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.