Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Friday Night Drinks: Frank's Speakeasy, Mount Edgecombe

Luxuriating in the country club atmosphere of Mount Edgecombe, within a driver's range of the nearby golf courses you will find Marco Paulo Bistro, and its adjoining bar - Frank's Speakeasy. Frank's styles itself a 'speakeasy' after the illegal American prohibition-era saloons that were spoken of quietly, for fear of alerting the authorities. Here, however, I think the speakeasy nature most likely applies to the locals reluctance of 'outsiders' discovering the existence of this stylish venue.

Outside of Frank's, the luxury SUVs line up in neat rows, while inside, the predominantly middle-aged and wealthy crowd sip on craft beers, and tuck into great bar food. There's a definite sense of an unofficial dress code, with Golf Dads rocking shorts and Superdry T-shirts and Soccer Moms wearing leopard-print blouses and skin tight pants. The waiters sport beards and tattoos and dress like they've stepped off a Levi's commercial, in skinny jeans and V-neck T's.

The bar has a cool, industrial feel, with bare light bulbs and blacked out walls featuring chalked on specials. There are a handful of deep booths with plushly upholstered seats that will suck you in and make it hard to leave before final rounds. The soundtrack ranged from Counting Crows, Third Eye Blind and Coldplay to recent hits from Imagine Dragons.

The first port of call on arrival must be the impressive list of beers, including perennial crowd pleasers like Darling Brew, CBC and Jack Black but extending to more unusual selections like the Imperial Tequila Ale (at R100 for 660ml). If you're not a beer drinker, there are some good wine choices too, as well as plenty of single malts and pretty much anything else that you're after.

Frank's shares a kitchen with Marco Paulo, so you can enjoy the fine bistro fare, or you can pick from a shorter list of bar specials on the wall. I started with a snack from the bistro menu - brinjal done three ways, including with risotto; parmigiana style, and atop bruschetta. Classy and tasty - particularly the risotto.

Now feeling really hungry, I went with the Frank's burger from the bar menu. It's a serious burger, featuring 250 grams of aged, grass-fed Angus beef from Greenfields in Mooi River; white cheddar; onion rings and chips. Apparently the meat is dry-aged on the bone for three weeks before mincing and flame grilling - it was certainly the best burger I've had in ages, full of flavour and so good I ate it all and was too full to finish the onion rings. This was sad, as the onion rings were excellent.

The dessert choices were rather limited to the usual suspects of crème brûlée and chocolate fondant, along with retro-classics like bread-and-butter pudding and apple crumble. I picked the chocolate fondant, and was not disappointed, probably the best one I've had anywhere, with a luxurious, molten chocolate interior nestled inside a light, crisp edged cake. Served with a simple scoop of vanilla icecream, it was understated but excellent.

So, I've broken the first rule of the Speakeasy (you do not talk about the Speakeasy) - but hopefully they will let me back in. I need to go back, firstly to try out the bistro experience at Marco Paulo next door, but also to return for another go at those onion rings.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Greedy Buddha

Buddha, or Siddhartha Gautama as he was also known, was born in the Himalayan foothills around 2500 years ago, and found enlightenment through a 'middle way' which avoided both sensual indulgence and severe self-restraint. So he would possibly be a little bit peeved at being called greedy. Having said that, if he were to eat a meal at this fresh and cheerful Durban North restaurant he would probably be forgiven for throwing caution to the wind and getting really stuck in - after all you only live once (a little Buddhist joke there for you).

Describing their approach as 'Asian fusion tapas', The Greedy Buddha delights with playful morsels, tastefully presented and served by a knowledgeable and friendly staff. When we visited, we were seated at a round table for eight and found that conversation (and tasters) flowed much more freely than in most venues, where a couple of small square tables get stuck together for larger groups. The food and the menu here are structured around sharing (not greedy at all really) and this is an ideal venue to visit with a group of friends.

The decor is simple - white plastic tables and chairs with green cushions, and all of the seating is outdoors on a covered veranda, which works well in Durban and adds to the easy going ambiance. The tables are bare, except for a central lazy Susan which makes it easy to shoot your dim sum from one side of the table to the other in a kind of delicious Asian roulette.

As it was our first visit, we were happy to try the '11 Tastes' option which offers eleven selections from each portion of the menu, excepting desert (at a reasonable R185 a head). At this point our waiter came in very useful, assisting us with choices and pointing out the various possible combinations and permutations. 

We began our trip through South East Asia with a Japanese miso soup. The soups are all served in espresso cups, and this one was mildly flavoured, salty and slightly sweet, with mushrooms, sweetcorn and spring onions - a good opening act for the dim sum that followed.

Dim Sum are available in three variants: 'potstickers', which are pan fried on one side, then steamed;  'shumai' with translucent wonton wrappers holding together steamed fillings, and steamed buns, with soft, fluffy dough that breaks open to reveal lamb, duck or roast pork.

Each kind of dim sum has a choice of three fillings, and the beauty of the tasting menu is that you don't have to think too hard about it, because you can try a lamb, chilli and coriander filling in the potsticker (there are two per portion) then move on to duck, spring onion and hoisin for the steamed buns, and finish off with pork and ginger shumai. This kind of approach avoids a lot of menu envy, and each combination that we tried was delicious. The sides were also excellent, with the sweet and sour pickled cabbage that came with the potstickers so good, it could have almost stood proudly as its own dish. 

Next on the menu was a miniature Yorkshire pudding with roast beef and horseradish wasabi mayo - I guess this is the 'fusion' aspect of the restaurant's offering. It was a tasty morsel, that at another establishment would have been well received as an upmarket bar snack, but here I felt that it didn't really add anything to the overall experience, with the introduction of a British classic a step too far from the main thrust of the meal. Perhaps if the wasabi had given a real kick, rather than just a subtle poke.

The next group of courses from the 'Classics' section of the menu headed back in the right direction with the aptly named 'ducking fantastic', crisp slices of pork belly on braised red cabbage, sweet and hot glazed halloumi, and an unusual dish of crispy spinach - a deep fried treat with a dusting of five spice sugar that made it moreish in a way spinach shouldn't really be.

Our final course before dessert was from the wok - calamari in a Kung Pao sauce, served with steamed rice. I was won over by the mention of Thai Sriracha chilli in the sauce, but found this dish slightly wanting. The calamari was tender and enjoyable, but the sauce was a little thin and sweet for my taste, with not enough fire, and too little rice to soak everything up. 

Some people have mentioned about this restaurant that the portions are too small, and that they left hungry. I felt overall that the portion sizes were well balanced, although I easily managed 11 tastes, and still had room for desert, so keep in mind that one or two courses will not fill you up - this is tapas after all.

Desserts are changed regularly, and when we visited there were two interesting options to choose from, a chocolate brownie with candied orange rind and rice crispies in white chocolate, or a lemongrass panna cotta with green tea sherbet. Both options were dinky - the chocolate brownie is about half the size of a box of matches, but are a great sweet mouthful to end on. The brownie was more like a square of dark chocolate mousse, resting in an intense orange sauce - slightly too much for me, but I'm not a huge fan of orange and chocolate. The panna cotta was lovely, a lightly flavoured, smooth shot of panna cotta, with a refreshing jolt of sherbet dusted on top. Very close to Nirvana...