Sunday, March 30, 2014

Lupa Osteria, Hillcrest

Exciting news! You may have already seen the blog post below on the Taste Detectives page. That's because I am now a contributing taste detective, under the rather cool name of 'The Hungry Hedonist'. I'll still be posting all of my content here, but you'll see it first on Taste Detectives.


Apparently in Italy there is an eating out hierarchy which goes something like this: an 'osteria' is a simple place to grab a glass of wine and a bite to eat, often at shared tables. Next comes the 'trattoria', which serves reasonably priced meals in a slightly more formal environment, and finally the 'ristorante', which is a full service establishment complete with long menus, snooty waiters and elegant decor. Lupa Osteria in Hillcrest is probably selling itself a little short then, as the food, the decor and the service are all well above your average neighbourhood dive.

First of all, there's a fully fledged bar at the entrance to the restaurant which serves up some of the tastiest cocktails that I've enjoyed in Durban to date, as well as stocking an array of local and imported wines and plenty of craft beer too. The cool, grey interior and warm lighting draw you inwards toward a seat at the bar, or at one of the high tables to enjoy a drink before your meal - which is exactly what we did. The 'Lupa' - a shaken concoction of Jack Daniels Tennessee Honey, bitters, lemon and orange wedges is a good place to start.

The best part about the bar though is the glass full of parmesan dusted grissini (breadsticks) that are placed on the tables. Seriously moreish, you'll end up fighting over who gets the last one, and possibly stealing them off the tables next to you too.

Moving into the body of the restaurant, tables are scattered through a large, inviting room which is busy, but still manages to feel somehow intimate with a few carefully placed pieces of furniture dividing up the space. Pretty much every table is full, so its the kind of place that you want to book at least a day in advance.

It's a good restaurant to eat out at with friends, as the menu is extensive and is backed up by a chalkboard showcasing the days specials. There's a lot to choose from, and we ordered a selection of starters and main courses for the table to share - perhaps the easy going enjoyment of the food here is what inspired the use of 'Osteria' rather than 'Ristorante'.

Portions are definitely on the generous size, and some of the starters looked almost big enough for mains. We tried out the beef carpaccio, decorated with thinly sliced mushroom, parmesan, rocket and (score) more breadsticks - delicious. After that came a bowl full of fragrant mussels in a rich tomato sauce and topped with a slice of crusty bread. The dishes kept coming, and soon we were enjoying more bread (there's a theme developing here) heaped with spicy chicken livers - I enjoyed these, and I don't normally even eat liver. The final starter was a selection of juicy meatballs in a creamy sauce (plus more bread). We're all leaning over each other to tuck in by this point, and the flavours are mingling as plates fly from one side of the table to the other. 

Antipasti done, we moved on to the primo, where I was seduced by the offer of gnocchi with a pulled pork ragu. It's a deceptively simple dish, but the combination of endlessly simmered pork with pillowy soft gnocchi, wine, tomato and fresh herbs is devastatingly effective - it's instantly one of my favourite dishes. 

Another main course of calamari is also enjoyed, tubes and heads are coated in (apparently) pretzel dust, which sounds rather cool, but is not really distinguishable from your regular batter. Either way, it's tasty calamari, fresh and soft, and not too oily. Served with cheesy linguine, marinara sauce and mustard mayonnaise, it's almost too rich, but that might just be the previous courses talking.

Not quite defeated yet, we ordered a sundae with caramel popcorn, peanuts and sugar cone, and - the Italian classic - tiramisu. The waiter warned us that this particular batch of tiramisu didn't turn out quite right and might be too coffee drenched for everyone's taste. He's kind of right, its a little bit soggy, but we were warned, and we enjoy it all the same. The sundae is adequate, but after the fun of the first few spoonfuls there's a lot of rather bland vanilla ice cream to get through. The affogato looks like a good alternative - alongside the ice cream and espresso, you get a shot of Amarula too.

So - great cocktails, addictive breadsticks, carbo-loading goodness, Italian classics, and I haven't even tried the pizzas yet. Lupa is named for the she-wolf in Rome's foundation myth, but it could equally well refer to the way you'll keep looping back for more.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Parc Cafe, Glenwood

Two weeks ago we were enjoying breakfast at the excellent Glenwood Bakery when we realised that there are actually two amazing venues squeezed into the intriguingly named 'Oslo Building' on Esther Roberts Road. Like Glenwood Bakery, the adjacent parc café ( is surprisingly understated in announcing its presence. There are no signs outside, and initially I mistook them for an extension of the Bakery. After peering inside for several moments, however, I noticed their simple chalk drawn name on a black feature wall, largely given over to their extensive and tempting breakfast and lunch menus.

It turns out that parc café has been around since May last year, and is run by a brother and sister team, Brett and Lara Gentles (Brett was previously at 9th Avenue Bistro). I was excited to try them out, and we managed to get back to Glenwood last weekend for a Saturday morning breakfast.

On arrival, you can instantly feel an arty, hipster vibe which in true Durban style manages to remain completely unpretentious. The waiters are fun and friendly and the clientele range from young locals arriving on fixed gear bicycles to out-of-towners who park their hulking SUVs alongside the small tables which line the pavement.

Being Durban, it's already pretty warm by nine in the morning, and we ask our waitress if she can find us a couple of iced coffees.

'It's just espresso and milk over ice', she warns us. 'We don't crush it or anything'.

We assure her that we are fine with that - the coffees at Parc are made from beans supplied by Colombo Coffee (of Factory Café fame) and when they arrive they are delicious - cool, silky-smooth and full bodied.

We pick two of the breakfast options off the chalkboard and order. Reluctantly, we omit the 'Not-so-Benedict' (bacon and poached eggs with hollandaise on next door's rosemary potato bread) - I am still cherishing the memories of my last Eggs Benedict, and it would feel like a betrayal to be moving on so soon. Luckily there are plenty of other exciting sounding options, and before long we are presented with two plates - one holding a toasted scone topped with poached eggs, bacon, roast red peppers and wholegrain mustard cream, and the other piled high with corn and zucchini cakes, poached eggs, halloumi, lemon and olives with a tomato and vanilla relish.

In situations like this, the time honoured tradition of 'eat half and pass on' is enforced, and I can't decide whether to be happy or sad at half time, as each dish is wonderful, and both are so fresh and unusual. The 'eggs on scone' comes first - eggs are perfectly poached, bacon crispy and mushrooms joyfully sautéed. The mustard cream pulls the dish together, and the scone base is a great idea - plenty of room to soak up all of the juices. This particular scone is a little hard, but with the quality of the other ingredients I'm hoping that this was a once off error. 

Next arrives 'eggs on corn and zucchini cakes'. The cakes are basically a stack of fritters, lightly bound corn and zucchini just fried through - warm and moist. The lemon and olives are not the first things I would think of when it comes to breakfast, but they work together beautifully, in harmony with the eggs, the fritters and the halloumi (my only request here is for MORE halloumi).

Our waitress tells us that she doesn't have Tabasco sauce, but she does have chilli sauce. A simple bowl of blended chilies arrives - the perfect accompaniment to eggs, and one that leaves a warm glow after the table is expertly cleared and the bill promptly delivered.

On the way out, we popped into the Glenwood Bakery for a couple of bagels - heavenly!

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Glenwood Bakery

Glenwood Bakery (398 Esther Roberts Road) is the kind of place that you hear about from a friend - and having been there, the kind of place you want to share with your friends. Completely unflashy, the bakery sits in a quiet suburb of leafy Glenwood in a two storey building topped with a red tiled roof, like so many Berea houses. With no prominent signage, the only indications of its presence are a small 'open' sign in a window sporting a tasteful Glenwood Bakery logo and a collection of three small tables that line the open pavement. Looking into the light, airy space, a central communal table fills most of the room, while a bookshelf filled with well thumbed books lines one of the walls. A wire rack holds the days offerings - biscotti, grissini, wholemeal sourdough, croissants, and other freshly baked treasures.

Because it's a Saturday, Eggs Benedict and Eggs Royale as well as a variety of toasted sandwiches are also being served. Apparently you can get pizza on a Monday night, and the rest of the week sandwiches are available. It's pointedly more a bakery than a restaurant, but that only makes the limited offerings all the more desirable.

We sit at one of the small mosaic tiled tables outside and order two Eggs Benedict and two glasses of homemade iced-tea. Within ten minutes our food arrives. Naturally, the eggs are served on the bakeries homemade bread - one of their dark sourdoughs. A sliver of finely sliced cured meat (possibly Chuck & Bob's prosciutto?) rests beneath two perfectly poached eggs, which must be from the most organic, free-ranging chickens in KZN, as the yolks are an almost startlingly orange and taste like happiness and sunbeams. The whole creation is cloaked in a soft yellow blanket of hollandaise, which is rich, buttery and contains just a hint of lemon to holds the flavours in check and keep the dish as fresh as the dusting of bright green chives scattered across the plate.

It's the kind of food that you would make yourself the morning after a late night out - if you were a master-baker capable of whipping up a quick mother-sauce, and always kept a leg of dry-cured ham hanging in your larder.

Oh yes, and we also took a rye bread sourdough home, which made delicious toast and sandwiches.

Market at the Square

The sun has been down for an hour but the heat of the long day continues to rise from the warm streets and walls of Umhlanga's Granada Square in bustling Chartwell Drive. The sound of a crooned Mumford and Sons cover mingles with a hundred conversations, the barked orders of food vendors and the sizzle of meat on flame. Above, a constellation of lights stand in for stars. It's standing room only at the popular Market at the Square, so I'm enjoying feeling a part of the crowd, sipping on a glass of chilled champagne and debating the merits of falafel rotis over lamb pitas.

Falafel roti wins out, so I join the queue in front of the ever popular Falafel Fundi. I don't know his name, so I'll just call him the Fundi, but he was in fine form, rolling and stuffing his rotis at an impressive pace, while keeping up a constant stream of jokes and chatter. Rotis came with or without chilli - I had with, while two others with me had half chilli and no chilli - like Goldilocks' three bears. The rotis were great - bursting with flavour, chock full of falafel balls with the earthy, silky fried chickpea contrasting with the crunchy salad, the warmth of the chilli and garlicky tahini.

Earlier in the evening we also ate at Zak and Tonic, who impressed with their steamed buns, crispy wontons and other dim sum, which were snapped up at such a rate they sold out by the end of the evening.

Several glasses of champagne later, and it's time for something sweet to end off the night. The humorously named 'Legen-dairy' ice cream offers four fantastic flavours, including peanut butter, which I have to try. It's a generous portion, seved in a paper cup with a wooden spoon, and it's as good as you would imagine - do you like peanut butter? Do you like ice cream? Yep, you'll like this then. Only after eating half of my dessert I discover that mixed portions are also possible, so next time I'll definitely throw in a scoop of the oreo and cheesecake ice creams.

In an increasingly crowded market schedule (ten this weekend alone according to my handy market bible produced by @CuizineDurban) the Market at the Square stands out for the great food, chilled vibes and friendly atmosphere. As well as the good eating, there are also plenty of craft stands selling jewelry, art, decor and other fun odds and ends. A fun night out.