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.

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