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A touch of Grand Exotica in Ballito

TGIFOOD

MEMORABILIA, PLATED

A touch of Grand Exotica in Ballito

The Grand Exotic: café, antique store, wedding venue and domed wonder. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

Sarah Owen has been to India 37 times. Long before the best or second best ‘Marigold’ bloomed on screen, she was forging her idiosyncratic design approach and winning fans for her creatively tweaked café-style meals. Grand and exotic indeed.

This was to be my India year. The plan being to join my Indiaphile friends who travel there annually to escape the cold and dark of January and February in Berlin. But these friends have gone somewhere very different this year. Escaped to the coveted island home of heroine-to-many Jacinda Ardern, having previously lived in New Zealand long enough to earn the passports.

So here we are.

Or at least, here I am.

The recipe for the ‘famous Grand Carrot Cake’ was a gift. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

Idling over my carrot cake and cappuccino in the Grand Café at The Grand Exotic, which is as grand as it is exotic. Intrigued and entertained by an Indian family – bespangled, bedecked and opulently regal – involved in a photoshoot.

It strikes me that where I find myself right now, bar a miracle or waking up to find this masked-world Covid-19 nightmare is in fact the nightmare we keep expecting to wake up from, is the closest I am going to get this year to India.

Namely, Sheffield Beach, north of Durban and Sarah Owen’s third and most recent creation.

Sarah Owen decorates a carrot cake for a birthday party. (Photo: Ann Hewitt)

Coffee and the menu’s “famous Grand Carrot Cake”. Made from a recipe Owen tells me she was gifted by “a wonderful Mauritian woman” when arthritis had put paid to her baking days.

Owen says she got the crushed almond and Belgian chocolate tart recipe from her late Mum. The cheesy crusted savoury tart recipes – butternut, feta, rosemary and toasted pumpkins seeds or alternatively bacon, brie and onion marmalade – from girlfriends.

There is nothing on the menu to suggest that the creator-owner of this domed wonder, built and run collaboratively with her life and business partner, Curt Wolff, has travelled to India 37 times to date. Wisely, here in curry-and-spice heaven KZN, she leaves Indian cuisine to those born to it.

But saris, on the other hand, are in. Staff wear, as uniform, flowing sari-fabric pants, made in-house. And the saris she has applied with a special technique she has mastered to tables and walls and floors elicit awe and wonderment with their kaleidoscopic colour and design.

Then there are the container-loads of treasures she has brought back to sell and to use (this is her third café adventure to date). They transport one into a fanciful opulent theatrical eclectic world with strong elements of what I expect I might have found had India happened.

Curt Wolff is hands-on and the sari-theme ‘uniform’ of flowing pants are made in-house. (Photo: Ann Hewitt)

“I’ve been all over India from Ahmedabad to Kerala. Mostly the Rajasthan area. Jaipur (Rajasthan state’s capital) for fabrics and furnishings. Delhi and Mumbai for smaller items.”

And to France “many times over”. Container loads she’s brought back, she says, from Marché Clignancourt, Paris’s most famous flea market that covers seven hectares, reputedly the world’s largest antique market.

Although, she notes, she has met up with a lot of French buyers in India. And “you open décor books showing French country themes and it’s all from India…”

She has been collecting signage since she was a teenager and calls her style “maybe industrial chic tumble-down palace”.

“Definitely not shabby chic,” she says with a sniff of disdain. “We’re authentic.” True vintage. Not contrived.

The plates used in the café?

“A chef came here once and made the comment that the plates are too small and decorative. For me, no thanks. I don’t want to serve food on large square white plates.” Or any other plain white plate, come to think of it.

“I like to eat off china, vintage, decorative. Bone handles on the cutlery. Silver teapots.”

The antique store includes memories, memorabilia and tablewear. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

This is the kind of tablewear she has for sale – along with a miscellany of collectables large, small, precious and not-so-precious – in the antique shop that opens off the café.

“We are who we are because of what has been,” she says, not to justify her appreciation of old things. More, to explain the theme that runs through her life, her work, her creativity, all the way to the food she serves.

Wholesome café-style “memorabilia on a plate”, she calls it when we chat and I probe her on her menu.

“My mother was an extraordinarily good cook. She was into tastes, flavour, good ingredients. And presentation, which is so important.

“I can’t cook to save my life. Anything I cook, I burn. My hands, every time.

“None of us here are trained chefs or gourmet cooks. I have three wonderful ladies and we experiment. Get very creative. Try this, try that.”

Portia Ngobese, Cindy Nxele, Nonto Ngobese and a crushed almond and Belgian chocolate tart. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

It was more than 20 years ago that Owen launched her first creation, the original Antique Cafe in Durban. Long-ago sold, it is still popular and with lingering similarities.

“We developed a winning menu formula there,” she says.

When she sold, the plan was to build the vision she and Wolff had. Now, The Grand Exotic. She bought the land at Sheffield Beach in 2009. But red tape held things up for 10 years.

During that time, needing an income, she and Wolff moved to a property she had in the Midlands and so was born Crystal Barn Country Estate. Also now sold. Then they built a house in Cape Town when it looked like they’d never get their plans passed. But that is another story.

“People come here, look around and say: You must go and see this café in Durban; this farm in the Midlands. They see the similarities. Thing is, it’s my style. My way of doing things. It comes naturally, depending on what I’ve collected and what’s available.

“We’re driven by passion, Curt and I. We don’t start with an end picture. There is a vision but then what we’re creating grows organically. I change my mind a million times.”

Wolff, a landscaper with an engineering background, “has become a builder. Luckily, because any regular builder would run a mile.”

Some people tell her they can see she was inspired and influenced by The Best (or Second Best) Exotic Marigold Hotel. In this case comparisons are understandable. But incorrect. She was on track doing things her way long before the movies were made.

A menu fave dating back: the corn fritters with avo and smoked salmon. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

The all-time favourite on the menu, which dates back to Antique Café days, are the corn fritters with avo, smoked salmon, homemade crème fraiche, topped with sweet chilli drizzle. People who ordered it and knew her back then arrive and ask for it now.

Other things have evolved. As she says, “Every day unfolds differently. Trying to force things never works, whether it’s life, design…” Or food.

A number of the menu items were influenced by her mother and what Owen ate growing up. Simple, basic, unpretentious, she says.

The Welsh rarebit, for example. “It’s such an old-fashioned dish.”

But they had fun with it. There’s a “Hungry Welshman… cheesy and delicious with two slices of ciabatta”, onion, crumbled bacon and poached eggs. Then, the Welshman’s wife: “Smaller with all the bits”. And the Welshman’s daughter: “Just plain saucy”.

“People love it. You see them read the menu and it makes them laugh.”

Owen grew up with beetroot. Hence the “exotic pink salad” with fresh beetroot, pear, walnuts, roasted pumpkin seeds and feta.

The “health kick on toast” is directly from her childhood. Cream cheese, banana, honey and crushed walnuts. “So simple. My mother gave it as a quick snack. She’d say: it’s good for you, eat it up and shut up!

“Anyone can make it. But let’s face it, many things taste better when someone else prepares it. And of course, presentation is key.”

There’s a tangy asparagus cheese melt – “such a vintage idea” – inspired by memories of old Durban and when we couldn’t get our asparagus fresh. Which, come to think of it, was the only asparagus my mother liked.

While she doesn’t cook, “I’m creative with ideas and then we have fun with them.”

Sweet potato in the fish cakes, for instance. “Delicious.” Almond flour in the bee stings. “Not traditional but they’re a favourite. We’re not stock and standard anything.”

But they grow their own veggies and herbs in the garden.

And what they can’t grow or don’t have enough of, they buy in from legendary Cindy’s, Cindy Valayadam’s tiny emporium of fresh produce and preserves in nearby Umhlali. 

Window view of lunchtime diners. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

Back to the building, “I painted every bit, from the roof to the floor, myself, on my own. Every inch.

“And the pictures on the glass. Art nouveau. And the dome. And the walls.” Even the rust.

And the goddess-woman who stands out front and who, underneath Owen’s paint job, is solid iron, which was previously painted white. She and an identical twin once-upon-a-time stood outside the original Edward Hotel in Durban.

“The dome is a copy of an Italian dome. The top of the tower is a pneumatic drill bit. We couldn’t find a spire. Finally I found that at a flea market.”

BYO and enjoy a Grand Exotic of eye-catching collectables. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

They are not licensed, “to avoid the bureaucracy”.

“For functions we have a slick bar service company.”

They are happy if you BYO and charge R10 a head, which covers glasses, ice and a few other things.

“People forget about the cost of bums in seats. The electricity to make the ice. The glasses that get chipped in the dishwasher. The wear and tear.”

While they don’t charge corkage, per se, they do charge “cakeage”.

“If you arrive with a cake, we charge you R100 because we sell cake.”

Oh yes, people have arrived with their own cake and teabags and demanded hot water and cake plates, serviettes and knives.

“We’re not a picnic spot. We’re a business.”

A business with a sign outside that reads: “Welcome to adult time! Regret no children. Badly behaved adults must play outside. No swinging from the crystal chandeliers. No pinching of bottoms. Animals on leads are welcome but no pooping.”

They’re closed on Sundays “so the building and the staff can breathe”.

Welcome to The Grand Exotic ‘industrial chic tumble-down palace’. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

Back to the Indian family and their photoshoot.

“That’s my mom and dad, my wife, my son and daughter,” the urbane gent – looking at the same time amused and bemused and a little hot around the collar in his sumptuous formal gilded sherwani – tells me.

“My son suggested we do this. That we all be photographed together before any of us passes on. We will frame the picture and hang it in the living room.”

Heartening in a strange way to know I am not the only one thinking like this.

Will I meet so-and-so again? Be around in a week’s time? See my Berlin friends again? Get to India some time?

Meanwhile, there is Sheffield Beach and The Grand Exotic. DM/TGIFood

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