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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

A culinary tour of Cape Town

John Brunton eats his way around South Africa's culinary capital, taking in the latest fine dining spots and a Cape Malay cooking class in Bo Kaap

Cape Town, South Africa. John Brunton
Cape Town, South Africa. John Brunton

The Cape Town dining scene is booming and everyone wants a reservation at Granary Cafe, signature restaurant of The Silo, the hottest hotel in Africa, which sits atop the city’s spectacular new museum of African art. Both the museum and hotel are housed in what was once an immense concrete grain silo, which has marked the city’s skyline since it was built in 1924.

View from the Granary Cafe. John Brunton
View from the Granary Cafe. John Brunton

I am seated at one of the dramatic window tables, mesmerised both by the sun setting over Table Mountain, and the choice of daring, modern dishes on the menu – ostrich tartare with buttermilk labneh, spicy apricot chutney and confit egg yolk; a vegan combination of roasted sweet potatoes, red quinoa, cranberries and kale pesto; line-caught Kingklip with pak choi, onion bhajis and fennel achar.

Food in Cape Town has always been what locals proudly call “lekker”, Afrikaans for tasty, using the country’s wonderful local produce in simple, delicious recipes. But today, chefs are a creating a new Cape identity with innovative menus, often inspired by spices and flavours of the city’s Muslim Cape Malay population and the flavours of African cooking.

A food shop in Bo Kaap. John Brunton
A food shop in Bo Kaap. John Brunton

To find out more about this new trend, I head to the elegant Signal Restaurant in the heart of the historic Victoria & Albert Waterfront to meet Malika Van Reenen, the pioneering chef who started this taste revolution. “Being Cape Malay myself,” she explains, “and having grown up with the familiar flavours of sweet complementing savoury alongside freshly-ground spices, I always believed this style of cooking would become popular one day.” Van Reenen perfectly combines classic European cooking techniques with her own upbringing, and tasting her butter curry risotto with grilled prawns or tender springbok fillet cooked with traditional Bobotie spices and sweet potato rosti, it is just surprising that chefs are only now discovering the unique heritage of the Cape Malays.

Food at Signal Restaurant at the Cape Grace. John Brunton
Food at Signal Restaurant at the Cape Grace. John Brunton

As with much of South African history, the story of the Cape Malays is steeped in controversy, dating back to the 17th century, when the first Muslims arrived in Cape Town, from what today is Indonesia and Malaysia, brought in as slaves by the Dutch colonial rulers. Apartheid determined their descendants were classified as “coloured”, and their Bo-Kaap neighbourhood was initially a ghetto. But times change, and Bo-Kaap is now one of the trendiest places to live, and the spices of Cape Malay cuisine have become the flavour of the day in restaurants all over the city.

The Cape Malay community is an ethnic group in South Africa that dates back to 1654. John Brunton
The Cape Malay community is an ethnic group in South Africa that dates back to 1654. John Brunton

Alex Grahame is one of numerous young, talented chefs from Europe and Australia arriving in Cape Town to make a name for themselves. His seafood restaurant Sea Breeze has been packed from the day it opened, perfectly located on Bree Street, the city’s unofficial “restaurant row”. “It was a big risk to leave our cosy restaurant in Aberdeen,” he confides, “but in just a few months, we feel totally at home, and for a chef, the choice and freshness of local fish and seafood is overwhelming. We are committed to support the local fishing community, caught basically within 30 miles of here – so don’t expect to see Norwegian salmon or Maine lobster on my menu.”

Sea Breeze restaurant in Cape Town. John Brunton
Sea Breeze restaurant in Cape Town. John Brunton

Like all restaurants here, prices are exceptionally affordable, with a full tasting menu costing roughly the same as a main course in a gourmet European restaurant, where frankly, Grahame’s dishes would not look out of place. It is difficult to choose between seared tuna with charred cos lettuce, anchovies and quail egg, and the local favourite, fish bunny chow, a hollowed-out loaf of bread filled with creamy fish curry. Grahame tells me: “I certainly did not come here to cook British food, and living near the Bo-Kaap Cape Malay neighbourhood, I can get the most fabulous freshly-ground spices at an Aladdin’s Cave emporium called Atlas, which makes all the difference in my efforts to create a contemporary vision of traditional tastes.”

Curry fish bunny chow at Sea Breeze restaurant in Cape Town. John Brunton
Curry fish bunny chow at Sea Breeze restaurant in Cape Town. John Brunton

Garrulous Irish chef Liam Tomlin arrived here four years after a long gastronomic stint cooking in Australia, and is now running four of his own restaurants. His emblematic Chef’s Warehouse is still the most popular diner in town, serving a compulsory seven-course tasting menu of Asian, Mexican and locally inspired tapas in a communal wooden table canteen, and I was intrigued to try his latest venture – the Indian-inspired Thali at 3 Park Road behind the City Centre area. Fearing the worst when I discovered there was no one of Indian origin cooking in the kitchen, the Thali turned out to be another Cape Town revelation. Tomlin’s menu is an explosion of taste experiences, describing it as: “my personal interpretation of Indian cuisine, not from one particular region, but combining tandoori meat dishes from the North with vegetarian cooking from the South, plus a couple of molecular techniques to add some theatre.”

Thali restaurant in Cape Town. John Brunton
Thali restaurant in Cape Town. John Brunton

Even on a Monday night, the place is buzzing with locals enthusiastically discovering eclectic dishes like a sublime beetroot-cured salmon with cucumber pickles, plump local oysters with a tangy lime leaf dressing, crunchy tandoori cauliflower and a rich smoked lamb shank curry.

Two young rock-and-roll South African chefs have opened exciting new venues recently too. Right in the centre of town, off the nightlife centre of Long Street, Shortmarket Club is a packed speakeasy, but the stellar dishes created at the frenetic open kitchen by Wesley Randles are Michelin-star standard. Randles collaborates with another chef-superstar, Luke Dale-Roberts, who shot to fame with The Test Kitchen, still the hardest restaurant in Cape Town to get a reservation for, but he has been given a free hand by Dale-Roberts here at the Shortmarket.

Chef Wesley at The Shortmarket Club, Cape Town. John Brunton
Chef Wesley at The Shortmarket Club, Cape Town. John Brunton

I breathe a sigh of relief that the usual marathon tasting menu is not obligatory, and as Wesley goes through the menu, he insists that, “we may be in the middle of a huge urban city, but within an hour, I can source sustainable seafood from the Indian and Atlantic oceans, organic vegetables and herbs, locally raised beef, lamb and our distinctive African game.” Difficult to resist specialities include juicy lamb chops from the Karoo desert with porcini marmalade or wild kudu grilled on bay leaves with smoked bone marrow and nectarine jus. And there is an epic selection of South African cheeses that would impress even a French fromagerie.

Food at The Shortmarket Club, Cape Town. John Brunton
Food at The Shortmarket Club, Cape Town. John Brunton

At Janse & Co, Arno Janse van Rensburg and his patisserie chef wife, Liezl, have just opened their first restaurant, and the atmosphere in the kitchen resembles an experimental laboratory. There is a stack of logs stoking a wood-fired grill which he uses for fish, meat and vegetables, replicating the smoky flavours of a traditional African “braai” barbecue, and Arno adds: “I try to create a unique taste to my dishes by making my own spices by homemade fermentation, smoking and drying.”

Cooking at Janse & Co. John Brunton
Cooking at Janse & Co. John Brunton

His menu is certainly surprising, not just for the unexpected flavours, but also aesthetically, with some plates resembling artworks, like a mosaic of thinly-sliced octopus with strawberry and mint, smoked trout paired with plums and grapes, and the vegetarian goats cheese, apple, shiso and blueberry.

Food at Janse & Co. John Brunton
Food at Janse & Co. John Brunton

Janse & Co is on Kloof Street, not far from Cape Town’s grandest hotel, the Belmond Mount Nelson, a legendary pink palace that is still the ultimate rendezvous for travellers and Capetonians. I am delighted to discover that instead of sitting down in their formal restaurant, there is a much more unorthodox experience awaiting foodies at Chef’s Table. Rudi Liedenberg has been running the Mount Nelson’s kitchens for several years, but is clearly part of the new revolution in Cape cooking as the cuisine of his Chef’s Table follows the same trends I have tasted all over the city.

The chef's table at the Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel. John Brunton
The chef's table at the Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel. John Brunton

As if cooking on a seafood braai, he serves charred calamari with chorizo and garlic followed by coal-seared tuna with a miso aioli dip. Local oysters are topped with an explosive fermented lime achar, while the Jacopever fish, found only off South Africa’s coast, is pickled escabeche-style in tart Cape Malay spices. And what makes this meal unforgettable is that Liedenberg gives his guests full run of the kitchen, encouraging us to wander around and peer over his assistants’ shoulders while they prepare the dishes.

Food at the Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel. John Brunton
Food at the Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel. John Brunton

The chef, like most other chefs in the city, says the recent water crisis, in which the city of Cape Town was recently threatened with having to ration water to 25 litres per person per day, says that while thankfully the water crisis is over for now, his restaurant is playing its part in terms of not wasting it. “The most important issue in the kitchen is that whatever the state of the water crisis, we always need to prioritise hygiene – to sanitise and work hygienically. And that must never be sacrificed.

"But we have instituted a number of measures that will continue until the situation returns to normal, even if there will not be a Day Zero of turning off the water. To begin with, we have switched off half our ice machines to conserve where we can and use less ice where we can. Our habits have changed, to be a lot more conscious in our use and application. Water used for cooking is done in multiple layers, using the same pot with water for multiple applications. We try not to run free water down the drain, especially in rinsing, and now rinse in basins instead.

“Water used in the application of washing vegetables and lettuce is used afterwards to wash the floors. And if a crisis situation occurs again, we have put contingency plans in place at the hotel, as we use grey water in toilet systems, gardening and laundry,” he explains.

Food at the Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel. John Brunton
Food at the Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel. John Brunton

After tasting all the enticing spices at Mount Nelson, the perfect ending to a Cape Town trip is a tour of Bo-Kaap itself, the brightly-coloured houses and mosques of the Cape Malay people, with a hands-on morning cooking course in the home of pioneering chef Zainie Misbach, who has been teaching people how to cook samosas, masalas and creamy chicken curry for thirty years.

Bo Kaap, Cape Town. John Brunton
Bo Kaap, Cape Town. John Brunton

And while sitting in Auntie Zainie’s kitchen, enjoying the dishes that everyone helped prepare is certainly by no means fine-dining, this is the perfect foodie experience to shed light on why modern-day chefs are inspired by these traditional recipes.

A cooking class on the Bo Kaap Cooking Tour. John Brunton
A cooking class on the Bo Kaap Cooking Tour. John Brunton

IF YOU GO

The flights

Emirates and South African Airways fly direct from Dubai to Cape Town from Dh3,200 return, including taxes. The flight takes 9 hours. Etihad flies from Abu Dhabi with a stop in Johannesburg.

The hotel

At the luxury end, double rooms at the Cape Grace hotel cost from Dh2,754 per night, including breakfast. Alternatively, The Silo, atop the new MOCAA african arts museum, costs over Dh3,500 per night. For something more affordable, La Rose, a b&b in the heart of the Bo-Kaap Cape Malay Quarter, is in a brightly painted traditional house, friendly family, and very eco- aware - rooms cost about Dh200 a night.

The restaurants

Granary Cafe

Silo Hotel, V&A Waterfront: 0027 21 670 0500

Main course SAR200 (Dh60)

Signal Restaurant

West Quay Road, V&A Waterfront, 0027 21 410 7100

Main course SAR250 (Dh80)

Sea Breeze

213 Bree Street, 0027 74 793 9349

Main course SAR180 (Dh55)

Thali

3 Park Road, 0027 21 286 2110

Eight course tasting menu SAR700 (Dh215)

The Shortmarket Club

88 Shortmarket Street, 0027 21 447 2874

Main course SAR270 (Dh85), Seven course tasting menu SAR790 (Dh245)

Janse & Co

75 Kloof Street, 0027 21 422 0384

Three Course menu SAR385 (Dh120)

The Chef’s Table at Mount Nelson

76 Orange Street, 0027 21 483 1000

Three Course menu SAR545 (Dh170)

Bo-Kaap Cooking School

46 Rose Street, 0027 74 130 8124

Three hour Bo-Kaap walking your, cooking lesson and mean SAR825 (Dh250)

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Read more:

An Ultratravel guide to Cape Town, South Africa

A foodie's guide to Marrakech

A Michelin-starred tour of Hong Kong's best restaurants

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