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.