Sunday, February 23, 2014

Weekend Wrap-up: Waxy's, Mali's and Afro's

As I mentioned in my previous post, there are a ton of great places to eat out in Durban. Just this weekend we hit three spots that we hadn't tried before and loved all of them!

On Thursday we decided to get the weekend started early, with beers and burgers at Waxy O'Connors, or as everyone seems to call it - Waxy's. Waxy's is in one of my favourite streets in Westville, Jan Hofmeyer Road, where the dining options include La Storia, Le Thai and Foon Lok Nien. It's one of those faux Irish pubs that you find all over the world, from Thailand to Dublin, so the decor, as expected, involves a lot of dark wood, dark green and the occasional shamrock. What seems to set Waxy's apart is the energy that pours out of it and into the packed car park - even on a Thursday the place is bustling, and empty tables are hard to come by.

The burgers seem to be the main attraction - we tried the Paddy Sanchez (beef burger with a nachos and guacamole topping) and the Molly Malone (chicken, avo, bacon, feta). Both were good, although the chicken burger was better than the beef, which was a touch dry. Chips were hot and fresh, and there was a generous portion of onion rings, which we enjoyed. Apparently every week there is a 'Waxy Wednesday' special involving two burgers and two 500ml draughts for R100. No wonder it's popular...

On Friday we headed out for part two of 'The Great Friday Night Bunny Chow Experiment', which involves digging through town for the dodgiest dives serving the best bunnies with a big group of friends and friends of friends. Last time round we did the Brittania, which is rightly famous, and seemed like an appropriate place to start. This weekend, I suggested Mali's - a fairly new restaurant on Smiso Nkwanaya (Goble) Road - which turned out to be a complete flop, as it wasn't at all dodgy, served amazing curries, and featured super cheerful waiters, who were rather offended when we asked if they did bunnies.

This is definitely somewhere I will be eating again soon - it's at least as good as Little India, and possibly better. Arriving late, we were in a bit of a rush to order and so stuck to the tried and tested, but Mali's menu shows a lot of promise waiting to be explored, and doesn't stick to the same old dishes that all of the other Indian restaurants in Durban are offering. 

A nice touch was the small bowls of chickpeas served as a snack, with hits of jeera and chilli, that had us eagerly awaiting the arrival of our main courses. Despite the fact that the restaurant was humming with patrons and there were about 15 at our table, the service was quick and efficient, and we were all tucking in within twenty minutes of ordering. The paneer tikka masala was the best that I have ever tasted, and the dhal makhani was excellent, although a little thinner than I am used to. The depth of flavours was evident from the first taste, and the heat was ever present without threatening to overpower. Mountains of fluffy white rice and various naans and rotis were passed around, and everyone forgave me for suggesting a place that doesn't do bunnies.

On Saturday mornings we like to head down to the beachfront for a 5 km run with about 600 other Parkrunners. Feeling virtuous after our workout, we headed down the promenade to South Beach where Afro's Chicken have set up shop in a funky converted container painted an eye-popping yellow. The waves were looking good, and groups of surfers were waiting for burgers, chicken strips and coffees. It's a simple menu, with breakfast offered until 9 am and chicken thereafter, and the two ladies in the container were working hard getting out the orders.

The service isn't the fastest, but there are table and chairs in the shade to chill at while you wait, and Paul Simon's Graceland was playing on the little sound system inside. The lemon and herb, and peri-peri chicken strips are worth the wait, tender, succulent and served in a beautiful little cardboard boxes with brown paper. The chips are fantastic too, but I gave them a miss, as I didn't want to undo all the work of the run. Definitely gonna get them next time though!

Monday, February 17, 2014

Market Revisited

With over 300 restaurants to visit in Durban (according to Tripadvisor) I am always excited about where I am going to eat next. My mental top ten list, is constantly updated based on reviews, comments, recommendations and new places opening up (I'm looking at you The Wok Box). With so many places to go, and a limited number of opportunities to eat out, there aren't yet many Durban restaurants that I've visited twice.

One restaurant that I've been to more than twice is Market. There's a lot to like about Market. It's in a beautiful courtyard just off Gladys Mazibuko road, so it's easy to get to. It's next door to Shoppe, which is my favourite place to peruse for gifts and arty objects for the house. The waiters are among the best in Durban: friendly, informed, efficient. And the food is obviously very, very tasty.

So far, we've eaten at Market for breakfast two or three times (This little piggy went to Market) and for lunch on several occasions, and it hasn't let us down yet. I went there for my birthday. I took along my parents AND my parents-in-law. So I was really excited to head over for a day-after-Valentine's dinner and see what their night time fare was like.

As I expected, the place is magical at night. When we arrived, the sound of South African Jazz welcomed us into the courtyard, where the trees were draped in gently glowing fairy lights. Inside, naked bulbs hung from high ceilings and shed a soft glow on the tables below. We were seated on the veranda area and enjoyed the benefit of the breeze outside.


Our waiter Simphiwe was great fun, guiding us through the night's specials, guessing (correctly) what we were going to order, and suggesting an excellent bottle of wine which we hadn't tried before - the 2011 'Bamboes Bay' Sauvignon from Fryer's Cove (5* from Platter's: WineSA). Before starters, a simple platter of hot fresh bread was brought to the table and Simphiwe anointed plates with olive oil and balsamic which he poured theatrically from a height, laughing infectiously.

Sadly, the magic didn't last. For starters we had the fish cakes and the ostrich carpaccio - and while both were tasty enough, they lacked the imagination and flair of dishes we had enjoyed in the past off the lunch and breakfast menus. The carpaccio was presented with little thought in a subdued heap and adorned with halved cherry tomatoes and wilting rocket. The fish cakes flavours were overwhelmed by potato filler and the dips (soy and sweet chili), uninspired.

For mains we tried the duck confit with butterbean mash and tomato and bean compote. The duck was quite tasty, the mash was alright, and the compote was either so minimal that it eluded detection, or quite possibly was completely absent. We also ordered the ostrich fillet served on polenta bread and finished with a port and whole-grained mustard sauce. The fillet was tough and underdone, which was a shame, as it was a generously sized portion of three large medallions. The port and whole-grained mustard had, by some mysterious alchemy, turned to green peppercorn sauce, and the polenta 'bread' turned out to be just fried polenta really, which was also kinda disappointing.

Striving to hit at least one high note, we risked ordering two desserts, one - Market's famous chocolate brownie which I had enjoyed twice before, and two - a baked lemon cheesecake. On the previous occasions that I have ordered the brownie, it was served with a delicious homemade vanilla ice-cream. Sadly this portion arrived with what I am 90% sure was Country Fresh Vanilla Flavoured Frozen Dessert* with vegetable fat. The cheesecake was equally bland, I think one of those Woolie's ones in the little plastic container might have been nicer. At least the coffee was great - and served with one of those crystallised sugar stirrers, a nice touch.

The final one-two was the arrival of the bill (expensive) followed soon after by stomach cramps and nausea.

The next day I sent an email to the manager to let him know how disappointed we were with our meal, and its after effects. I got an auto-response informing me that he was on leave. A case of the sous chef blues? Here's hoping our experience was a once off - but I won't be back in a hurry.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Quo Restaurant, Gillitts

'You simply have to try this baked potato, Brandon! Whether you like it or not. It's out of this world!'

The obnoxiously loud woman at the table alongside ours was haranguing her friend to take a taste of her main course. Having recently poured the dregs of her table mates' wine glasses into her own while they were on a smoke break outside, her tone was increasingly belligerent and higher pitched.

'I've never tasted potato like this!' she enthused - waving a crisp skinned roast potato with a soft and moist interior in Brandon's face. Her generosity I imagine was wine fuelled - at Quo, the food is almost too good to share, and more easily inspires jealous protection than such open handed largesse. Luckily for me, I have a standing sharing arrangement with my dining partner, which doubles the number of dishes that I can enjoy, and allows me to drop my guard against the kind of opportunistic fork that approaches unbidden from across the table.

We had found our way to Quo up a rather dark and winding road to the imaginatively named Gillitts Shopping Centre at the intersection of York and Clifton roads. It's a nondescript mini-mall that houses a pizza joint; a shop selling sexy (tacky) dress up items; a pleasant courtyard, and Quo Restaurant, the creation of chef Jonathan Jones.

The decor is different from most Durban restaurants, with a simple, modern interior. The lighting is quite bright, but softened by the addition of candles on wall sconces. There is a broad stripe of duck egg blue on the walls, and tables have either simple plastic chairs or deep leather wingbacks. The focal point of the room is an impressive collection of about 20 flowering orchids in white, pinks and yellows that line one of the walls. Either someone has quite the green fingers, or they must be spending a lot of money on bringing in fresh plants every other week. The photo below was taken at the end of the evening - every table was full while we were there, although we managed to get a booking that morning for the same night.

The service was brisk, and we soon had a bottle at the table from the brief but reasonable wine list. Quo's menu doesn't really do the food justice, being a single laminated page, with dishes presented a little haphazardly. Starters are described as 'light meals or starters to share', which I wouldn't really agree with - I easily managed one on my own, and they are reasonably priced in any case. The style of the food could be described as modern fusion with an Asian influence, but there is no real cohesiveness to the offerings, with salads, sea food and Italian inspired dishes rubbing shoulders.

No matter - the food, which arrives promptly is great. We started with an Asian fillet bruschetta which combined fresh French loaf with tender strips of rare fillet cooked in a fantastic sauce that might have been oyster sauce based - dark, rich and sweet/salty. Deciding we had space for another starter, we then shared the calamari pan fried in a pad Thai sauce and were very glad that we had - the calamari tubes were tender and simply cooked, but the sauce was even better than the last, with hints of sweet and sour tamarind and lemon, salty shrimpy flavours and fresh coriander.

The main courses, like the starters, are a bit of an eclectic bunch, featuring sections for baguettes, linguini, and beef fillet as well as a handful of others. The special of the day was pork belly, but we opted for the lamb cutlets, and a beef fillet and prawns combination. 

Both dishes were excellent - the lamb cutlets were moist and pink and served with an Asian style basting. The fillet was sliced into quite thin medallions and topped with juicy deshelled prawns. Both main courses were served with the aforementioned baked potatoes - which really were out of this world. Again, there was plenty of fresh coriander garnishing the meals, which I love, but may not be to everybody's taste.

During the meal it was great to have the chef visit our table on more than one occasion to see that we were enjoying ourselves. While some restaurants skip this nicety completely, and others overdo it with intrusive commentary on every course, Quo struck a good balance, and I felt like I could have brought up any issues, had there been any. As it was I merely enthused as to the quality of the food and the sauces (mostly in gestures, as my mouth was generally full).

The dessert menu was fairly short, and we opted for the 'bread and butter' pudding (made with croissants - which sold it for me) and the Turkish nougat served with dark and white Belgian chocolate. The bread and butter pudding is something of a signature dish there it seems, and was pretty good, and not something that I have ever ordered before. The croissants are baked (with butter, one imagines - as well as chocolate and cranberries) in an individual portion, and were crisp on the outside and soft and warm on the inside. The dish went well with the vanilla icecream, which I suspect was homemade.

The nougat was probably the weak point of the meal, simply pieces of nougat served with bowls of melted milk (not dark) and white chocolate, and too sweet to really enjoy. It would probably be better with a dark chocolate, but might be one to share if you just want a little something with your coffee at the end of the meal.

Quo has recently moved to the top spot on Tripadvisor's recommendations for Durban Restaurants (on the strength of relatively few, but very positive reviews) and you can see what people like about it. The decor is attractive, service efficient and friendly, food tasty and imaginative and prices reasonable.