Thursday, October 29, 2015

Burger Fest 2

Last night I checked out the ‘Burger Fest 2’ held at The Plant in Station Drive (where the Morning Trade is held every Sunday). As the name suggests, this was the second incarnation of the event. The first one was so popular that it was either a huge success or failure depending on whether you arrived early or late – by 6.30pm there was nowhere to park, and people queued for 20 minutes just to get inside. (I was one of those who arrived, saw the queues and left).

In an effort to address the crowding issues, Burger Fest 2 was promised to be much better controlled, with only 500 tickets for sale, and presales preferred. The cheapest ticket was R90 which included vouchers for a burger, a side and a dessert – great value! There was also an option to pay R175 for a ticket with three burger vouchers, a side and a dessert. Not a lot of point in this one, seeing as some burgers were only R35 (you do the maths).

My first thought on walking in, was that there were not very many stands –only five selling burgers and sides, one or two selling sides only, one beer stand, and two dessert stations. Having said that, the options were all really enticing, and I ended up having to buy an extra ticket or two to taste everything that I wanted to.

Somewhat surprisingly, only two of the five burger joints were offering traditional beef burgers with chicken burgers, sausage meat and two vegetarian options rounding out the choices.

I couldn’t resist Marco’s Italian sausage burger, which had a focaccia bun, red pepper relish and an insanely good sausage patty. What really impressed me though, were how good the veggie options were – I demolished a Mexican Bean Burger by Out To Lunch (you’ll find them at the I Heart Market where they sell amazing wraps) which I actually would have imagined was completely beefy, there was so much umami flavour packed into the patty. Along with the brilliant bean burger came lashing of rich hummus, spicy guacamole and some fiery chilli (dried and fresh). The famous Falafel Fundi also pulled out all the stops, delivering a beautiful falafel burger with plenty of brinjal, fresh slaw, tomatoes and more creamy hummus.

We used our two tickets for sides for some of the best refried beans I’ve ever tasted (Out To Lunch), and some great root veg crisps. Burgers were washed down courtesy of the delicious beers from Standeaven – despite there being only one beer stand, these guys came to the party with about ten different beers and their famous G&T on tap – the Craft was my favourite on the night, but the Best Black Gold was also excellent, just the right amount of bitter.

To finish off, two servings of Scoop ice cream in salted caramel, a perfectly sophisticated flavour, perched atop great waffle cones.

Bring on Burger Fest 3!

Monday, October 26, 2015

Secret Eats Rebooted

Secret Eats, the 'Underground Dining Experience' is back in Durban, having taken a leave of absence for most of the last year. My first taste of Secret Eats was back in June 2014, when it burst onto the Durban dining scene with a bang, pairing the edgy, urban hangout of the Factory Café by night with the renowned cooking of Marcelle Roberts of Café 1999.

The concept of pairing an unexpected, out of the ordinary space with a talented chef is a winning one, and pairing it with a heavy emphasis on social media buzz ensured that Durbanites were lining up for elusive tickets to the next event.

The first event in Durban in many months was announced online with much fanfare, and I was happy to grab two tickets, to see if the kind of magic that had been conjured up in the past could be created again. Secret Eats events are a bit of a lucky-packet leap of faith, as you have to pay upfront without knowing where the event will be hosted, or who the chef will be. Parting with my R1190 (R595 a head) I crossed my fingers, and hoped that the outlay would be worth it.

On the morning of the event, I received an email revealing the secret location for the event - The Green Door in Glenwood, a flexible events / shared office space converted for the night into our venue (it's next door to the Coffee Tree café).

Normally at these events, there's a bit of a fuss made about knowing a secret password to gain access. Silly, but sort of fun. This evening fell more on the silly side, as we delivered our line, and then rather than being ushered into a hidden venue, we were instructed to stand awkwardly on the pavement, where a gentle drizzle was drifting down.

A welcome drink of white wine sangria (peach, strawberries, Ernst & Gouws Sav Blanc, refreshing) was served, and gradually the guests for the night accumulated, up to the final total of around 35 or 40. While we stood on the pavement, sipping sangria and making an effort to feel sophisticated, we nibbled on mouth-sized bites of curry served on a kind of tortilla chip - lamb, cauliflower and chicken versions were served on mirrored trays, all very tasty.

Moving indoors, two rather sparsely decorated long tables were squeezed into the limited space, and the usual seating dance ensued, as everyone tried to sit next to either the people they came with, or having come on their own (as we did) opposite somebody who looked like they would make good conversation. This is actually one of the highlights of these events, as the chance meetings are almost always interesting and a fun way to meet people you wouldn't normally.

A card on the table informed us that the theme for the evening was South African flavours, in an unfortunately timed nod to the rugby world cup (minutes earlier, New Zealand had booted us out of the semi-finals). The chef was chef Ros (no surname given) of Olive Twist, a 'Bespoke Catering Company' according to their website.

The 'Coastal Consommé' starter was a winning effort, served in a tall glass bowl, and looking for all the world like a rock pool on a summer afternoon, complete with plump prawns, slivers of fish, rice-balls and salty broth. Fun to look at and to eat. The paired wine was a rather decent Chardonnay.

Lacking from the evening, sadly, was any real introduction to the chef, discussion of the food we were about to eat, or information about the paired wines being poured. This kind of fanfare at previous Secret Eats was part of what gave one the impression of being privileged insiders, rather than regular restaurant patrons.

Too soon after the starters were cleared, mains began to arrive, in fits and starts, with one end of a table being served, while the other waited. Service was not a high point of the evening, and waiters were generally only good for shuttling food from kitchen to table, and had none of the repartee and energy of the more student-y waiters from previous efforts.

The main course was described as 'a delicious black salt crackling of slow cooked pork, served with a true homage to our wonderful rainbow nation'. The true homage to our wonderful rainbow nation turned out to be steamed tenderstem broccoli, potato bake (the chef would have probably said 'potato gratin' and a lonely asparagus spear). Crackling was sadly noticeable by its absence (there was none on my or my wife's plates) and the dish was only just warm. Sure, the pork belly was soft and tender, but spice was lacking, and the whole dish brought to mind upper middle class weddings, which presumably is where it was first delivered. Buyer's remorse was starting to set in at this point.

Happily, dessert was more inspired, being a Durban inspired curried pineapple, served on a kind of cocoa/biscuit ground, and served with chocolate truffles and a dollop of ice cream. The tall glass bowls were back out, and we had another round of scooping food out from the bottom, which was quite enjoyable.

And that, sadly was that - having begun starters at 8, dishes were cleared by 9.30. No coffee was on offer, nor were any drinks available other than the paired Shiraz and Merlot. Not being a big red wine drinker, I returned to the welcoming sangria. An earlier promised charity raffle either failed to materialise, or took place after we hailed our Uber home at around 10.30.

My unsolicited advice for the continued success of this enterprise? First of all, pick venues with a little more of a wow factor. The Green Door seems like a lovely space, but doesn't exactly take your breath away. Try to work with chefs that enjoy greater name recognition - good food is not all we are looking for, we want a chance to see what our favourite chefs can do outside of their usual kitchen and regular menu. Make sure you employ waiters with a bit of personality. Have drinks other than the paired wines available. Generate a little anticipation for each course, and impress us with detailed descriptions of what we're about to eat. Put on some music, preferably live. Ramp up the number of courses. Keep your plates warm. Make this a secret too good not to share.