Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Max's Lifestyle, Umlazi

It's another sunny Saturday afternoon on the East Coast. The sky is an uninterrupted blue ceiling and a gentle breeze is stirring through the palms. We're relaxing at a smart wooden outdoor table on a raised deck shaded by a large awning.  Around us, tables full of friends laugh, drink beer and consume large quantities of braaied meat off wooden platters. The crowd is mostly young and trendy, men dressed in Soviet jeans and Guess T-shirts, ladies in high heels and figure hugging dresses. There are families here too, with prams and babies in tow. All in all, a fairly unremarkable scene, other than that this double storied entertainment venue and restaurant is not in town, or the suburbs, but rather in Umlazi township, V section, 1328 Mbe Road.

We're out for lunch at Max's Lifestyle. The incomplete sounding name is reflective of the fact that the venue is not easily defined as a restaurant, a tavern or even a club - its all of those things, but it's more than that too. Max's started out in 2002 serving braaied meat from a single roomed shack next to a taxi rank, but under the savvy ownership of Max Mqadi it has expanded into a bustling bar, lounge, butchery and restaurant that is known as a place to see and be seen. It's frequented by government bigwigs, local celebrities and assorted black diamonds as well as locals, and is the venue of choice for those seeking a dose of authentic Kasi (township) culture.

The dining experience here has a uniquely township flavour - there are no waiters or menus, so we order a couple of beers from the bar while we watch the regulars to see how its done. The bar is outfitted with dark wood and granite tops, so don't expect to order quarts - you can get bottles or draughts of the usual SAB fare as well as high end whiskys and spirits - Dom Perignon, Henessy and Belvedere rub shoulders with Johnnie Walker Blue and 21 year old Glenfiddich. It's lunchtime, so we stick to Castle Lite and enjoy the music and the people watching. The bouncer is doubling as a DJ, and spinning a range of tracks from R&B slow jams, to Afro-soul and even Westlife on one occasion.

Turns out that its pretty easy to place an order - the first step is to take a short stroll over to the built in butchery at the back of the deck. There's a refrigerated glass display case and you get to pick your own meat and then sit back and relax while it's expertly grilled and returned to your table. The butchery focuses on cheap cuts - there are mounds of thinly sliced chuck steak; heaped piles of beef short rib; pork chops; chicken pieces and thick loops of boerewors. There are also whole beef livers and tripe if you're into internal organs. The ladies behind the counter will individually weigh and price your selections and pile them onto a wooden slab before liberally dusting them in a mystery powder from a large plastic container.

'Aha - Max's famous special spice mix?' I ask the lady behind the counter - 'what's the secret ingredient'? She looks confused. 'It's barbecue spice', she says. Oh well.

After paying (prices err on the ridiculously reasonable side - lunch set us back about R80 for two, exluding drinks), the meat board is handed back to the customer, who carries it to the braai area out back. Here a sweating staff member is tending to two heavily laden 40 gallon drum braais. There is a haze of smoke, and the smell of sizzling steaks mingles with the scents of charcoal, roasting chicken and the fat that's dripping slowly into the flames.

Service is relaxed rather than prompt, but when the meat arrives it is worth the wait. The chicken wings make perfect finger food starters, and have a lovely flame-grilled finish, while the boerewors is of surprisingly good quality - juicy, well spiced and bursting with flavour. The beef short-rib and the chuck steak taste great (maybe there is more to the barbecue spice than meets the eye), and while not tender, the enjoyment of gnawing meat off the bone should not be underrated. There are no utensils here, save a single steak knife, and no plates either so meat is enjoyed the way nature intended, out of your hands.

It's obvious that Max's is run by a man - there are no vegetables in sight, with all of the sides on offer being starchy in nature - steamed bread (ujeqe), dumplings (dombolo), and pap are headliners. Many of the tables near us forego sides altogether and simply devour their huge platters of meat washed down by endless rounds of beer.

We order pap, which comes in a polystyrene container and is thick, stiff and cool, contrasting nicely with the hot, fatty meat. An additional side is a disposable cup holding a generous portion of a thick red chili sauce that would not look out of place in an Indian restaurant. According to Max's legend, this sauce is the perfect cure for a hangover. The only other seasoning is two little piles of table salt served on the meat platter.

There are no desserts to speak of, although the butchery does include what is basically a small spaza shop selling chips, cool-drinks, and ice creams, so you can always finish your meal off with a Magnum if you feel so inclined.

Umlazi is only a few kilometers down the road from the more familiar face of Durban, but it would be easy to spend a lifetime in the city without visiting South Africa's second biggest township (after Soweto). Max's stated aim of creating a space frequented by all cultures and races is the perfect invitation to explore this world - and get a great meal into the bargain.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Cafe Abyssinia

An enormous, shallow platter is gently lowered onto the table before us. Completely covering the dish, and extending slightly over its edge is what appears at first glance to be a thin, off-white flannel table cloth. Resting on its surface in three bowls are fragrant stews of lamb, lentils and split-pea.

Our host, Charity, picks the bowls up one by one and gently spills their contents out onto the cloth. The cloth of course is not actually cloth, but injera - the famous flat bread of Ethiopia.  The porous surface of the bread immediately begins to soak up the flavours of the stews and the air is filled with the aromas of berbere, an Ethiopian spice mix featuring chilli, coriander, fenugreek and more.

At Durban's Café Abyssinia, as in the horn of Africa, the bread is at once plate, food and utensil. There are no knives or forks needed here. You simply tear pieces of injera off the edges of your platter, scoop up a morsel of stew and pop the whole thing into your mouth.

The injera has a unique, slightly sour, lemony flavour - the result of a fermentation process similar to that used when making sourdough. Some consider it an acquired taste, but I happily acquired it on the first bite and kept on eating until the platter was clean. Traditionally prepared on a large clay plate over a fire, here it is made in what looks like an enormous electric frying pan, almost like a pancake. Because injera is not flipped, the underside remains smooth, while the top is spongy and perfect for soaking up juices.

Of course man can not live on injera alone, and the selection of wats, or Ethiopia's answer to the curry, are the perfec partner for the slightly sour flavour of the bread. We selected a yebeg alicha wat (lamb stewed with garlic, onions and tumeric), shiro (split peas) and misir (lentils) wot. Each dish was delicious, with just enough chilli to raise a mild sweat, but nothing that would detract from the depth of flavours imparted by the gently cooked meat, pulses and Charity's special berbere mix.

Vegetarians will rejoice in the fact that Ethiopians are strict observers of various fasting days when meat is avoided, and half of the menu options at Café Abysinnia are meat-free. For carnivores, there are beef, lamb, chicken and even seafood options, and the doro wot (chicken in lime, garlic, ginger and berbere) is apparently particularly good. On our visit, we also enjoyed a starter of beef meatballs, which came in a fantastic garlicky sauce that ended up being mopped up by extra injera when our main course arrived.

You will be surprised at how easy it is to put away a manhole-cover sized portion of injera, so be sure to order three or four wat's per couple. If there are more of you, just keep ordering - Charity will bring extra injera to the table in little rolls.

Café Abyssinia is unlicensed, so bring along a bottle of wine to enjoy with your meal (no corkage was charged). After dinner, be sure to order the coffee - Ethiopia is the birthplace of the bean, and coffee is served hot and black out of a clay pot, alongside lashings of sugar. I generally take my coffee with milk, but this brew managed to be strong without being bitter, and in an interesting twist, is served with a bowl of popcorn, apparently an Ethiopian tradition.

Prices are extremely reasonable. Wats vary from R40 to R60, coffee is R15 and injera is complimentary. Service is slow, but friendly as Charity works in the kitchen, front of house and as a waitress. It's not a big space, with only five or six tables in a room that spills out onto the pavement and the decor is minimal, but appropriately themed, with Lions of Judah and Ethiopian flags lending an out-of-town appeal to the place. Get there soon, before the whole of Durban finds out about it.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Cake and Satay House

Eating out is something I love to do for a variety of reasons, one of the least of which is simply to satiate my hunger. Yes, I'm a hungry hedonist, but the emphasis is strongly on the hedonism - I eat out for the pleasure of it. One of my favourite activities is exploring a country through its food - ideally in a street market or bazaar, but otherwise while discovering new flavours right here in one of our Durban restaurants.

The Cake and Satay House, specialising in Indonesian food is just such a place where one can go to experience something new. Often described as being in Umbilo - probably because of its proximity to Umbilo Road, it's actually situated in Glenwood, in Albert Dlomo Road (formerly Willowvale), not far from Parc Café and Glenwood Bakery. From the street, a small sign indicating 'Cake and Satay House: Indonesian Delicacies' is the only hint at what lies behind the door that leads up a short flight of stairs to the front room of Anita Leong's house. Here, her and her husband serve up a variety of Indonesian, Chinese and Thai inspired dishes to a small, but appreciative audience.

At the top of the stairs, a security door is opened before you can be beckoned inside. There are two eating areas: a small, enclosed outside room, ringed in fairy lights, and inside, a slightly larger room with a row of tables running down the centre and a display case featuring a handful of sweets and sauces for sale. There are only four or five tables in the restaurant, with a potential capacity of about 20 diners. On the night that we visited, however, we were the only customers. You have to book for dinner here, not only to ensure that you get a table, but also because there is a fair chance that the restaurant won't be open otherwise. 

Ambiance comes courtesy of a single CD of traditional Indonesian music, which reminded me vaguely of the Midi soundtrack on a 1980s video game. It's probably not the ideal restaurant for a first date, but it's a great place to come with a bunch of friends who are happy to create their own buzz. They aren't licensed, so its strictly BYOB, but they don't charge corkage, and they do stock a variety of cool-drinks if you prefer. Also, remember to bring cash - they don't accept credit cards.

Starters are limited to a selection of fried delicacies (wontons, spring rolls, crispy prawns) or soups (chicken or wonton). They also serve those colourful, tongue-sticking, deep fried prawn crackers - either individually, or by the plate. The wontons are hot, crispy and filled with minced pork; the spring rolls are enormous and bursting with crispy vegetables, pork and prawns. A bowl of bright red sambal oelek (basically raw chilli paste) and soy sauce is served alongside, with a small plastic spoon. It's Asian street food, simple, tasty and good for sharing.

The main course options are more extensive, with separate sections for Nasi Goreng (fried rice); Mi Goreng (fried noodles, much like Chinese chow mein); sweet and sour dishes; cashew chicken; black bean dishes, and the titular satays. There are also a handful of sea food dishes, including curried and chilli crabs, which are apparently excellent.

I went for the house speciality and ordered the chicken satay, served ten kebabs deep, with a fantastic, spicy peanut sauce. The pieces of meat are smaller than on a typical South African sosatie, and more tender, coated in a sticky sweet and salty sauce which has blackened on the edges where the flames have caught at it. The satay is served with a small bowl of plain steamed rice - good for when you accidentally eat too much sambal oelek.

We also ordered beef in a black bean sauce and sweet and sour pork. Both came with plenty of lightly fried peppers, onion and carrots. The sweet and sour pork was crunchy-edged, and came with a dark, pineapple-sweet sauce. The black bean dish was full of tender beef, mushrooms and vegetables, although the sauce lacked depth and could have used more black beans and coriander.

As far as I know, Cake and Satay House is the only restaurant in Durban specialising in Indonesian food. If you get a taste for it though, as I have, you can also get lucky at the Durban Night Market where you'll find Suki's Indonesian Food, offering a fantastic selection of satays, Nasi Goreng and Mi Goreng. Now I have to go try that Ethiopian place on Cowey Road...