Tag Archives: Restaurant review

Tequila slammer

Chris Harvie tries out an eatery whose decor is as fearless as its menu

THE INTRODUCTION:

One of Graaff-Reinet’s many claims to fame, along with its numerous national monuments and its Pierneef Museum, is the fact that, until recently, it was the only place in the world outside Mexico to distil tequila. Of course, being from outside Mexico, it couldn’t be called tequila, and instead was named agave, after the blue agave plant from which the spirit is made.

I say “until recently” because the factory is now closed, but around the time of its closure a year or so ago, this unrelated restaurant of the same name popped up in one of the old town’s oldest buildings.

The said restaurant then promptly burnt down and was rapidly reconstructed. Such is Graaff-Reinet – everything has a complicated history – but now Agave is up and running and acquiring something of a reputation in the surrounding Karoo.

THE PROPOSAL:

Bold is the word. Bold red window frames and doors in a town where everything is heritage green. Bold art on walls, floors and mantelpiece. Bold mirrors. Bold candleholders throwing bold shadows from high above the tables.

There’s a bold menu to match, at breakfast, lunch and dinner, with a rightly strong emphasis on gemsbok and other venison, lamb and roosterkoek, but that’s not to say that Agave is stuck in a Karoo lamb rut (if that’s not vulgar); the dinner menu also features Italian, Malay and even Tandoori dishes and some very fine steaks.

There’s a shady courtyard out back with huge loafing chairs for the daytime coffee-and-cake brigade, but we went for dinner.

THE CONSUMMATION:

I chose roasted veg and pesto spring rolls (R40) followed by the open Karoo lamb pie in a crisp pastry shell topped with minted pea mash (R80). The pie was deliciously rich and gluey and the “mashy peas” a triumph. Around the table, the lamb loin chops (R85) came in for heavy praise but the biggest hit was probably the chicken, cranberry and camembert parcel (R65). I thought parcels were passe but I was firmly corrected by a fellow diner, who tucked into this particular package with gusto.

The desserts on offer were cardamom-infused panna cotta with a berry coulis – admittedly on the trendy side – and a more traditional choice of malva pudding or mango and passion fruit mousse (R25).

From a limited but well priced wine list, we enjoyed a Weltevrede sauvignon blanc and a rather delicious Hermanuspietersfontein 1855 Posmeester. The name is a mouthful and the wine is not very highly rated, but I thought it was a treat for R120.

THE CONSEQUENCES:

Without wine but with dessert, it came in at about R160 a head. Some of us got away with less. While not cheap, there’s no compromise on quality and the smiling service adds value to the red-and-white decor, the red and white wine, and the unusually comfortable chairs.

THE CULPRIT:

Quintinn van Rensburg is through-and-through Karoo – his father was even the town’s postmaster until recently – but he learnt his trade at Spier’s Institute of Culinary Arts and formed his style in some of the country’s top kitchens, including the renowned Samara Private Game Reserve. He is young, ambitious, confident and determined. Definitely a name to watch out for.

WHERE IT HAPPENED:

Agave, corner Somerset and Bourke streets, Graaff-Reinet.

Phone 0498910250 or e-mail quintinnchef@polka.co.za.

Open Monday – Friday 8am to 4.30pm and 6pm to 9pm. Saturday 8am – 2pm; 6pm – 9pm. Closed Sunday.

Old world charm in the Berg

Chris Harvie finds good trout and faded baronial at the Himeville Arms

We had watched the sun go down over the Sani Pass from a gyrocopter, sweeping low over the eland, the trout dams and the pilot’s ex-wife’s farmhouse, with suitable waving and taunting and had spectacularly previewed the Himeville Arms earlier from the air. Now we were headed for it by land.

An impressive array of bakkies lined the street but it seemed eerily quiet as we strode gingerly into the bar. A roar went up. The Sharks were on the attack and everyone was holding their breath in the run-up to a try. Ordering a pint of Drakensberg Pale Ale, we settled down with a menu and joined in the cheering. The chap behind me at the bar was eating steak, egg and chips out of a polystyrene container. In Himeville, it seemed, anything went.

‘We don’t serve fast food, we serve good food as fast as we can.’ Things were looking up. After days on the road of cardboard burgers, ancient sandwiches, dry muffins and that strange powdery espresso that dribbles like an illness out of the Caltex machines, good food was just what I wanted.

The restaurant was full but the talented Siphiso vowed to make a plan in two minutes. We wandered warily from the simple wooden bar through to the reception with its chintz wooden-framed chairs and its nagklokkie and its eetkamer signs embossed in black-on-white plastic and Siphiso reappeared, plan made.

Unfazed by the bombardment of questions that followed, he reassured us with the confidence that comes from being born Zulu, that the eisbein was juicy, the chips were chunky (demonstrated by an impression of a body-builder) and the trout was fresh. Well it would be wouldn’t it?

The huge stone fireplace was empty, not everyone was cold after gyrocoptering, and the walls were pale green. Here and there on the panelling an occasional kudu-head projected. The curtains were covered with leaves and in the corner was a harmonium. In the end-wall was a mysterious Hobbit-door pointing in the direction of Lesotho.

My mussels starter was in a deliciously gluey cheese sauce with bacon and brown wholewheat bread, washed down with the last of the pale ale. Then a woman, Siphiso’s mother, I liked to imagine, pulled the cork on the Railroad Red with a loud ‘thwomp’ and served the wine with all the aplomb of the finest sommelier.

The success of the Himeville Arms lies in its simplicity. We weren’t stuck in the illegible dinginess of a candle-lit dining room. The lights were on. There were candles but they were on candlesticks half a metre high, so they didn’t flicker irritatingly at you. They were above your head somewhere.

The presentation was sensible and the garnish was that great old favourite, a slice of a chunky tomato with a ring of raw onion perched on a torn-off quarter of a lettuce leaf. It was perfect. Who wants to pay extra to have all those blasted herbs and flowers thrown at their food and to have their beans tied up in a chive?

The eisbein was glorious, my dinner companion told me between rants as to the relative merits of Himevillers and Underbergers, which sounded to me like two breeds of caravan. It seems there is an ongoing rivalry between the two towns that amounts to a near-conflict. My trout had a crispy lemon butter-flavoured skin and was pink to the point of being almost orange, as only truly fresh trout can be. It was wonderful and the overcooked baby-marrow and the cauliflower cheese were exactly what I would have chosen to accompany it. Classic country cooking with certain boarding school-inspired refinements.

Unlike school, the loos were clean and reached by following signs in Gothic script. Somehow it always feels safer following a sign to the Gents when it looks vaguely Tudor. I expected a ‘Mary Queen of Scots slept here’ sign below it and loads of pineapple chunks in the urinal. I was not disappointed in the latter and, let’s face it, the former was unlikely.

We finished off with a malva pudding to rival the best in the world. My only complaint was that the coffee was not as tasty as the Caltex stuff, but it flowed better.

It was nearly 9pm. Everyone else had emptied out into the bar to celebrate another Sharks kill. We instead headed tentatively for the Hobbit door. The lights behind it were off but we could just make out a huge baronial hall, with walls of horns and skulls, and a light fitting adorned with a vast pink and white frilly light-shade suspended from the ceiling like Caspar the Friendly Ghost in bloomers. Not a Sotho or a Gollum in sight.

The Himeville Arms Hotel Himeville, KwaZulu-Natal
Telephone: 033-702-1305
E-mail: info@himevillehotel.co.za.
Website: www.himevillehotel.co.za.

Talking Italian

Chris Harvie discovers a truly Roman restaurant in Cape Town’s Waterfront

Roberto (not De Niro) was waiting, talking Italian. He showed us to our table and led us through the menu, rattling off all the melanzanes and rotolos and radicchios with the indigenous skill of the Lazio-born and then said, in English, “Close your eyes and you could be in Rome”.

Well, not quite, Roberto. We could see Table Mountain and a harbour-full of boats, not Seven Hills and the Colosseum, but he had a point. The Italian around the corner in South Africa is usually a cheap and cheerful spag bol and pizza joint with pre-prepared tomato sauces that are about as far from Naples as they are from Neapolitan ice cream. Meloncino is not cheap but it’s cheerful and choice and enchanting and generally all-round damned Italian and the chef trained in Rome. So it’s close.

Everywhere else had been full. We had staggered around the waterfront under Cape Town’s Mediterranean evening sun for hours trying to find something that wasn’t fast food or Greek and wasn’t already overbooked. It was a Friday at the height of the season and we hadn’t reserved anywhere. Queues had formed outside all the popular eateries and we were just about to head out to the Southern Suburbs and try our chances there when Meloncino hove into view where the Sports Cafe used to be, at the top of the steps next to the Chinese. And it was empty.

Roberto was supplanted by Tapiwa, a Zambian property studies student at UCT whose grasp of Italian pronunciation was as good as Roberto’s but whose English was better. Dazzled by the backdrop of the funky bar with its oranges and reds, and its multiple empty bottles and white sofas, I ordered an antipasti misti and a beef fillet with rosemary mash and then fell down the step trying to get to the loo, where I planned to admire its fine imported Italian fittings. No injury was sustained but my stern words to a passing waiter. “Someone’s going to go a nasty purler there after a couple of Peponis” will, I hope, save a few lives.

The food was faultless. Nobody asked me how I’d like my fillet, which is generally a bad sign in a bad restaurant and a good sign in a good one. It arrived a perfect rare-to-medium-rare. This was a good restaurant. The preceding starter had offered a fascinating assortment and the succeeding Tiramisu was layered with imported Italian Mascarpone. It was world-class and accompanied by a glass of Asara Noble Late Harvest which made the step on the way to the loo even less visible.

So why was the place empty, when everyone was so capable and the food so fine?

“We’ve only been open three days and the first two were for family only,” explained Tapiwa. Picture the scene. All those Capetonian Italian restaurateur families descending for two days on Meloncino’s staff to ensure that they are ready for opening.

Cape Town’s Cosa Nostra, all named Joe or Tommy, ordering a Tagliolini al Salmone and another Peponi, telling them to make it snappy and threatening to blow their and their families’ arms off if the beer’s not cold enough.

Well, it has worked. Meloncino is excellent. And obviously, as Roberto had helpfully pointed out, if you closed your eyes, you might be in Rome, not Sicily, so the Mafia are not involved, but everyone that is involved is doing a really good job. We were privileged to have eaten with them on the first day they admitted non-Italians and as far as I am concerned they and their families are safe.

Meloncino, Shop 259, V&A Waterfront, Cape Town 021 419 5558.

Open 9.30am until 11pm daily.

Chris Harvie paid his own way and received no discount or incentive from this restaurant.

A great Lowveld Tale

She bills herself, very misleadingly, as the naked chef. Admittedly there was an unseasonably chilly Lowveld wind the night we were there, which would have carved an edge to any nudity, but, with Cindy’s regretful clothes firmly on, things were cooking anyway.

“My vissie is dood” came the SMS to one of my dining companions’ cellphones. Her husband, Danie, a 6’2″ butcher, interrupted our evening to announce the demise of his Siamese Fighter named Chan (after Jackie – well, they all look the same don’t they?) and, with touching poignancy, closed the message with one of those crying smileys that looks like Nemo in distress.

“Ons sal vir jou nog een kry”. She promised him a replacement. He wasn’t to be consoled though, and replied in plaintive English “but I liked this one” so she crushed him with a “Flush it; I’ll buy you another one tomorrow.” End of conversation.

We couldn’t bring ourselves to order the trout but then we’d known beforehand, anyway, what we were going to have as a starter. Cindy’s crispy guinea-fowl spring rolls, plumped full with tasty stuff and dunked in mother-in-law Pat’s (she of Pat’s Stall) fine Sweet Chilli Sauce.

We were at Treetops in Hazyview. Not Treetops in Kenya where the Queen became Queen or Treetops in India where the tigers live. Treetops in Hazyview beats them both because they are not quasi-Alpine log cabins, they do not have horse-brasses on the walls, they do not have baths in the restaurant loos, they don’t offer you a glass of OBS when you arrive, they do not have the bespectacled, studious-looking Raephi as a Pedi waitress in white blouse and pink V-neck, and they don’t have Cindy.

Home-made bread, a bottle of white, a bottle of red and glasses like goldfish bowls (sorry Chan). We wolfed the spring rolls with all the gusto of a Siamese fighter and awaited the main course with unashamed and ill-disguised drooling. Two oxtails and a stuffed chicken breast; garnish that’s edible, not silly, and comes straight out of the garden.

My other colleague (whose girlfriend keeps cats, and a ridgeback called Shaka for the cats, entertainment, instead of exotic fish named after kung-fu experts) was entering into the food critic thing with enthusiasm and professed his chicken-filled-with-mushrooms to be moist and humid without being fetid but with a gravid depth added by its dark accompanying gravy. In other words, he really liked it.

I know many people who won’t eat oxtail because they know which part of the ox it comes from. Well, it doesn’t take much working out does it? All I can tell them is that by turning down the opportunity to eat Cindy’s oxtail (even if she won’t show them her nakedness) they are turning down the second best thing in the world. It is amazing. It is also moist and humid and far from fetid. It, too, is in a dark rich gravy. But there is more. It comes with extra butter beans if you want it to make you extraordinarily fat (me) instead of just a bit fat (fish-flushing dinner guest on weigh-less). It is gorgeous. You can pick it up and suck it clean and schlupp the lovely bone-marrow out and you’ll need a bath afterwards (lucky that there’s a bath in the loo) and Oh Yes.

Gluttony as usual getting the better of me at this stage (and never having been one to worry too much about deadly sins), I ordered the Bread and Butter Pudding which is attributed to Anton Mossiman who luckily never threatens to take his clothes off and who, I am willing to bet, does not make his Bread and Butter Pudding anything like as well as Cindy does. The apple pie, too, according to one of my grateful dinner guests, was better than mine.

We ordered a coffee, polished off the Merlot and mused back to the days when Hazyview’s only restaurants were the now sadly-defunct Tembi and the sadly-still-operating Chicken Licken. Many had come and gone in the past and many new ones have opened in the past six months and are as yet unproven, but Treetops stands out as the work of a professional.

Raephi had pulled a black cardigan over her pink V-neck and the likelihood of the chef-proprietor’s reducing her clothes-load seemed to be reducing rapidly. It was time to go home. We felt far from misled but we needed a bath.

Treetops Restaurant
Open for Dinner Tuesdays to Saturdays
12km out of Hazyview on the R536 to Sabie
Tel 013 737 8294

What’s good for the goose

Chris Harvie falls for the food of Franschhoek, but finds that his accommodation is hardly worth a mention.

There are many so-called manor houses in Franschhoek but this one was shoddy to say the least. They know who they are, four stars, no underblankets, diluted shampoo, tangles of disconnected wires sticking out of the kitchen cupboard, no servicing on Sundays and soggy soap in pools in the soap dishes.

Mrs Bauer’s suitcase labels were still sitting in my bathroom dustbin. We wondered how long ago she’d stayed and whether the sheets had been changed since.

We wondered, in fact, whether we were expected at all. Nobody greeted us. Ever. We had prepaid. The first person we saw was the chambermaid on the morning we left.

As we sat in front of the fire later, we mused briefly as to where we had gone wrong.

But we weren’t here to sleep or sit in front of the fire. We were here to test how the goose feels in the run-up to being slaughtered for foie gras, so all we needed was a bed on which to digest between extravagances.

We had planned to partake of breakfast, lunch and dinner in Franschhoek for two days; to eat until we wished we had been part of a Roman orgy, sufferers from bulimia or guests in Gaddaffi’s tent, all of which would have allowed us to have gone out, thrown up, come back and start again.

It had kicked off at iCi at Le Quartier Francais or, as someone had said to us, Icky at Le Quartier Francais.

It wasn’t bad, but somehow, frankly, it missed. My parfait was, well, parfait; the lamb burger was, well, a lamb burger, and the chips were small, like McDonald’s chips; but they forgot one of our starters, the chandeliers were too spiky, it’s all a bit red and the waitress made Vin de Constance sound like Van der Merwe’s cousin.

The restaurant’s shop had too many yellow-beaded stuffed rhinos, the nadir in curio fashion. A question of taste, maybe, but we were a little bit underwhelmed.

Reuben’s was next. We were conscious of the hype over Reuben Riffel and possibly somewhat sceptical.

I had stuck my head into Reuben’s on an earlier visit and been somewhat put off by the design.

This time I fell in love with it. The DC-10 wing that forms the bar is quite the funkiest thing I have ever seen, as are the lights marking the emergency exits.

You have to down your drink in one go, if you don’t it slides down the fall of the wing into your lap; the restaurant was sensibly warm and comfortably under-furnished; the menu taunted us, amongst other less avant-garde dishes, with all the things we couldn’t get at home, steak tartare, calves’ liver and tripe, for example.

Despite my huge lunch, I could have eaten my squid starter, with its addictive chilli zing, a hundred times, and the calves’ liver was just perfect. We had all ordered differently and passed our plates around the table to chorusing oohs and aahs. There wasn’t a disappointing mouthful anywhere.

Over a damned good coffee, we asked the waitress if Reuben was there (under the guise of wishing to congratulate him on his engagement, which one of our number had cunningly spotted in the gossip columns). He was and what a great chap he is. His kitchen is the best in Franschhoek and for all the right reasons.

We darted through the rain to the car and the dodgy sheets and the whisky and settled our stomachs for a few hours until breakfast, a morning bakery raid on Sweetmama! yielding world-class croissants (the sort that fall apart completely in light, peeling shaves) and chubby little scones with soft middles. Had it not been raining we could have walked them off but we had to collapse and read the newspapers instead.

Lunch got off to a poor start when I narrowly failed to run over a couple from Cape Town walking in the rain outside. He made an unnecessarily obscene gesture at me. The restaurant had lost our booking.

The metal, nail-studded table at La Grande Provence was vaguely reminiscent of Reuben’s wing. Even more unusual were the bronze rabbits performing bizarre acts on one another in the exhibition alongside. But from there onwards, it was up, up, up. There were comfortable armchairs at the table. I love that. And Alex, our Zimbabwean waiter, was charming and attentive and clever enough to tell us all about cuttlefish.

I hesitate to describe my starter to you. It was a sort of sausagey thing with other things, described on the menu, rather cryptically, as a ‘tian of stuffed pork with potato galette, sauce espagnole … apple jellies’. The jellies formed tiny bubbles in the sauce. It was utterly gorgeous. So was the baked leek and Gruyere tart.

The main course duck was as crispy as it promised but the roasted fish with asparagus risotto, persillade squid … tomato, saffron sauce was probably the overall winner. We liked La Grande Provence.

The service was so good that we barely noticed it. The menu made sense and wasn’t full of drizzling and splattering. The huge flower arrangements dramatically offset the girders in the ceiling and the rain poured down outside the massive windows.

It was, as Gerard Hoffnung said, at this point that I think I must have lost my presence of mind. I don’t know whether the geese of the Porigord, after a certain point, don’t know when to stop, but we then ordered puddings. Banoffi cheesecake. Blimey. Amazing. It was just as well that Bread and Wine at Moreson was closed for refurbishment. We couldn’t get out of the car without help.

We were sated and more than satisfied. Our three top chefs’ meals had all cost about the same, a very reasonable R200 per head including wine, and we had survived without injury apart from distension of the stomach.

Had the chambermaid met us beforehand, she would probably not have recognised the five, far rounder guests who left the next morning but of course, as it happened, she saw us for the first time then.

And management never met us at all, so they won’t know us when we don’t come back.

We’ll have to stay somewhere else when we return to revisit Matthew Gordon’s Haute Cabriere and his French Connection Bistro. Now, excuse me while I go and lie down for a while (on clean sheets) just at the thought of it.

iCi at Le Quartier Francais tel: 021- 876-2151.

Reuben’s Restaurant and Bar tel: 021-876-3772.

Sweetmama! tel: 021-876-4591

Le Grande Provence tel: 021-876- 8600.

Hands in

What is the capital of Tanzania? Wrong! It’s Dodoma, a quirky country town right at the geographical centre of the country and with a population of 325,000, compared with almost ten times that number in its predecessor as capital. Dar es Salaam lost the title to this country bumpkin in the mid-1970’s after a referendum.

I somehow doubt that the South African government could win such a plebiscite to obtain permission to move our state capital to our geographical centre, Douglas, 107 km west of Kimberley, although, being at the confluence of the Vaal, Orange and Riet rivers, there could be worse suggestions and the Griquas would be delighted. Dodoma, against similar odds, prevailed.

However, capital city or not, Dar, as it is affectionately known, is a strangely beguiling place. Addis, of course, is not in Dar, it is in Ethiopia, but there is, nevertheless, a little and very important bit of Addis Ababa in Dar, down Ursino Street, a bumpy backstreet off Migombani Street to the north of the city.

If you didn’t know, you’d never find it. I was very relieved to have a pre-negotiated 5000-shilling taxi as I was far from convinced that the driver of the traditionally suspension-free Corolla knew the way either. It was R25 well spent. Or maybe he was simply too absorbed by our discussion of the iniquities in the judging of the previous evening’s Miss Tanzania competition and missed the turning a few times.

Addis in Dar is a restaurant and it is, not to beat about the suburban bush, superb. An unimposing entrance to what looks like (and obviously once was) a rather unattractive two-storey house, deceives the visitor into low expectations, as does a lack of reception of any kind. Wandering around downstairs amongst the camel portraits, pans and pipes, we wondered whether we had stumbled on a Bedouin’s town house but, bravely venturing up the stairs, we uncovered why we had been told that we MUST come here. Out on the huge balcony, perched on upholstered stools with comfortably sloping backs, at Ethiopian Messob tables, were the faithful, and the place has quite a following.

Tanzanians are naturally unassuming and respectful people and this has been taken as step further by Senait Mekonnen, owner of Addis, who has imbued the restaurant, in addition, with traditional Ethiopian hospitality. Honey-wine (a bit like mead) was offered and politely declined. A menu appeared, clear and easy to follow for wot-virgins, and we ordered.

Seemingly moments later the conical lid made from colourful woven straw was removed and the basket-table underneath became a huge serving plate of wall-to-wall injera, a huge pancake made from a slightly fermented mix of water and millet-flour, with various dishes perched on it. There was spicy lamb, chicken flavoured with berbere, cracked lentils, spiced pumpkin, spinach and any number of interesting side-dishes. Never mind the Muppets, Swedish chef, this was Everything-in-a-Basket.

You eat with your hands and dip, dunk and dollop your way through the injera, tearing it off and filling it with delicious wot (stews) and sauces and hurtling it towards your mouth before collapse, fall-out or disintegration prevent its arrival.

It takes a bit of practice but don’t all foods taste so much better without the impersonal metal of a fork or spoon? When you get really good, you can progress to gursha, where you wrap a mouthful of something messy in injera and feed it to someone else at the table, following the tradition that those who eat from the same plate will not betray one another.

After the meal comes the tranquillity of the Ethiopian coffee ritual which again emphasises the importance of trust and friendship and brings peace (which is probably essential in the event that gursha has left everybody covered in food).

Addis in Dar is capital. In fact as the name suggests, it is almost doubly capital. It’s the Tanzanian way of doing things, Ujamaa, the community of family and the backbone of Tanzanian society, combined with the Ethiopian way. It’s share and share alike. It’s ubuntu in more attractive packaging, a very refreshing way to add significance to a meal (and to get through napkins and shirt-fronts). What’s more, the food’s delicious. What happier way to prove that an injera to one is an injera to all?

The good news is that Cape Town is to get its own Addis, so next time, we won’t have to drive 8000km for dinner.

Addis in Dar, 35 Ursino St, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. (+255) 0741 266 299. Noon until 10.30 Monday – Saturday. Closed Sunday.

Addis in Cape, 41 Church St Cape Town Tel 021 424 5722. The same ownership.

A chokka shocker

Most South Africans have never actually been to Port Elizabeth. Frankly, like Australia, it seems an awfully long way away and possibly not very advanced. I’d driven through it on the freeway a couple of times but finally, in search of things that we just can’t get in Graaff-Reinet (like a toast-rack, for example, without which civilised living is not possible), I had to go there for a couple of days and looked forward with trepidation-tinged gusto to investigating a city with more sobriquets than Cape Town and the same number of unfinished flyovers.

So was it friendly or windy? And is it still the Detroit of Africa? Well, it is friendly. It really is. The occasional grumpy-drawers who cropped up inevitably turned out to be from out-of-town (usually Bloemfontein). The air, however, was still and, although I have never been to Detroit, PE seems to have shed the Detroit thing fairly conclusively and dumped it on Uitenhage up the road, leaving itself with a huge bay, loads of very presentable houses and shops, billions of restaurants and a non-stop friendly fairground atmosphere without the carousel. (There was actually a small one but it wasn’t turning).

So what do they do in Port Elizabeth? They don’t seem to work. Much of the time, they don’t seem to be there at all. The roads are empty. The shops have no queues. You can always get a table in a restaurant.

And what do they eat in Port Elizabeth? The same as the rest of us, I suppose, but we had heard much about chokka, South Africa’s own calamari, loligo vulgaris, the long-finned squid, and set out to find some and to see the boats bobbing about in the bay.

PE is like Utopia without the over-optimism. People smile without reason. They greet you as though they’ve known you all their lives and have been waiting with bated breath for your long-awaited arrival, which is now and even more exciting than they had dared to expect. And that was just the waitress at 34 South.

Actually just under just under 34 South and sister to the Knysna branch which is just over 34 South, this was our first PE restaurant, purveyors of finest Cape salmon and other good fishy things but, for some reason Patagonian calamari, so a chokka failure. Our table was perched on the edge of a pond in The Boardwalk, the Sun International entertainment complex on Humewood Beach, which just manages to evade the traditional synthetic-boulder tastelessness of such venues despite kilometres of fairy lights, a fake lighthouse with a laser in place of the Edison screw and the pale tilapia floating listlessly near the surface in the water features. There are countless shops and not one of them sells anything vaguely useful or even slightly tasteful. You can even watch the DJ currently hosting an Algoa FM show on a screen outside the studio (if you can’t find any drying paint to watch).

It’s all real though. That is what PE is like. A combination of youthful shoeless Billabong fashionistas and aging bats with racking coughs in Jettas, all living in friendly, fishy harmony amongst the seaport smells and guano-covered cranes. A pre-breakfast walk along the front is as uplifting as fresh bread and affords more ‘good mornings’ than a royal walkabout.

PE has a positive, non-racial ‘Up With the New South Africa’ feel to it. Cocktails at Primi Coastal, our next evening’s food venue, came in a huge jam jar and the serving staff were utterly on-the-ball and overexcited, their hair sticking out at impossible angles and their spiffy orange and grey overalls besloganed with thought-provoking comments including ‘work is love made visible’. There you are. Chew on that little piece of philoso-PE.

Chicken livers with bite and crunch, a Neopolitan pasta with bite and crunch, a very bright waiter and a very spunky waitress both with lots of friendly bite and crunch. Our only unsure moment was when Mandisi, temporarily overwrought, offered us coffee with black milk. Port Elizabeth non-racial chic we decided and, given the chap’s confusion, elected not to enter into a debate about the origins of the imported calamari. It seems odd, though, that there is a bay-full of squid, dotted with the fishermen’s lights every night, yet there is no chokka to be found on the menus. The conspiracy theory has it, though, that PE calamari is so good that we export it all and we have to import to make up for this.

So proud of our cephalopods were we, that we worked our way with gusto through the list of digestifs, under an umbrella that masked the towering impersonality of the Garden Court, with its cockroaches still quivering on their backs on the bathroom floor and its special deals hanging on the door-handles so you only see them when you’ve already paid full price. Primi’s offered us instead the warm and fuzzy belief that we really were in the Friendliness Capital of the World and that, if only a light breeze would get up and a Detroit-registered Dodge Viper would mosey down the seafront, the scene would be complete.

34 South 041 583 1085
Primi Coastal 041 586 1266

A little light relief

Graaff-Reinet is gearing itself up for Christmas – so much so that you’d almost notice. The girls in Clicks were wearing Santa hats this morning and I am sure I spotted some tinsel on the shelves in Spar, but so far nothing on the tills, hanging from the ceilings or dangling tantalising over the Karoo lamb cuts in the butchery.

It is such a relief.

Elsewhere in South Africa, the shops have been draped with gaudiness for at least a month already. Panic-buying has set in and the roads are filling up. But in Graaff-Reinet it’s just another lazy, hazy weekend. Hot, dry, dusty days are relieved by the afternoon rush of a south-easter. Nobody is going away. Graaff-Reineters actually like where they live and they are staying put.

Peace will only descend here altogether once the rush-through is over. Convoys of X5s and Fortunas, with their Venters and their woonwas hooked up, snake their constant way through town towards the coast, barely casting an eye around them. Luckily for Graaff-Reinet, very few of these passing pilgrims seem to notice its appeal, which is precisely why it still has so much.

Pleasant evenings whiled away in the Graaff-Reinet Club evoke mystical memories of times gone by, when this little town was the launch-pad for just about every great movement in our country’s history. It was from here that the Voortrekkers trekked, that the pioneers pioneered, that diamond-seekers sought and that great hunters hunted. Under its sleepy surface this town is alive with stories.

Next to the Club is the Coldstream Restaurant named, not after the warm occasional stream that is the Sundays River, but after the regiment, the Coldstream Guards, whose officers’ mess this was during the Anglo-Boer War.

The Coldstream, run by Inge Weich, is also manifestly ignoring Christmas, not out of Scroogish tendencies but rather out of a very sensible realism related to the fact that Christ was only born on one day, not on every day in December and early January.

After an evening at the Club a good breakfast is required and the Coldstream is open from 10 in the morning. What could me more civilised, what could be more Karoo, than a tender kudu steak, no steak knife required, for breakfast, with potato crisps, two eggs, boerewors, grilled tomato and toast?

Eat your heart out Steak, Egg and Chips. Enjoy your Wimpy Double-up Bottoms-up Breakfast all you passing Gautengers. This is The Business, washed down with a fine mug of coffee and a view, through the honeysuckle and past the old-time streetlamp, of That Church, That Icon of the Town, proud replica of Salisbury Cathedral (although it doesn’t look much like it to me) and one of the Karoo’s greatest landmarks.

But there’s more. Inge does lunch, and dinner, and tea and scones. And it’s all great and local and fresh and herby and very tuisnyverheid and yellowwood. The calamari steak salad, the trio of sliced springbok, beef and ostrich fillets, the pan-fried sole and a fine Creme brulee. Good, reasonably-priced wines. Friendly, service with proper titles. “Gentleman, may I bring you a drink?” The Coldstream is what a restaurant should be.

Inge plans, very sensibly, to celebrate Christmas at home on Christmas Day, but in the meantime in a moment of festive colour if not fare, she has offered us what she describes as her Very Lovely Cream of Tomato Soup recipe. Well. it’s red, like the Santa hats in Clicks – and you could bung in a dollop or two of whipped cream to make a bobble and a fluffy white brim, if required.

Coldstream Cream of Tomato Soup

Ingredients

1kg tomatoes
80g leeks
10g onions
40g celery
60g carrots
40g butter
5g chopped garlic
100g tomato paste
70g white flour
2.5l vegetable stock
300ml heavy cream
Chopped basil

Method:

Cut tomatoes into cubes, removing seeds.
Wash and dice the leeks, onions, celery and carrots. Saute in butter with the garlic. Add tomato paste and continue cooking.
When cooked, dust with flour and allow to cool.
Heat vegetable stock, add to vegetable mixture and bring to boil, stirring continuously. Add cubed tomatoes and boil until all ingredients are soft, skimming occasionally.
Puree and strain. Bring to boil again and stir in cream. Season to taste. (If too acidic add sugar or fresh orange juice)
Garnish with finely diced tomatoes and chopped basil.

Long Beach, California? No, This is Namibia

I ran over a cormorant, accidentally, as it tried to make its way, flying rather low I thought, from the desert side to the sea side of the Trans-Kalahari highway, as I turned off to Long Beach, half-way between Swakopmund and Walvis Bay.

There is a rank smell of seaweed and a dead seal lies on the beach as I wander down the pier to the abandoned Oyster Bar to watch the ocean crashing around in the cold way that the Atlantic does even when the sun is shining.

Long Beach has changed its name from Langstrand, in an attempt to improve its image. The owners of the tiny erven with their multicoloured boxy houses are trying to sell ridiculously expensive properties to townies who want the cachet of owning a spot on a foggy, windy desert shoreline where celebrities have been known to hang out.

I was here on a mission to research some oysters and to snoop around the guesthouse used by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie during her confinement and recently visited, too, in an equally strange voyeuristic moment, by Wesley Snipes.

Why was I interested? Well, I wasn’t really but the whole ridiculous performance had received so much media coverage and I knew Langstrand of old so I wanted to see whether the place had changed since these two spent their prima donna couple of months there, making The Burning Shore in the modest words of the owners, ‘the most celebrated boutique hotel in the world’.

So much so that the guesthouse was up for auction now that they had, according to The Telegraph, extracted R15 million in the off-season from the proud Hollywood parents. I understand that, curiously, bidding did not reach the reserve, so it remains unsold.

But why on earth did Brangelina want to have their baby in Namibia anyway? And can you imagine if other famous people were to try the same combo-name thing?

We’d have the exotic, vaguely Cape-sounding Philabeth for the Queen and her Consort, we might have the roughly-named Gaura as America’s first couple and our own state president and his wife could be Zanthab, which is almost a drug although he might deny its efficacy. Tony and Cherie Blair would be Torie, which goes a long way towards explaining his unpopularity with his own party. Personally, I have always thought that Brangelina sounded like a breakfast drink, for little darlings, to keep them regular.

They apparently made very few friends in Long Beach. Their bodyguards patrolled proprietorially, threatening innocent tourists, innocent seals and innocent restaurateur Jaco Bindemann of the Langstrand African Grill and Seafood Restaurant. There’s nothing pretentious about Jaco. He runs a damned good restaurant, probably the best in Namibia – and he knows what to do with an oyster.

Jaco buys his oysters in Walvis Bay from an Australian who brings them in from Chile and fattens them up in the Namibian sea. They are big and juicy. I know that oysters are supposed to be small and juicy, and that they can get tough if they are too big, but not Jaco’s Walvis Bay Oyster. These things are huge and soft and, with a splosh of Worcester sauce, a squeeze of lemon and maybe a dash of Tabasco, I have never tasted anything like them.

The Jolie-Pitts (now they sound like an upmarket long drop) sensibly dined with Jaco and he tells me discreetly that there were ructions to excite a tabloid when Ms Jolie, in a Food Raider moment, ordered a light chicken dish but insisted on swapping meals with her man when she saw the size of Mr Pitt’s seafood platter.

Of course, it was too late anyway for her to get the full aphrodisiac benefit of the oysters, being seven months pregnant with the poor child that was ultimately to be named Shiloh Nouvel. (It is a girl’s name apparently, despite the nouvel being the French for something new and male). The child was eventually born in Swakopmund and reported by their agents to have “tufts of her mother’s dark hair and her father’s nose”. (How can a baby have tufts of a nose?). And so they left.

Life in Long Beach has returned to normal. Property prices continue to rise with every celebrity visit and Jaco is back to serving oysters to his regular clientele who eat their own meals, not one another’s, and choose names like Grant and Charmaine for their children. Nobody is missing the bodyguards, although they will need to find someone else to remove the dead seals, seaweed and guano and to redirect the cormorants.