I did not know what to expect from our dinner at The Test Kitchen by Luke Dale-Roberts, Chef Luke’s new restaurant at the Old Biscuit Mill, which opened about a month ago.   I had never made it to La Colombe to try his hand there, where he reached the heights of La Colombe being named 12th best Restaurant in the world on the S.Pellegrino Top 50 Restaurants list, and number 1 restaurant in the Eat Out Top 10 restaurant lists in 2008 and 2009.   I was surprised at how unpretentious Chef Luke was, dressed in a casual T-shirt and shorts, this in a kitchen that is totally exposed to its 35 or so diners.   The Test Kitchen is about preparing the most heavenly food possible – nothing else matters.

The restaurant was previously a shop at the Old Biscuit Mill, and has a bit of a science classroom feel to it – a simple kitchen centre, with tables and chairs alongside and filling up the rest of the space.   The tables have a metal top, and the chairs are made from an interesting ‘patchwork’ stitched-look brown leather.  Six kitchen staff, including Chef Luke, do their thing in the tiny preparation space, and another two work along the shelving unit – not once did I hear anything drop nor any cross word spoken, with all of us so close by.   Chef Luke seems a very relaxed kind of guy, and his asset in the business no doubt is his wife Sandalene, who is helping him run the restaurant.  She is the link to chef Luke and his kitchen, with three red-shirted waitresses, and also is completely relaxed, friendly and welcoming.   Sandalene met Luke at the Bali Sugar restaurant in London, and he is the one who brought her back to South Africa, not the other way round, she laughed.   The waitresses were sweet, and all but one stretched in front of us in replacing cutlery for new courses to come.  Otherwise they were perfect.

I loved the black slate-look ceramics used by The Test Kitchen, made by the nearby pottery Imizo to the design of Chef Luke, and everything is brought to the tables on this ceramicware.  Good quality silverware and glassware, as well as material serviettes, is on the table.  The surprise centrepiece is also made by Imizo – a ceramic 6-egg box with two ‘eggs’, one for salt and the other for pepper!   So clever!   This is the only design indulgence.

The menus are printed on a cream board, one for the eight-course Gourmand menu, and the other offers the three- or five-course options, while a third page contains the winelist.   The menu recommends a wine per course.   Three courses cost R345, five courses R440 (R600 with a wine per course), and eight courses cost R550/R750.   Before we could even choose the number of courses or which to have, an amuse bouche arrived at the table, a tempura sushi roll with shitake mushroom and ginger centre, served with a miso sauce.  I recall eating something similar at The Test Kitchen launch function, but it was not as beautifully presented that night as it was for our dinner.   We ordered the only sparkling wine by the glass on the winelist, which was the Jacques Bruere Blanc (R45 per glass/R195 per bottle) made by Bon Courage in Robertson.   A slate plate of bread and butter was brought to the table too.   While I do not want to do The Test Kitchen out of business, it is advisable to order the three-course menu, as there are so many surprise extras arriving at the table that it is almost impossible to eat them all.  

The second surprise amuse bouche was one of the starter options, being the “beetroot mousse, slow cooked baby beets, lemon and thyme pure (sic), horseradish and mixed nut crumble, fennel confit, puff shards”, served with a parmesan crisp, a lovely pink/red contrast to Chef Luke’s black bowl.   Then the first starter was served, my choice having been the foie gras served with rosemary streussel, thinly sliced chestnuts, and a quail egg salad drizzled with truffle oil on the side, this starter carrying a R50 surcharge.  The foie gras was presented as a long two-tone band across the plate, served with the thinnest round toasted slice of wholewheat bread.   My partner had the Beef Tataki, which we had tasted at Bistro Sixteen82 for the first time.  The Test Kitchen’s is less marinated, less moist, but still was excellent.   The highlight of the evening for me was the apple sorbet dessert, which chef Luke offered us as a complimentary palate cleanser, with fresh finely chopped apples, apple sorbet, gin and tonic jelly and shiso cress, ice cold, one of the most refreshing and definitely the most unusual cleansers I have ever tasted.  It was served in an ostrich egg-looking ceramic holder made by Imizo as well, and the lid is taken off when served. 

The main course choice of my partner was Chalmar beef fillet, the most tender beef I have tasted in a long time, served with milk stout risotto and black pepper ‘café au lait’ (a cream and meat sauce, we were told), with crunchy asparagus under the steak.   My kingklip was served with a carrot and ginger emulsion, giving the dish a strong white and orange visual contrast on the black bowl, and with it was served a rock shrimp and yuzu (Japanese lemon juice, we were told) salsa with sushi rice.   The kingklip was heavenly, but the sauce was too salty for my taste.   No fish knife was served with the kingklip.    Then we shared a cheese plate of gorgonzola and La Petite France camembert, served with peach chutney and toasted baguette slices, which were so hard that one heard each bite and one feared for one’s teeth, and was decorated with aloe flowers.    For dessert we were persuaded to try the lemon tart with nectarine sorbet, bits of summer berries and rhubarb, a large portion after all the lovely tastes preceding it, and a refreshing end to a wonderful food feast. 

The winelist is divided into varieties, without vintages nor region of origin specified.   Very few wines by the glass are offered, and certainly not for Shiraz.   But then one can order a glass of wine per course.  Pol Roger is the only champagne offered, at R950, while MCC sparkling wines available are Silverthorne The Green Man and The Genie (both at R300), and Allee Bleue Brut Rosé (R225).   Sauvignon Blancs start at R105 for Kleine Zalze, and peak at R210 for the Kleine Zalze Family Reserve.   Shiraz options start at R190 for Kleinood Tamboerskloof, up to R455 for Luddite.

I asked Chef Luke after dinner why he had chosen the name, and he said that it gives him flexibility to develop in any direction, and to innovate.  He already has some new dishes up his sleeve, which he will roll out after the Christmas break.   The menu at The Test Kitchen has so many nuances, and the descriptions on the menu do not do justice to all the dishes and their ingredients.  I would recommend sitting at the kitchen counter, so that one can chat to Chef Luke and his staff to get direct input and explanation as to what is in each heavenly dish one is eating.   In ordering a three-course tasting meal, we had two surprise amuse bouches, the apple palate cleanser and the shared cheese dish as extras, making it a 7 course meal in fact.  I do not know how anyone can cope ordering a 5-course or 8-course meal at The Test Kitchen.   I could not help think of the parallels with Aubergine Restaurant, which I had visited recently, which has a similar price for a 3-course meal, and also has chef’s extras, but I found chef Luke’s dishes to be far more tasty and unique.   Chef Luke lost out on a Eat Out Top 10 ranking this year, for starting his new restaurant, but he will without a doubt be in the 2011 Eat Out Top 10 line-up! 

The Test Kitchen by Luke Dale-Roberts, The Old Biscuit Mill, Woodstock, Cape Town.   Tel (021) 447-2337  www.thetestkitchen.co.za.  (The website lists all suppliers used in setting up the restaurant, background to Luke Dale-Roberts, and the menu.  There is no Image Gallery to show off the beautiful dishes).  Open Tuesday – Saturday lunch and dinner.  The lunch menu is simpler and less expensive.   It is advisable to book well ahead.

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com  Twitter: WhaleCottage