All change at City Bowl bistro
Twenty-four hour lamb and a refreshing look at vegetarian dishes mark the approach of the new young chef at Societi Bistro in the Mother City.
Let’s talk about salads for a moment. How often do you order one at a restaurant and it’s a massive bowl of greenery with a little bit of the yummy stuff on top? And come on, be honest now – do you ever eat all the leaves?
My answer is no. I pick out the bacon or the chicken or the prawns, and a bit of the lettuce for show; it makes me feel cheated somehow, to send the unfinished plate back to the kitchen. Caesar salad is the exception because a proper, traditional one is supposed to be not much more than romaine lettuce and croutons, with the goodness of lemon juice, olive oil, egg, Worcestershire sauce, anchovies, garlic, Dijon mustard, Parmesan cheese, and black pepper packed into the dressing. Lots of dressing.
That’s how you get it at Societi Bistro, with more grated Parmesan on top.
When I made the appointment to meet new senior sous chef Tristan Camilleri, I was asked to choose some of his dishes to sample. There were photos in the email, and it wasn’t easy to decide. One was the blackened beef salad, which I can declare, beyond all doubt and dithering, to be the best salad I have had at a restaurant. (My home creations are pretty flipping awesome.)
It was cold and bucketing down sideways with rain when I arrived, and a fire was being set in the Snug bar. The waiter poured me a glass of Thelema Mountain Red, and Camilleri brought out the first dish. Not the salad, we’ll get back to the cauliflower and the mushroom. If I hadn’t pre-ordered, it’s highly unlikely I would have chosen a salad on that shamelessly winter day. With four dishes to taste – full portions because, well, photos – I would probably not have finished any of them. In fact, I didn’t; there was plenty to take home for the next day, but the salad… oh the salad.
First of all, it’s not predominantly a plateful of lettuce. Yes, there’s lettuce but it serves a purpose and is in proportion to everything else. The baby gem cups have been selected for their shape and how they form the base of the dish, holding everything else – beginning with the avocado and amasi dressing in which they are coated. That’s the second thing: the dressing is liberal.
On top of the lettuce are sliced red onion, roasted red pepper, roasted garlic, olive oil, salt, avocado cubes, Gorgonzola, beef strips coated in Cayenne pepper and paprika, and topped with chiffonade mint. It is delicious. It is luxurious. It is generous. I loved every mouthful.
All right, let’s rewind. Tristan Camilleri is oh so tender of years but has already packed international experience into his career, including highlights such as being part of Jason Atherton’s pre-opening team at Pearl Social in Doha. “What a guy, what a gentleman, what a chef! Seeing his passion motivated me by seeing where he is and me wanting to get there as well – be my own businessman in the future, and have my own restaurant or bistro or whatever, and my brand,” said Camilleri.
Before that, Camilleri worked at the Westin in Cape Town. “There was a fine dining restaurant called on19 and a chef by the name of Stephen Mandes – back then I was still a commis, learning all the techniques and methods. All I can say is wow, what a chef. I learned so much from him alone; he gave me so much knowledge and I feel like that restaurant, and working under him, impacted on me a lot.”
Camilleri’s Italian chef father and a Lebanese mother have informed his love of cooking, and the style in which he cooks. “People outside the industry will see the food and think ‘you’re a chef, you cook food’. It’s so much more intense than that. There is so much passion inside a chef, inside me,” he said. Camilleri has been cooking since he was six years old, watching his dad and always wanting to be involved. “I found that inside of me at that age, and decided this is what I want to do.” Camilleri recalls that the first meal he cooked solo – when he was about eight – was prawns with savoury rice. “From about 12, when my parents started trusting me to know how to use the stove, I would make supper every night,” he said.
The first dish of Camilleri’s I tried was a crab-stuffed Portobello mushroom, a Creole recipe. The filling that goes into the sautéed mushroom is delicate crab meat, spring onion and Parmesan cheese. A roux is made with fish stock, mixed in and seasoned. It’s topped with Parmesan cheese and breadcrumbs, toasted in the oven and presented on a tomato-based piquant sauce. “We add a hint of red pepper, smoked paprika and whole chillies,” said Camilleri. The trick behind the subtlety of the sauce is to put those chillies in whole, then remove them.
The cauliflower steak is the vegan dish, and will wipe out any notion you may have that vegan equates with boring, dull or lacking in flavour. When Camilleri met a vegan chap who said it’s difficult to eat in restaurants because there aren’t many options, he decided to focus his time and energy on seeing what he could bring to the table. “I got here and thought, great, I’ve been given this platform and I can now put my own menu out, so it’s a good time to display what knowledge I’ve learned and gained by myself,” he said.
The grilled steak is lightly seasoned and the vehicle for a tahini dressing and pineapple pico de gallo. Mint chiffonade works its magic here too with pops of freshness, and there is mushroom and lentil “gravel” for texture.
I let Camilleri choose my fourth dish, and he brought out a giant lamb shank. Half a kilo of it. “It’s something I did with Jason at Pearl Social, and something you won’t find in South Africa – this kind of recipe and methodology,” said Camilleri, who believes in taking good care of the meat, washing it before curing it in Middle Eastern spices for three hours, washing it again, then braising it in a low oven for 24 hours. The mirepoix features as the vegetables on the plate. On buttered mash, the lamb obligingly slips off the bone like the silk stocking off a stripper’s leg. Without any sauce to distract, the flavour of the meat shines through.
The interim last-gasp-of-winter menu is one of the largest changes Societi Bistro has gone through in its 18 years. The biggest, said owner Peter Weetman, was when the restaurant moved from the V&A Waterfront to Orange Street in Gardens. “We took the very big menu and Steph [Marais] brought it down in size and style. This is the second to third biggest. Definitely the second biggest will be Tristan’s spring/summer menu. All we’re keeping are our signature dishes – the fillet au poivre, mushroom risotto, Caesar salad.”
Camilleri will sometimes offer to make lunch for Weetman – nothing to do with the menu. “And there’s very much a nod towards – which I love – aromatic Middle Eastern dishes as opposed to curry or very spicy Asian food. It’s more Mediterranean, which is our roots as a restaurant,” he said.
The dates to circle on your calendar are October 20, 2021 and October 16, 2021. That’s when Weetman is planning to host one of the bistro’s famous soirées. “I long for friends and locals coming here. The Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food allows for that kind of sharing and enjoyment. I’m aching to hear laughter again.”
Booking for the event on the 16th will go live online later this month, and there will be an auction – Siv Ngesi will be wielding the hammer and Africa Melane will be MC – with lots from wine farms and hospitality packages up for grabs. Profits will go to NGO COOKtastic (see below), whose cooking course students come to Societi for practical experience. “There are two students with us in the kitchen now,” said Weetman.
The opportunity to head the kitchen at Societi Bistro is an exceptional one for a young chef, and Camilleri knows it.
“Me personally saying to you – and I told Peter the same thing – the minute on my first day, when he told me I got the job, I burst into tears,” he said. “Peter has changed my life, this gentleman has really done that – I’m not going to hide. I’m a very emotional person, I have no filter and I say how I feel.
“I’m very happy and the sky’s the limit with such an amazing owner slash boss slash colleague that holds my hand and believes in me and empowers me. It makes my life so much easier, and it makes me happy to have that support behind me.” DM/TGIFood
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The writer supports COOKtastic, which is designed to empower talented youth from disadvantaged backgrounds and so change the lives of more than 75 young people a year.