/1999.

Cell phone camera does not do justice...

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Chinese Egg 'n Bacon Muffins: Shongweni Market

Egg McMuffins from McDonald's are pretty good - in fact they're about the only thing on the menu that I can bring myself to eat. The soft muffin, salty sausage patty, the melting cheese... I always throw a hashbrown into mine, which makes them even better.

The McMuffin, however, is no match for the Chinese egg 'n bacon muffins which I have taken to eating regularly at the Shongweni Market on a Saturday morning. These muffins alone are basically worth the trip to the market (the dog watching is a plus).

Head up to the food stalls near the top of the market and you'll see the family of three working hard at their stall. Dad covers muffin duties, Mom deep fries spring rolls (also very tasty) and their son takes orders and handles change, slowly summing totals in his head in a not at all stereotypically Asian fashion.

Watching the muffins being made is instructive, and helps enhance the appetite. First, the muffin batter is poured into a cooker with a series of  circular, muffin-sized holes. Next, bacon and a freshly cracked egg are added and partially cooked. Finally, a second layer of muffin batter is poured in, the whole delicious mix is flipped and cooked on both sides before being served hot with a drizzle of soy sauce, a sprinkle of sesame seeds and a little peppadew salsa on the side.

Biting in, the bacon and egg are revealed, safely tucked inside the muffin. No egg falling out, each mouthful perfectly composed, and it all goes down really well with a fresh cafe latte.