A new food hub develops out of adversity
Thanks mostly to Covid-19 and one man, Birdhaven is turning into one of Johannesburg’s good food areas.
The writer supports Nosh Food Rescue, an NGO that helps Jozi feeding schemes with food ‘rescued’ from the food chain. Please support them here.
Before any Covid-19 restrictions, so in our much-missed past, like 2018, Larry Hodes had a fun place called Calexico at 44 Stanley. My heavens, I thought the food good. So were the drinks and the bartender. It made the most exceptional fun of TexMex and they also spun vinyls. There was a gigantic fireplace for less tropical days and cool people seemed to love the place. It was a good spot for events as well, leading out onto one of 44’s open spaces.
The first booze lockdown put final pay to its continuation.
Across, north-east from Milpark, next to Melrose, was Birdhaven and it already contained a Larry Hodes’ and partners’ place called the Arbour Cafe, featuring fresh-ingredients food and Breton-style galettes, those most desirable folded buckwheat pancakes. It was limited during last fortnight’s lockdown to being a takeaway and also a pavement stop for freshly pressed health juices and coffees but is open again this week for meals all day at the tables out and in, as well as the kerbside pickups that many people prefer in this Covid phase.
Larry had also taken over Voodoo Lily, a place a couple of doors away, which was the antithesis of the jazzy nightclub I once expected, judging by the name. It was a nice family place for all-day use, beloved by vegetarians and dog lovers. There was a short menu for the canines. Interestingly, there was also a small deli section of individualistic wines, cheeses, cured meats and stuff.
This is wonderfully interesting now. The picnic we’ve taken to the local Birdhaven Park, better known as the James and Ethel Gray Park, is entirely composed of food and drinks from what Larry has turned Voodoo Lily into, the Gourmet Grocer. It’s the loveliest produce deli in Jozi.
A Rand Water truck reversed slowly and seemingly determinedly into our car a little earlier. So I added an anger-abating giant chocolate brownie from the Gourmet Grocer’s bakery section from where I already have selected a sourdough type baguette.
Out on the sunny blankets in the park, we discuss Jozi’s existing food nodes like Melville, Parktown North, Parkhurst, Parkwood, 44 Stanley, Norwood, Cyrildene’s Chinatown, Blairgowrie, Braamfontein. Is Greenside one, we wonder. Or Dunkeld West? Linden certainly is.
Birdhaven already had the Peech Hotel with its fine-diner, Basalt, temporarily shut for just this while. There was and is open again the Asian Twist Delicacy, for dim sum mostly. Alongside the latter’s arcade, Northern Meat Butchery and Biltong Bar is constantly alive with promotions and events.
Larry was beginning to follow his big picture expansion plan when they started, as he said, the day before Mothers’ Day last year, turning Voodoo Lily with its ideal corner location into the Gourmet Grocer. He thanks Covid-19 for the big nudge. Twenty-four hours later, it was already being stocked with the produce from small, niche, artisanal producers.
“It was at the stage where they needed us and we needed them.”
A little earlier Larry showed me the kind of produce in the Gourmet Grocer. It’s a treasure trove for the likes of me, highly unusual food goods. Some are simply beautifully, some handcraftedly, packaged, mostly very local, unique foodstuffs. A sign that reads, Acts of Service twiddles overhead.
He picked up what looked like a sushi box and asked, “You ever seen stuff like this?” Then he waved a hand towards some new tonics in glass-stoppered bottles, just being unpacked.
The first was really a box of sweets, complete with chopsticks, laid out like a sushi and sashimi board, one adorable row in the middle consisting of “gummi” sharks. The second was a range of had-to-have, wholly natural South African tonic essences for drinks.
On this picnic we have a few must-tastes, one not entirely picknicky, a big ramen bowl to share and then a Reuben sandwich that I’ve been looking forward to, from the moment I heard about it. Now that I think of it, it’s what really drew my slavering attention to the area as a new food node and piqued my curiosity about the whole Larry Hodes collection of interrelated places and food services here in Birdhaven.
The ramen bowls come from the Dark Kitchen part of the collection, called Lucky Peach House of Ramen, named by the chef and partner in the enterprise, Josh Simon (married to Carly, I kid you not). He particularly loves things Japanese, especially ingredients, from having cheffed “on the yachts” and from his travels. Josh lovingly cooks the dashi for two days and says the secret to the good ramen bowl is the resulting depth of the broth flavour, later contrasted with topical freshness.
The kombu seaweed in the broth is also a product in the deli. The ramen noodles, always tricky, in that they need to be elastic and non-collapsible, unlike normal pasta or noodles, are made by someone close by, in Cyrildene.
“The name has been lucky,” he eye-smiles sweetly above his mask. “We can’t make enough of it.”
While I’m at the Gourmet Grocer every person coming in asks for either ramen bowls or Reuben sandwiches. For the Dark Kitchen foods, most bookings and deliveries are ever online. As of this week, seating and eating is back in and outside the Gourmet Grocer. The Reubens are really a menu item from the Arbour.
The Dark Kitchen is truly the no-public, centralised food production business, in what would be a basement, downstairs from the Gourmet Grocer. It has three sections, including Lucky Peach House of Ramen. The other two are the Dark Kitchen nine-slice pizzas, the ninth triangle in its own special box, and Bagel Burgers. The pizzas have extra-crispy bases and there are 13 juicy bagel burgers from which to choose, from otherwise classic to quirky.
I met a cheese man having coffee at Coffefe, yet another Larry Hodes addition to this part of Birdhaven. Since he’s roasting his own beans now and changing his blends to accommodate the transport difficulties of accessing beans from Tanzania and a few other places, he’s selling coffee, plus all the milks and “milks” on tap. I decided not to be difficult and ask for cream. I’m sure it would have been available but so much else was. The lovely pastries come from the bakery at the Gourmet Grocer.
The cheese man next to me at the outdoor coffee bar came from Indezi River Creamery, famous for making very responsible, hand crafted cheeses in tiny Balgowan, Kwa-Zulu. The mature gouda is a current award winner, as is their full cream yoghurt. Of course, the Gourmet Grocer stocks Indezi dairy products and I bought a tasting pack of four of their cheeses for the picnic. I also thought I got some smoked cheese from Noah artisanal cheesery in Clarence but I think I forgot to take it to the till. I was a bit laden for both the picnic and my own pantry anyway.
The benches all around the top mound of the park are occupied, at lunch time by couples, friends children and parents. This part of the park really gets used. I know the bottom area more, where there’s a wetland, an obstacle course among the trees and a Polish monument to commemorate the Katyn Massacre of 1940 in the Soviet Union.
We lay out a little red two-person picnic blanket over a bigger sitting-on-grass cloth, near the only unoccupied bench. On it goes the Indezi River cheese, the baguette, some butter, the choc brownie for pud, some takeaway coffees from Coffefe, a ramen bowl to share from the Lucky Peach House of Ramen in the Dark Kitchen and a Reuben sandwich to share from the Arbour Cafe. The sandwich is still warm on the rye bread baked at the Gourmet Grocer, the pastrami smoky and hot from the pot, tenderly sliced, slathered with mustard and slaw.
The picnic looks fairly insignificant on the huge upper level of the park but I can’t wait to tear into the sandwich and slurp my half of the ramen bowl with four egg halves buried in it, I see. How I adore eggs in things. The glimmer of a good dashi still with some beef fat is evidence of a fine one that actually supports the heavy additions atop. It’s unforgettable.
When I reviewed Calexico three years ago, I remember realising that Larry Hodes’ secret is that he puts together food experiences that are bursting-full, packed with exciting excellence. There’s no stinting anywhere. All’s more-than-fair with suppliers and it always shows. Whatever he does, he does full-on, with the greatest, palpable enthusiasm. It tastes.
Three kiewiets or blacksmith lapwings tootle around on the ground at our level and a pair of golden retrievers express interest in what’s on the blanket but are too polite to actually remove any of the picnic. This was once the site of a bird sanctuary and gave its name to the suburb. Larry Hodes’ places are in a development called Wrenrose Court. He’s giving it wings when it most needs them. DM/TGIFood
Gourmet Grocer (and all related businesses): 011 442 6965, corner St Andrew St & Wrenrose Ave, Birdhaven
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