A Hallmark of excellence on a rooftop whips up a storm

Three of the small plates that work as starters. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

As we savour the last bits of cream and heavenly crumbs, a thunderous roaring in the sky increases deafeningly, rushing this way. Outside the glass is water whipping sharp. All-blackness rides at us. We’re in the sky over Joburg.

Up here, the view is 360 degrees, showing the less usual aspects from the east side of the City of Gold. Utilising a 1970s hi-rise diamond polishing business’ building as a basis, Sir David Adjaye produced an architectural masterpiece of revelation and practicality as Hallmark House.

Hallmark House on the edge of Maboneng has, within its lobby, very cool features like a poster-perfect barber, a wallcovering of Maxhosa Africa’s design, a fragrant coffee cum cocktail bar and madly impressive reception. In the basement is Jozi’s jazzy Marabi Club famed for its chefs and musicians. On the 16th floor is The Rooftop restaurant.

Four years ago, David Adjaye’s architectural masterpiece was considered to be the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington DC. Since then the multi-awarded architect has been gracing Jozi with more beauties like the Hugh Masekela Memorial Pavilion and the double domed Thabo Mbeki Presidential Library.

Before Covid ever existed, international chef Russell Armstrong, originally from Australia, who’d done his three Michelin-starred cheffings in Britain and France, arrived at the Marabi Club as one of the great chefs the place has featured. I seem to remember he came after Luke Dale-Roberts did a five-month stint there. Armstrong had, working with him, one of the top seven San Pellegrino Young Chefs of the 2018 world, Vusi Ndlovu. Ndlovu now has Edge in Franschhoek. The food was exciting but Armstrong’s style is that he has ever relied on true ingredients and dislikes masking them, no matter how elevated or stunning his menu. 

Chef Russell Armstrong, having spent his Covid time on his home continent, is back to stay. He heads up all three restaurants of Hallmark House. That includes the Marabi Club, Thorn the urbane ground floor restaurant and the sky-high, just reopened Hallmark Rooftop.

Greyish 360 degree view, here showing less usual Jozi aspect from the east. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

I’m up here, heady greyish cloud around, menu in one hand, with sightseeing friend David. Kennedy Welani Tembo has said he’ll also pop in between two Jozi city tours. He’s my only Iron Man friend but I really know him because of the unusual tours he runs. I’ve been here before, on this rooftop, with him.

Today Jozi is semi-shrouded, promising. It’s a day for some drama, for misty reveals and further revelations.

We have three of the small plates before us that work as starters. When I first looked at the menu, I didn’t think there was anything mindblowing but I’d reckoned without Armstrong’s way of using the best ingredients as a basis for coaxing out deliciousnesses with his marvellous knowledge of culinary method. It’s a revelation in itself. Shelton Moyo, explaining the dishes, knows this, I can see by the way he speaks about them.

Since Kennedy isn’t here yet, David and I tuck into all three, sharing a cumin-butternut hummus and a spicy-bean dip on restaurant-baked ciabatta fingers, the juiciest real-tasting kofta I’ve had in ages, served with fresh-mint whole yoghurt. Halloumi can be many things, squeaky, runny, rubbery but yummy is not always one of them. This is kataifi wrapped for crispiness over the pillowy curd, with a just-made lemon mayonnaise for mopping up.

We’d initially passed up any wine and had chosen to have water instead for a while, the better to appreciate the food, I always reckon. But Shelton asks if either of us wouldn’t like a cocktail since they’re making new ones with D’ussé Cognac. I’m about to pass that up too but I think, hell, a cocktail in the sky? He says he’ll make a surprise one, himself. I watch him squeezing grapefruit, dripping into it his own cardamom gomme, pouring, shaking and producing the Sunset Kiss. 

I watch Shelton squeezing, dripping, pouring, shaking and producing the Sunset Kiss cocktail. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

I carry it onto the glass-and-black-iron girder wraparound balcony. A midday breeze whiffles damply through my hair while I sip.

I look down on the south side, onto a roof that someone or some people have turned into a rooftop patio, with loungers, a dining room table and chairs, an elegant braai stand. It’s so doll’s house cute that I almost miss the labrador puppies, moseying in and out of a couple of kennels, fenced there to stop any tumbling over the edge. I also almost don’t see, on the far side, a man half-standing from a wheelchair, looking out, quite still. I sip the Sunset Kiss, looking onto this very quiet scene from a Bergman movie, another plateau or tableau of Joburg life unveiled for me.

Meantime, David, who tasted my cocktail, has asked Shelton to make something for him too and, when I return, he’s analysing a cocktail with three coffee beans on top, so at least some clue, guessing the contents for Shelton.

He also has “rare, please!” rib-eye steak arriving with what turns out to be a red-wine jus and an oniony mushroom accompaniment that excite him for their “intelligent mastery of ingredients” and something that I think is delightful, a throwback sort of herb and garlic butter mould, melting over the perfectly rare meat, with shoestring frites. David’s so excited it seems he’s swallowed his three coffee beans without noticing. 

I have something similar to a dish I used to love when Russell was the chef at the Social Kitchen in Hyde Park, ostensibly a salad.

“Instead of ‘just a salad’, I want a plate to have a wealth of flavours on it,” to quote him. I recognise the “maghreb”, big-pearl couscous he likes to use, rich with stock, now with new spring artichoke grilled pieces, fresh still-crunchy thread beans, grilled broccolini and kernels of really tasty African corn, not the ever-sweet stuff we buy from supermarkets. 

‘Instead of “just a salad”, I want a plate to have a wealth of flavours on it,’ said chef Russell Armstrong. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

I’d love to chat to Adjaye about where I am but I have chatted with chef Armstrong about what I eat at Hallmark House. The latter’s view of the rooftop is that it’s all about the view, often entertainment and “the vibe”. So, recognisable small and large dishes “don’t detract but can be the best examples of themselves with more care”. His own view of his food is “I do say that I am not a chef who ever sacrifices flavour for visuals. And I have to say, vice versa”. 

Kennedy arrives and we discuss the building. I know he loves it. He also mentions that Laduma Ngxokolo of Maxhosa, responsible for the wall on the ground floor and some of the collectable knitwear for sale there, also lives in one of the residential apartments, apart from the actual hotel, as do quite a few other well known creatives. 

A chocolate ‘parfait’ with sweet sesame biscuit and raisins soaked in rum. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

He tells me about the newly opened Houghton Mandela House too, with its new restaurant, and that the deceased president’s cook as well as well-starred chef, Katlego Mlambo, are involved in the kitchen. Mlambo, incidentally, was one of the “extremely talented chefs” Russell Armstrong worked with and believed in during their Marabi club days.

All three of us help ourselves to two outrageously wonderful puds, one a chocolate parfait with sweet sesame biscuit and raisins soaked in rum. The other is a “South African tiramisu” that includes mascarpone and a local coffee liqueur. 

Something different is in the air. Flocks of birds fly bullet-fast in arrow formations towards us up here. The Ponte building appears and then disappears. During the excitement that’s not all about dessert, Kennedy gets a call and has to pick up someone for the next tour. He seems to fly as he steps out into the crazy outside air to go downstairs to the lift. Our spoons are still raised.

We no sooner lick and brush from our lips and cheeks the last bits of cream and heavenly crumbs when a thunderous roaring in the sky, our sky up here, increases deafeningly, rushing this way. Outside the glass is water whipping sharp. All-blackness rides at us. 

Before Jozi disappears. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

Beyond the safety of the glass windows, remaining guests of a wedding lunch with massed pink roses leave the table in a rush for the outside balcony.

There’s a crack and then a succession of them, smacking louder than any clatter. Those outside are lashed by rain. Shielding their heads in the open section between two top structures, before the steps, people grab for the hailstones, icy rocks in their palms. No one can hear through the din of the black sky falling frozen. Jozi has disappeared.

Sixteen floors down from Hallmark House’s Rooftop, Jozi’s streets are confettied with hailstones, downsized in descent from up here in the heavens, and the sun bursts through.

I am left overwhelmed by the rush of negative ions and happiness, sensing a deliciousness in it all and the brilliant calm. It’s as though there was a whirl of tribute in the sky, and Adjaye and Armstrong may as well take it. DM/TGIFood

Hallmark House, 54 Siemert St, Maboneng. 010 591 2879

Kennedy Welani Tembo’s Micro-Adventure tours

The writer supports Nosh Food Rescue, an NGO that helps Jozi feeding schemes with food ‘rescued’ from the food chain. Please support them here.


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