Want to eat at one of the 100 best restaurants in the world? You need go no further than Franschhoek or Woodstock: two of South Africa’s fine dining establishments in these locations made it on to this year’s list. By REBECCA DAVIS.
For the past 10 years, the list of the World’s 100 Best Restaurants compiled by Restaurant Magazine has been recognised as the authoritative voice when it comes to global restaurant rankings. The ranking system is considered exceptional because any restaurant in the world can be nominated by regional panels, so not just the same big names crop up each year.
The system works as follows: The world is divided into 27 food regions, and a panel of 31 members is convened to vote in each region. The panellists are “food critics, chefs, restaurateurs and highly regarded ‘gastronomes’”. Each panellist can vote for seven restaurants, three of which must be outside their own region. They cannot vote for any restaurant in which they have a personal or business interest and they have to have eaten in all the restaurants they nominate within the last 18 months. That’s pretty much it.
This year’s list sees the top three restaurants unchanged from last year. The top restaurant worldwide for the third year running is Noma, in Copenhagen. Noma is the brainchild of chef René Redzepi, 32, and established Scandinavian cuisine as the flavour of the moment. It’s a style of cooking which relies on fresh, wild, raw ingredients: menu items include cooked barley and birch syrup served with herbs and frozen milk, musk ox and smoked marrow and pike perch with unripe elderberries.
Second place went to El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain, which is run by three brothers and styles itself as “a free-style restaurant, committed to the avant-garde”. Avant-garde touches include the fact that caramelised olives are served on bonsai trees. At number three is another Spanish restaurant, Mugaritz, which also presents itself as “nonconformist”. Its website ponders such philosophical questions as: “Are we less well-mannered if we serve a man first? Where do we draw the line to distinguish between an appetizer and a dish of vegetables? Does a meal end with the desserts?” And there you were thinking restaurants were only concerned with getting food on the table speedily.
Inevitably lists like these attract controversy. This year, English critics were particularly piqued about the fact that only three British restaurants made it into the top 50. This prompted a mixture of handwringing about the state of the British culinary scene and deriding the legitimacy of the rankings. “The list is no more useful than a TV guide in a library,” opined The Telegraph. “Not only does it misrepresent Britain, giving the impression that our culinary talent is nigh on non-existent, it is an almanac of techy festishism that ignores the fact that food in Britain has become truly great.”
The Observer’s food critic, Jay Rayner, took a more stoic line – possibly because he sits on the UK voting panel. He pointed out that other regional panels are better about nominating home-grown talent, whereas the British panellists tend to vote for overseas restaurants “out of some national habit of not wanting to be seen to go with the herd”.
But while the Brits might be sulking, South Africa has two reasons to be upbeat. The first is that the Tasting Room at Le Quartier Francais, in Franschhoek, ranked at number 57. The Tasting Room team, where chef Margot Janse is in charge, are old hands at this game – they have featured on the list almost every year since 2002, peaking at 31st in 2010.
There’s a new kid on the block, Luke Dale-Roberts’ Test Kitchen, at 74. Located in the traditionally down-at-heel area of Lower Woodstock, Cape Town, the menu features standard items given unexpected twists: “beef fillet with milk stout risotto and black pepper café au lait”, for instance, followed by “frozen pine nut parfait, chestnut crumble, soused figs with tonka and yoghurt foam”. If you’re not a foodie, you may have to take along a dictionary.
Dale-Roberts sighs when asked to define his style of cooking. “I suppose it’s modern global cuisine, but mainly it’s what I’m busy thinking of at that particular time. It can’t really be put in a box.”
However you want to define it, it’s clearly working – to make it into the international rankings after only two years is no mean feat. Dale-Roberts says his team is “absolutely ecstatic” at their 74th spot on the list.
“The bottom line is it’s a vindication of what we’re doing,” he says. He disagrees with the English critics who quibble with the authority of the rankings. “This is pretty much the most important global list there is, especially in the absence of Michelin rankings in South Africa.”
Dale-Roberts is originally from the UK, and says the South African restaurant scene has expanded rapidly and excitingly in the five years he’s been here. If you want to know where to find good food, ask a chef. What are his favourite local eateries, other than his own? Dale-Roberts lists The Greenhouse at Cellars-Hohenhort, Constantia, George Jardine’s restaurant at Jordan wine estate and meaty Italian restaurant Carne SA.
It’s noteworthy that all of those are in Cape Town. Why does the Western Cape seem to be leading the way in local culinary endeavours? Dale-Roberts laughs – he doesn’t think there’s any particular mystery there.
“I think there’s lots of good chefs living in the Western Cape because it’s a nice place to live,” he says. DM
Photo: Chef Luke Dale-Roberts in front of his restaurant, Test Kitchen. Photo by Michael le Grange.
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