The real and the surreal on a Joburg table

The real and the surreal on a Joburg table
A ‘just-to-taste’, in between plate of crisp-edged calamari with an irresistible aioli. (Photo: Michael Holiasmenos)

A woman is spraying the soles of my boots. There’s already been some chat about my low temperature on the temperature-gun reading. And we’re not in yet.

“Surely low’s alright, isn’t it?” I ask, a little alarmed about that as I hold up one foot after the other, like a horse. All three of us are undergoing the protocols process and our Covid-19 contact details have just been completed by a receptionist outside the entrance to Modena restaurant in Parkhurst.

The now under-sprayed boots are Docs that I laced on before leaving home because I realised I didn’t know how to go out for dinner any more, how to be, how to dress. The black velvet skirt seemed too late-nightish for what is essentially a short early evening meal, no matter how much I’ve been looking forward to it. I’d slung on a serviceable sort of jacket. At this stage so much feels unsure socially and, if slightly comic, the resultant outfit represents that.

These boots are clomping over a rather lovely herringbone pattern floor of golden tile edges, into the warm restaurant interior. I sigh. It is rather nice to be out for dinner.

All that protocol stuff at the front assured and comforted me quite a bit because there was some nervousness about whether I was being reckless by going out and doing this.

Since lockdown started I’ve had vivid dreams of being out at places I didn’t even realise I was so keen on. I seemed particularly fixated about sitting at Coalition on Park Corner in Bolton Road once again and having before me an admirably simply topped and inimitably delicious sourdough pizza. That detailed image cropped up a lot, along with sitting out on the pavement at Publik, next door to Coalition, for a drink after or before the pizza, watching people go by from behind sunglasses instead of a mask. Coalition now does frozen deliveries and warm takeaways. Publik has closed down there forever.

Everyone’s masked at Modena, even in the open, fiery and steamy kitchen. Minah Thwala, our waitress for the evening, is double-masked. That disturbing way of leaving your nose hanging over your mask isn’t a thing here. I relax even further.

It’s one of those funny things at restaurants, how no one ever hears the specials the first time round and they’re recited over and over again. Add a face mask and a visor to that. We’ve worked out that the second special, a main course one, featured duck and risotto. We’re planning to share our main courses of that and Porchetta and Bistecca alla Griglia with its own onion risotto.

It’s only occurring to me now that a lot of my most detailed food fantasies have included Italian food. The fact that we’d chosen Modena for the big night out is even more fortunate for my subconscious than I’d realised. Modena is not about dishes from the Emilia-Romagna food region or any specific region. The restaurant features favourites from all over Italy. Best-ofs, I guess, often modernised. The name Modena when spoken sounds like “modern” and I suspect it was chosen for that reason by the Greek-named but Italian-food chef-owner. There’s even a Spaghetti Bolognese on the menu, which isn’t Italian at all but features fondly and insistently in South African and some other country’s imaginations.

This evening needn’t be so much about reality as satisfying what seems like rather a lot of our pent-up dinner desires, as reassuringly as possible.

Sealed packs contain a fork, knife, spoons and napkin. (Photo: Michael Holiasmenos)

Before each of us at our table is a thickish, sealed plastic pouch of all the cutlery we’re likely to need for any course, even though it’s just for this one. It includes the luxe sort of paper napery. None of us mentions wine. Nope. We order sparkling water and know very well that the kitchen will have to shut down somewhere between seven and eight for the nine o’clock curfew to be met by staff and guests. [A few days later the curfew was changed to 10pm.]

Of the 10 smartly-distanced tables, I’m surprised to see four already occupied and I see more people outside at the reception table. I had expected one of the empty restaurants I see online, especially on a week night.

Oh, there’s another major fantasy of mine. I’ve tried to realise it by ordering burrata from delis but never getting a delivery because “it needs to be so fresh”. I last ate burrata, the Italian cow’s milk cheese, almost a year ago at the half-underground and utterly exciting Marabi Club in Maboneng, with nothing Italian about it at all.

In my private fantasy, I have a spoon in my hand. I’m not sure why it’s a spoon and not a knife, unless spoons are more picturesque in surreal time. With the edge of this spoon I break the skin of the mound. The rich cheese flows out slowly through the tear, travelling creamily across my plate until I interrupt it for an exquisite mouthful of freshly made burrata. I don’t even notice if there’s anything else on my plate.

In Modena real time, there’s homemade spaghetti coated in a nicely chunky and fragrant Napoletana on the table near Philip. There’s garlicky focaccia for us and a large plate of burrata appears on the table, a nice lot of it, with smokily roasted red peppers, for Nick and I to share. I slide a spoon out of my packet and….

Every table is occupied now but it is already getting on for the new pumpkin time at seven, when we order our main courses. Meantime, Philip also orders just one plate of Calamari Fritti for all of us, “just to taste”. It arrives with new pouches of cutlery and napkins for everyone.

I couldn’t care less, satisfied with burrata but a bit concerned about how we’re going to find time and space for those main courses. On Philip’s insistence I remove a small piece to my plate to take a bite and then a whole calamari curl, in excited disbelief. This is not Falklands-type stuff. It’s quickly deep fried, feathery but crisp at the edges, with a smooth-as-music smoked paprika aïoli, preserved lemon and olives.

People are beginning to leave the restaurant as more packets of napery and cutlery arrived a minute or so before our main courses. They are wonderful, the stuff we’ve all been dreaming of, with the onion risotto that accompanies the sirloin, voted most outstanding on the table. Somehow, with two men at the table, the food makes a disappearance, but I keep looking at the kitchen, worried about the time.

The pass view of Modena’s kitchen, peopled by the double-masked, despite the heat and steam. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

“Just to taste,” Philip says again. He is having huge fun. Minah is abetting, insisting that we need not leave, even though we’re the last. It’s eight o’clock. During the bill business, the two of them arranged for one dessert that doesn’t need kitchen treatment. It is tiramisu for one but arrives with three more full utensil packs. The tiramisu is a deconstructed version so, in the sponge part, I taste the alcohol. I guess easily that it’s not the mixture of rose petal liqueur and alchermes, another liqueur with Christmassy spices in it, red because of the Kermes beetle, which Roberto Linguanotto of Treviso once used.

And chef Vassilios Holiasmenos comes over to offer us coffees, which we decline, and to remark that lockdown has meant that he has to use what alcohol he has, which seems to be brandy, in his tiramisu. He ambles with us to the cars, talking about his name, how he happened to qualify in London and cheffed there, because he and his family set up the original Ciao Baby Cucina restaurants, “the Ciao Babies” he calls them, there and in South Africa.

The once rowdy Parkhurst 4th Avenue is already surreally quiet though there’s still half an hour to get home before the curfew. It feels eerie, emptied of energy, but Philip is smiling. “This evening has felt like a holiday.” DM/TGIFood

Modena Italian Eatery, Parkhurst: 010 900 0912


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