At the Design Factory's Open Plan Studio in Morningside, four floors above the empty streets, long wooden tables stretch across a sparsely decorated industrial space. The tables are strewn with artfully arranged stacks of old books, ceramics and antique appliances. At each place setting, long rows of assorted cutlery reflect the candlelight: two knives, a fish knife, three forks and a spoon. People sit on mismatched chairs - ten to a side and the noise of animated conversation almost drowns out the background music as bottles of wine are passed from one side of the table to the other.
It’s Friday night, and it’s time for another once off event hosted in Durban by Secret Eats, the underground dining experience with limited seats and largely word-of-mouth advertising. The crowd have gathered here for a unique dining experience, this one catered by Tarnah Blane, a graduate of Christina Martin and owner of Private Chef Ballito.
Why go to the effort of applying for invitations to attend pop-up restaurant in out of the way parts of town, or trying to remember the tongue-in-cheek passwords at the door that are part of the Secret Eats experience? Part of it is about the food, which is out of the ordinary, different every time, and follows a set menu format that forces people out of their comfort zones. Mostly though, I think it’s about the people who attend - the spontaneous friendships that emerge across the shared tables, and the chance to discover parts of the city where most of us wouldn’t ordinarily go.
The evening starts well with welcome cocktails and live music from the talented Phil Moffett, who does strange things to a guitar that sound pretty amazing (apparently it’s called slap harmonics). The cocktails are served in retro glass ‘Cooee’ bottles, and involve what feels like large quantities of gin, rosewater and those hipster-y paper straws. The evening’s theme is #SouthAmericanFlavours (Secret Eats is big on social media) so we snack on empanadas dipped in fragrant chimichurri sauce and choripanes (effectively pork sliders, named for their two main ingredients, grilled chorizo sausage and pan, or bread) as we mingle and meet some of the other guests.
We move through to the tables which have unreserved seating, and form naturally into large groups of new found friends. I might be imagining it, but the one table seems to hold a mostly 30s crowd, while the other table is favoured by slightly older diners. We’re sitting at the kids table!
For starters we are served ceviche, the unofficial national dish of Peru - raw fish marinated in citrus juices, and effectively ‘cooked’ by the acid, leaving it tender and slightly chewy with a delicate flavour that really reveals the fish – a perfect food for Durban! This one is adventurously combined with toasted coconut flakes and fried banana fritters. Personally, bananas are the one food that I refuse to eat, so I simply push the fritter to one side. The fresh yellowtail, purchased the same morning from the docks is meltingly tender and simply dressed. The crunchy flakes of coconut add a fun textural component that really pulls the dish together.
Next, it’s a second starter sized portion of panqueques con pollo a la crema (chicken wrapped in a pancake with butter beans, and served with avocado salsa). Pretty tasty, although it could have been served warmer – a challenge for the chefs at all of these functions is cooking for a crowd out of what is generally a makeshift kitchen. Still, the plates are heading back to the kitchen wiped clean, and we are clamouring for more.
The main course is shredded venison (blesbok) served atop a pile of quinoa risotto and chargrilled sweetcorn and decorated with micro herbs. Quinoa’s gluten-free status and high mineral and protein content have made it a trendy superfood, but as well as being good for you it’s also really delicious, and (we discover) goes fantastically with blesbok. Cell phones and cameras are hovering over dishes before they are devoured, as each course is sent out via Twitter and Instagram to those unfortunate enough to have missed out on tickets.
Two of the guests are celebrating their birthdays, and there is an impromptu performance of unaccompanied singing from Ian – a Drakensberg Boy’s alumni who is sitting opposite me. Everybody pauses to enjoy the moment, this is the kind of thing that makes these evenings what they are – a little out of the ordinary.
Finally we reach the dessert course, which is bread and butter pudding of croissant (known as medialuna in Argentina for their half-moon shape) with dulce de leche and Chantilly cream. It’s served in a tin mug, and it’s decadently soft and sweet – a perfect end to the meal.
Open Plan Studio has a photo booth set up, so we gather for photographs with some of the table, as well as Zak and Tam (of Zak and Tonic, who run these evenings). Arms are thrown around shoulders as we huddle up for a pose – just another group of old friends that met a couple of hours ago.