Sat 2 Feb 2013
Given that the Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant Awards were presented two months ago, and that its controversial international judge Bruce Palling tasted his way around the country five months ago, it was a surprise to see the article he has written about South African cuisine for British Airways Highlife, published yesterday, now claiming to be an expert about our country’s cuisine, wines, and even its accommodation!
The magazine article, which was sent as a scan from London, differs somewhat from the internet version of it, and has some text, but the most interesting part is the restaurants which Palling praised, and those that he slated. The article bills him as an expert on South African cuisine, given that he ate 200 dishes and drank 60 wines at 30 restaurants in Cape Town, the Winelands, Johannesburg, and KwaZulu-Natal in a period of 15 days, to score Eat Out editor Abigail Donnelly’s Top 20 restaurant shortlist.
What Palling neglected to write in the article was that some of the restaurants he went to were for his private dining, and were not evaluated for Eat Out (e.g. Biesmiellah and Belthazar). What is even odder is that he ate at Nobu, which was not in the running for the Top 20 Restaurant shortlist, due to its chef change last year, which means that Palling must have eaten there privately too. Palling picked out three restaurants that impressed him in particular:
* Hartford House, praising it for being ‘in a mansion at South Africa’s most famous stud farm’ (Chef Jackie Cameron)
* The Tasting Room, for its menu by Margot Janse featuring the ‘very best local ingredients’, and ‘dishes presented in a playful manner’. He asks: ‘The most stylish restaurant in Africa?’
* Jordan Restaurant, for its ’straightforward authentic cuisine with the best cheese selection in the country’ (Chef George Jardine).
Odd by its omission is Luke Dale-Roberts’ The Test Kitchen, selected by Eat Out as the best restaurant in South Africa in 2012, but he did use a photograph of one his dishes for the article.
At the bottom of his list, which could ‘do better’, is three restaurants Mrs Donnelly would have sent him to, and of which two made the Top 20 Restaurant shortlist, plus his own two private dinner choices, which he must have thrown into the mix for good measure of ‘balance’!:
* Nobu at the One&Only Cape Town, describing it as ‘unadventurous, ordinary sushi’ !
* Particularly scathing was his description of Planet Restaurant at the Mount Nelson: ‘Tasteless, inept combinations - oysters with sweetbreads’!
* The Roundhouse, with Chef Eric Bulpitt, who had done a stage at Noma whilst at Jardine’s a few years ago, which he slated for its ‘copycat menu, partially inspired by Copenhagen’s Noma’!
* Of Indochine at Delaire Graff he wrote: ‘One of the most beautiful settings on the planet, but with kitsch decor and a ‘confusion’ menu of a kaleidoscope of Asian dishes‘. The interior design was done by top London designer David Collins, who also designed the main Delaire Graff restaurant.
* Worst of all was his attack against Belthazar, the steak restaurant at which he had his last private meal before flying back to London in September, not being on Mrs Donnelly’s Top 20 shortlist. Slating his third steak of the evening in a Tweet on that evening for it being cold inside, his feedback has changed in the article: ‘A steakhouse that serves expensive, under-aged steak’!
To extend his short article, Palling added lists. The first must have been fuelled by good South African wine, as its heading was confusing and contradictory, written twice: first as ‘Five of the best South African Chefs’, then ‘5 Master Chefs in the making‘, and included in this list Adriaan Maree from Roots, Minette Smith from The Saxon, Nicholas Wilkinson of The Pot Luck Club, Annemarie Steenkamp of Burrata (at which Palling did not eat), and PJ Vadas of Camphors at Vergelegen (at which he did not eat, as it only opened two months ago. Chef PJ is far beyond being a chef ‘in the making’, having been a Top 10 Chef whilst at The Roundhouse)!
Best restaurants for Chinese is Red Dragon, best for Thai is Wangthai in Johannesburg, best Steakhouse the Cattle Baron in Constantia, best Indian Chandani, and best Italian Burrata (once again, he did not eat at Burrata!), according to Palling. The best hotels (at which he stayed for his restaurant evaluations, he failed to mention) were the One&Only Cape Town, Taj, The Mount Nelson, Cape Grace, and The Westcliff. Finally, our five most typical South African ingredients, says Palling, are biltong (ingredient to what?), mebos, moskonfyt, bokkoms, and the funniest of all being his name for waterblommetjiebredie, being ‘water hyacinth braise’!
His take on our local cuisine was generally positive, other than giving The Roundhouse another smack: ‘The common cliché about South African cuisine is that the most renowned dish is charred springbok from an outdoor barbecue with a view over either a spectacular Cape vineyard or a vista of the Southern Ocean. But I had heard enough about the local ingredients to appreciate that there was a lot more on offer. The good news is that South African chefs are completely up to speed with all of the current trends abroad, ranging from molecular cuisine to the school of New Nordic as typified by René Redzepi of Copenhagen’s Noma. One restaurant had shamelessly replicated a number of Noma’s dishes as if they were their own. There were plenty of other places that showed off the brilliant local ingredients and even experimented with game such as springbok or even ostrich tartare to good effect. One word of caution for chefs: stop trying to do too much and simplify. It was common to have up to a dozen ingredients on a single plate. And those endless descriptions of dishes, both before and during the meal, must be jettisoned in the interests of diners’ sanity. I think that a more accurate cliché for South African dining would be an immense terrace on the side of a mountain, with biblical views over the plains. I suspect that owning a gorgeous vineyard with a restaurant is the South African equivalent of an oligarch owning a superyacht. Both must cost tens of millions to construct — and rarely, if ever, pay their way. Restaurants, however, can offer extraordinary meals at relatively bargain prices for anyone paying in a northern hemisphere currency’.
He criticised our high alcohol content wines, and long tasting menus: ‘The local wines, too, are on an upward path, though more steps will be needed to produce fewer alcoholic behemoths and more with finesse and balance. All in all, it is a vibrant scene that just needs to lose its current obsession with lengthy tasting menus and wine pairing by the glass for every dish. Just let the produce do the speaking and all those clichés will soon be history’.
Palling won’t be seen in South Africa again to judge our local restaurants, and it is bad mannered of him to not have acknowledged that he was a guest of Eat Out whilst feasting in our country! If he was paid to evaluate the restaurants on behalf of Eat Out, surely it was the prerogative of Mrs Donnelly to provide feedback to the Top 20 Restaurant shortlist restaurants privately, and not in an open internet and media forum!
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage