Monday, June 9, 2014

Secret Eats: Durban

So there I was, standing indecisively in a dimly lit parking area outside a factory building that was shrouded in darkness. Through the dusty window panes mysterious shapes moved past, and the distant hum of voices spilled out of a door, which was guarded by a clean shaven guy stylishly dressed in chinos and a button up shirt.

'Greg?' I asked him, 'from Secret Eats?'

He looked blankly at me, throwing me off momentarily - was this the right place? The email I received that morning had definitely given this address... Remembering the password I had been emailed hours earlier, I tried again, 'coffee or tea, it's all the same to me', I mumbled, feeling distinctly awkward. At the sound of the secret words Greg's face lit up at with a huge grin as he welcomed us inside of the normally off-limits downstairs area of the Colombo Coffee and Tea building in Glenwood (home of the Factory Café).

This is the concept of Secret Eats, a limited seating, underground dining experience that pairs food enthusiasts with award winning chefs in unique venues for once-off opportunities to come together and celebrate good food, wine and sparkling company. Besides the unconventional venues and exciting food, part of the appeal is in the secretive nature of the soirees, with only people who have signed up to receive invitations aware of the occasion, and no hint given as to menu or venue until the day of the event. Think of it like a Foodster Fight Club. The first rule of Secret Eats, is you don't talk about Secret Eats (until you're there of course - then Twitter, Instagram and the rest light up with our smug satisfaction at being in on the secret).

Until recently, Secret Eats was active in Cape Town and Joburg only, but this weekend was the launch of the Durban experience.

Inside the factory, a temporary bar had been set up and waiters were serving cranberry and Tanqueray cocktails. Various amuse-bouches were dotted around the room. At one end, a table covered in a lush layer of wheatgrass was dotted with chicken satay and sesame crusted prawn skewers. A tray filled with olive and sesame seed 'ground' was planted with crudités and people were grazing happily. Glass bowls of deep fried ricotta stuffed olives hung from a rusting piece of antique equipment and spoons holding bite sized cubes of bright tuna sashimi were carefully arranged on a chainlink fence.

The crowd was intimate, around 50 people in total, and conversation was soon flowing as we got to know our fellow diners, several of whom I knew from Twitter, or had met at one or another of Durban's markets (Zak and Tonic, the Delish Sisters and Cuizine Durban were all there).

As the last of the snacks were disappearing, our host Greg led us upstairs, past the fairy lights of the Factory Café space and to two long tables simply decorated with white tablecloths, candles in large Mason jars and occasional succulents in white ceramic pots. The big tables made for lively dinner chatter and as the wine was poured generously, I had the feeling of being surrounded by a rowdy extended family or perhaps attending a particularly well catered wedding.

To cries of approval, we were introduced to our mystery chef for the night, Marcelle Roberts of Café 1999 and Unity fame. Working out of a very small kitchen, Marcelle managed to feed the hungry hordes, bringing her signature modern Mediterranean flair to the table.

We started with a Jerusalem artichoke soup scattered with slivers of tea smoked duck and drizzled with chive oil. The duck was soft, sweet and subtly smoky, and married perfectly with the soup, which was slightly sweet and nutty (Jerusalem artichokes it turns out are not artichokes at all, but the tubers of a sunflower family member).

Continuing with the coffee and tea theme, the main course was an amazing coffee rubbed lamb loin. The loin was served just past pink and carried an earthy almost chocolate flavour from the coffee. In a move that delighted lamb lovers, the loin was paired with a 'lamb reduction' that was basically a moist, succulent pulled lamb, meaning there were two different textures to enjoy. The plate was finished off with a fantastic roasted aubergine that was silky smooth and soft, as well as a dash of chickpea puree and a red pepper salsa.

The dessert did not disappoint, and was just the right portion to finish off a memorable meal. A yoghurt and vanilla panna cotta served with a scoop of light green pistachio ice cream and decorated with three pretty cubes of rose jelly. I alternated eating the elements separately and combining them in various combinations on my spoon and was only sad that I finished every scrap before I could decide on my favourite way to enjoy it.

After the dinner was complete there was still wine to enjoy (an excellent Bakenskop Chardonnay and a Lushof Shiraz) and a selection of locally made cheeses. I'm pretty sure I spotted some of Chrissie Briscoe's cheddar, which fans of the Shongweni Market will be familiar with. And of course, we had to finish with some of the expertly pulled espressos from the Factory Café.

Want to be a part of the next event? Sign up now at TheSecretEATS.