Welcome to your club, Jozi

Welcome to your club, Jozi
My cocktail being concocted by the bartender, who wore a mask during my time there. (Photo: Supplied)

This is not a bar, not a restaurant, not a club per se. It’s everything. It’s an environment that’s both useful and glamorous that we can adopt as our own. It’s an eccentric concept.

The surprises of the food year in Jozi haven’t stopped. One of the expectations was that suburban Jozi folk would not be going away as much, or for as long as, usual this year for a couple of obvious reasons. 

Every usual year, some of the Jozi holidaygoers leave when schools shut, more when the “builders holiday” although this year many builders are working through to catch up with all that was lost through lockdown. The rest leave with the Day of Reconciliation holiday on 16 December. Then the streets are wonderfully quiet and the jingle bells play on emptily to my kind of people, reclaiming our spacious city, the festive items having been snapped up before the others’ departure dates.

This year, against all expectations, the hordes left the very week schools shut, at the beginning of December, in extra-enormous numbers. They left the traders and supermarkets shocked and stocked up for the usual shopping, now with no-one to buy the festive goods. The parking lots are empty, the car guards disconsolate.

Oxford Road is not snarling. There are quite big gaps between the cars and presumably most of the people that have exited Jozi so early are families with schoolchildren.

This block of the Oxford Parks project fronts block after more blocks, a huge development. (Photo: Supplied)

As I make my way up the newly mosaicked stairs, then past the balcony area of The Greenhouse Bar, I see some business people still party-lunching, others plainly friends catching up within the holiday season, drinking fairly expensive stuff. They seem a bit younger than the usual lunch crowd. The Greenhouse is known for its lower age limit of 23 for women and 25 for men.

I am soon at the entrance which looks as if it is behind the restaurant, filling in the Covid-19 forms among arrangements of Veuve Clicquot bottles, having my temperature taken and being trotted to a table by a gorgeous receptionist who has high, as-golden-as-the-champagne-labels heels to her shoes. 

Although The Greenhouse defies much classification, it’s as much about excellent food as it is about the cocktails and other drinks. However, I can see that if “Bar” is part of the name, as with The Greenhouse Bar, greater deductions about drinks than food could easily be made.

But The Greenhouse Bar is something else as I’ll soon discover. It’s not limited by facile definition. 

Well respected and experienced chefs work here and design the menus. I’ve arrived to have lunch with Carolina Rasenti, one of them, the head chef for now.

The idea, says Carolina when she joins me, is to use the place like a club, to stay all day, as people use the much larger Annabel’s in London, seeing friends and being joined by family there, having intimate, comforting or glamorous meals and snacks and drinks, meetings, fun, at different stages.

This is not a bar, not a restaurant, not a club per se. It’s everything. It performs all those functions, aided by its excellence of service. But it’s greater than that sum of parts, an escapist way and place of being. It’s an environment that’s both useful and glamorous that we can adopt as our own. It’s a new-new concept. 

The idea is to use the place like a club, to stay all day. (Photo: Supplied)

I first met Carolina when she and a partner started the Great Eastern Food  Bar in Melville maybe a decade ago. For a long time there was no liquor licence so, whatever the name said, it meant “restaurant”. She moved the restaurant a couple of years ago to Illovo, where it remains and she was asked, or begged really, to chef and set up the initial menus at The Greenhouse. The chef who will take over from her is simply known as Chef Ken.

Full use of The Greenhouse name has been made with the decor, which covers every bit of ceiling and most walls with very lush and real-looking hanging plants. There is chartreuse and forest green loose seating, tropical parrot wallpaper. And very lovely hanging lamps. The atmosphere is both calming and a little celebratory inside. The outside overlooks Oxford Road and what would normally be lots of traffic.

Carolina’s food brief was to provide very good and interesting examples of middle-eastern food as well as the ubiquitous sushi section. Despite the cuisine of her own restaurant, Carolina is originally from Uruguay, with a Lebanese and food-loving mother. Here, she also needed to bear in mind that the night time atmosphere is influenced by places in Tel Aviv after dark.

Her food and drinks menu works nicely for all these aspects, across a day from breakfast time and on into a night, with small dishes as well as sharing ones, snacky items and the sushi variations. 

The menu works for all aspects of the day, with small and sharing dishes, snacks and sushi. (Photo: Supplied)

We’ve just begun drinking a couple of glam cocktails, Carolina’s a whisky drink smelling of comforting cinnamon and orange and made with fresh and bitter lemon. Mine is a gin one called Ms Flowers, dramatically misted with a bit of rose “to give it an extra layer” over tart and freshly made grapefruit syrup. It’s a lovely not-sweet drink or cocktail.

Before the food arrives, we dash out to look at the rest of the immediate Oxford Parks, still under some construction here and much more further on. The planters throughout this airy section still have cardboard and plastic around them, though their quite big tree and flower occupants are already growing happily. I know Moeng next door. Father Coffee is a few doors down, ready to serve their excellent brews, a mosaic magazine in the window reminding me of the staircase. Banjaara, one of Bobby Singh’s north Indian restaurants is being completed for a new year opening and there’s a triangular space, owned by the owners of The Greenhouse, to be called Libby’s, for an Amalfi style place with a coffee window and place for Vespas to park.

When I comment on Carolina’s spots because, with her jeans, she’s wearing a leopard print vest and another type of leopard print mask, she tells me her son says, “Leopard is your colour, mommy.”  

From the end of the extent of this block of the Oxford Parks development, block after block, into the western distance, is also being developed. It’ll all be pedestrianised and open for bikes but not cars. It will also include Joy Jozi, another extended-concept venue for children and their parents, something like Bambanani in Melville but much bigger and with many more all-day and evening offerings, outdoor movies, including excellent food and wines for parents, their friends and even the mens’ sports pals. 

From The Greenhouse, Carolina takes her spots and also takes up head chef residency at that place, Joy Jozi, in the new year. I am sure her son will be chuffed.          

The owners we keep referring to are Heinz Rynners and Brad Cilliers, who are also behind the fabulous Babylon in Illovo. They are not stopping at Joy Jozi either. There’s another project, a new type of eatery planned for mid 2011, called the Duchess. That will fall slightly outside the Oxford Parks development.

Exciting chilli falafels on one of the sharing platters. (Photo: Supplied)

Carolina and I are moving between forks and fingers and between the two big platters on our table. One platter features phenomenally exciting chilli falafels, grilled aubergine with labneh, all homemade, and a paprika hummus. The other plate has just-perfect lamb meatballs under a few spoonfuls of pomegranate reduction and sherry, with tzatziki and another Israeli-style salad that’s finished with za’atar and delicious olive oil. It’s almost a silent feast, it’s so yummily good, but Carolina does tell me that the now well-known Greenhouse “secret-recipe” falafels are her mom’s. That means it’s still a secret I guess.

We can’t manage anything from Something Sweet on the menu but there I spot something else I just know is her mom’s and the Uruguayan part of Carolina’s collaboration, being churros with creamy baked custard.

Uruguayan Carolina Rasenti and her Lebanese mom’s churros with creamy baked custard. (Photo: Supplied)

I see that The Greenhouse, presumably because of this unusually strange and sudden 2020 Jozi exodus, is doing something this year-end that they don’t ever countenance, allowing the public to arrive without making bookings. It’s a great chance to see and experience this place that can feature such an unusual composite of delights. That’d be from now until they shut in two days’ time on 20 December. But again, from 26 December onwards, till the regulars return. DM/TGIFood

The Greenhouse Bar, 199 Oxford Rd, Oxford Parks. Tel. 010 006 2323


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