Monday, September 22, 2014

Secret Eats: Open Plan Studio

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.

Habesha Café

Visiting Habesha Café in Glenwood’s bustling Helen Joseph Road feels like being welcomed into an inviting, spice-scented Ethiopian home. The venue is in fact a converted house, with old Berea yellowwood floors; high ceilings, and generous bay windows. Warm Durban sunshine streams past hessian shades, colourful cotton curtains and across casually scattered low seats. Chairs are arranged around tables, or informally into circles, surrounding the brightly coloured woven stands that carry the communal plates which Ethiopians traditionally eat from.

The term ‘Habesha’ is a word used among Ethiopians and Eritreans to refer to themselves, in a unifying fashion rather than delineating groups along tribal or regional lines (check out the hashtag #HabeshaProblems on Twitter for a humorous take on traditionally strict Ethiopian parents with high expectations). No Habesha problems here, though – on arrival, you will be ushered inside by the gracious, soft-spoken hosts Biniam and Fev, who treat you more like returning friends than patrons.

If you’ve eaten at an Ethiopian restaurant before, you will have a good idea of what to expect from the menu – a variety of chicken, beef or lamb ‘wots’ (spicy stews) as well as a good selection of vegetarian dishes, featuring split peas, lentils and chickpeas. The traditional spice mix ‘berbere’ appears in many of the dishes, and carries the warm familiar flavours of chili peppers, garlic and ginger, as well as others that may be harder to place: korarima (the dried seeds of a ginger which grows wild in the horn of Africa), nigella and fenugreek.

Select a variety of dishes, place your order, and soon it arrives, each wot presented in a separate bowl, and resting on a white tablecloth of injera, the distinctive flat bread which serves as both plate and utensil. In case you run out of bread with which to eat your meal, a bowl full of extra injera is served alongside, in neat little rolls. Injera is made from a fermented dough and has a lemony, slightly sour taste – Habesha’s version is quite mild, however, with just a hint of acid.

On our visit, we demolished a combination of tibs firfir (cubed mutton curry tossed through with injera), shiro wot (split peas) and misir wot (lentils). The lentils were served in a wooden bowl that seemed to add to the flavour. Eating with our hands, the injera acted as an artist’s palette, each dish a flavourful colour, to be mixed, swirled and recomposed into a personal work of art. Delicious, edible art.

Forget the tired dessert options of ice-cream, crème brûlée or chocolate mousse. Here in little Ethiopia, meals are concluded with a generous bowl of sweet and sticky pitted dates. Fev brings us black coffee, served in a long-necked round-bottomed clay jebena and poured into small pottery cups. The coffee is served with freshly popped popcorn, which goes surprisingly well with the dates. We also tried the mint tea, flavoured with fresh mint leaves and brown sugar.

Habesha Café is not licensed, so bring your own bottle, or try their fresh juices like the mango and avocado. Dishes are very reasonably priced, and our meal for two including three wots, drinks, tea, coffee and dates came to just over R200.

Lupa Osteria: Westville

For the past few months, Westville has been buzzing in anticipation of the opening of Lupa Westville. Situated in a prime position on Jan Hofmeyer Road (Westville’s restaurant strip) the chip off the Hillcrest block has quickly taken shape on the site that until recently held old favourite La Storia. Looks like there’s a new Italian in town.

In place of La Storia’s laid back décor of mismatched chairs and tables, Lupa has mimicked the more upmarket feel of its Hillcrest venue, with large black and white tiles; pillars clad in rough timber; raw brick and slate grey walls. Many of the best aspects of Lupa Hillcrest have been replicated here – including the cocktail menu - which was where we started - enjoying a Romulus and a Remus, named for the twins of Rome’s founding myth (Lupa was the wolf that raised them after they were thrown into the river Tiber by their evil uncle). Sadly the glasses of breadsticks which we enjoyed on our last visit to Hillcrest were not on offer here, hopefully they will still make an appearance.

The clientele are probably a little older, a little less hip than the Hillcrest crowd, but they certainly seem to appreciate the food, the restaurant has been open for a month already, and this was the first time that we had managed to secure a table. By 7 o’clock on a Saturday night the place was already bustling – it seems that in Westville as in most of Durban, people like to be in bed by 9.

We ordered zucchini fries with basil mayonnaise and pretzel dusted calamari for starters. Both were fresh, hot and tasty: the zucchini - thin strips of lightly battered, melt-in-your-mouth delights, sprinkled with parmesan - the calamari, tender and moreish. Others at the table ordered the beef carpaccio and the Parma ham with melon. My only quibble: a slight over reliance on mayonnaise, which featured in three of the four starters – I would have skipped it on the carpaccio at least, which was crying out for a good balsamico.
Presumably due to the newness of the kitchen, there were no specials on offer for the night, so we stuck to the menu, which in its defence is full of good choices, from the traditional pizza and pasta, to some interesting sounding veal, lamb, fillet and line fish dishes. I opted for the fillet escalope, where the meat is thinned out slightly with a tenderising mallet of sorts, making for a super moist and perfectly medium rare cut that fell apart as I attacked it. The fillet was topped with perfectly ripe avocado and oven roasted tomato, and served on a mushroom risotto (slightly underdone, as seems to always be the case at restaurants). All in all, a very nicely put together meal.

The gnocchi salsicce with fennel sausage, bacon, cream and Chianti was also good – a hearty dish with a rich, red sauce, although slightly over salted, which seemed to be true for the pastas at the table too. I had a taste of a friend’s chicken marsala, which was excellent.

Dessert offerings include tiramisu, crème brûlée, and dark chocolate tart, but we settled for scoops of the creamy and chocolate-filled home-made ice-cream, strong espressos and an affogato. I saw other tables enjoying the ice-cream in a sugar cone, which looks like a fun way to end the evening.

Westville is certainly better off for the arrival of Lupa, which together with the Olive and Oil Café adds some much needed variety to the local dining scene. While the Hillcrest Lupa is probably a little more flash – Westville is a lot closer if you’re visiting from Durban. For inhabitants of Westville, it’s our new local.

Marco Paulo

Back in January, I reviewed the excellent Frank’s Speakeasy in Mount Edgecombe, and had plenty of good things to say about their wide range of beers, super-cool waiters, and epic burgers. Of course Frank’s is only half of the story, and is separated from the more upmarket Marco Paulo bistro by only a colourful stained glass window.

Marco Paulo itself actually has quite a lot of glass, with a semi-circular floor to ceiling glass wall forming the front of the venue, providing views into the bustling depths of the single space restaurant that holds 20 or so tables. Sadly the view from inside the restaurant looking out is only of the parking lot, which tends to be a bit annoying when SUV headlights are flicked on and glare inside.

On the night that we visited, it was unusually cold for Durban, and the first table that we were seated at felt cold and soulless, being placed directly against the glass wall, with the bright lights of the parking lot spilling across the table, and the cold air from the open doors whistling past us. Happily, after making our unhappiness with the seating arrangement known, the manager very smoothly relocated us to a table deeper inside the room, which suited us much better. The more exterior tables are probably a great place to sit at during the day, but definitely not where you want to be for a romantic dinner.

Speaking of romance, many of the reviews of Marco Paulo mention that it is a very loud space, which is true – not necessarily a bad thing, but the atmosphere is more bustling than intimate. In my review of Franks I mentioned the great 90’s soundtrack of Counting Crows and Third Eye Blind – unfortunately on this visit, the same 12 songs (Counting Crows featured prominently again) were on repeat, meaning that we heard each song twice by the end of our meal. When one can fit almost 500 songs onto an ipod shuffle, this is really inexcusable, but it has happened at two of the restaurants that I have eaten at recently.

Technically, a ‘bistro’ like Marco Paulo is a small, modestly priced restaurant that serves simple, homestyle meals. In recent years, however, (or is it perhaps just in South Africa?) the term seems to have taken on the opposite meaning, evoking an upmarket, fine dining atmosphere. Perhaps 9th Avenue Bistro is to blame here. Anyway, Marco Paulo is on the upper end of Durban restaurants, with main meals generally between R120 and R180.

Marco Paulo styles itself as a ‘world food’ bistro, which is kind of misleading, as the thrust is very much Italian, with pizza, pasta and risotto sections on the menu. Throwing in a Thai red curry afterthought doesn’t really make you world food. Actually, an international vibe would be nice, as the menu choices, while tasty sounding, are rather traditional (fillet with red wine reduction or peppercorn sauce, spaghetti bolognaise, Hawaiian pizza and so on).

For starters I opted for the snails – there were nine of them which was enticing, and they weren’t served in one of those weird little artists palette plates, which was also nice – those always make me feel like I’m in a pub. The snails came three ways; in a champagne butter, a more traditional gorgonzola and a fairly unusual tomato and red pepper sauce. All of them were good, although the gorgonzola was probably my favourite; I guess sometimes the classic options are just the best.

Our other starter was the camembert spring rolls with a chilli, tomato and ginger relish. The spring rolls were delightfully bite-sized, a little stack of seven or so, and made for great finger food. The cheese was good and strong, although the relish was a little uninspired, without much bite provided by either the chilli or the ginger.

I had read a review that particularly praised the peri-peri chicken, so despite not normally ordering chicken out, I decided to give it a try, and was glad that I did. The bird was deboned, which makes eating so much easier, and the sauce was wonderfully fragrant and spicy. It was served atop a pile of shoestring fries, which soaked up the extra sauce in a very satisfying half crunchy, half juicy kind of way. Apparently not everyone likes it served in this fashion – the waiter offered to serve the chips on the side – but I definitely recommend it as is.

Seeing as there is a whole risotto section on the menu here, we assumed it would be safe to order a beef fillet with risotto side (underdone risotto is my pet peeve). The beef fillet turned out to be excellent, one of the tastiest, tender-est steaks I’ve enjoyed in Durban. The risotto, sadly, was underdone – not terribly, but definitely more crunchy than creamy, so that was disappointing. The red wine reduction was alright, although thin – a little more reducing could have been done while the risotto finished cooking. Strangely, a few large chunks of unadvertised butternut and some green beans were hidden underneath the risotto, almost as if we were children that had to be conned into eating our veg.

Desert – expect to see crème brûlée (we were offered espresso flavoured) as well as chocolate fondant and some old school classics including an apple crumble. After enjoying the fondant when visiting Franks, I stuck with the tried and trusted and found it just as good the second time around.

Verdict? Vibey atmosphere, good service, generally good food (and an interesting wine list). If I had to summarise my issue with Marco Paulo, it’s simply that the food is not as adventurous as I would have expected. That, and the underdone risotto.