TOUCH (SEA) BASS
Hitting all the right notes and all that foodie jazz
To feed the body and to feed the soul there are jazz restaurants, but for delighting the body and delighting the soul there’s The Marabi Club.
One stormy afternoon a month ago, I was on the Rooftop of Sir David Adjaye’s architectural masterpiece, Hallmark House in Maboneng. (See A hallmark of excellence on a rooftop whips up a storm). All along I was planning my revisit to the other end of the building, The Marabi Club in the Hallmark basement.
It had to shut for obvious Covid protocol reasons in May 2021, apparently on Father’s Day. Chef Russell Armstrong had just returned to Jozi after sorting out his visa in Australia. The Marabi Club was mothballed for six frustrating months. But here we are again.
In the kitchen is Chef Armstrong himself and his new sous chef Uzile Maqungo. I saw them earlier and gleaned a few clues about what to have.
It’s a novel feeling and an exciting night out for me, in an indoor place for the first time in a long while, and not just any indoor space. The Marabi Club has always been known just as much for the innovation and excellence of its fine food and the really top-notch chefs as for its fine jazz.
I’m trying to think of other jazz places I’ve frequented and who, if anyone, provided fine food. Ronnie Scott’s in London had pricey fare. You could, for instance, order oscietra caviar and maybe follow it with confit of duck, potatoes dauphinoise, orange and anise braised chicory, and prune sauce.
I peer at this Marabi Club menu and, though these are all small plates for sharing and swapping, 17 choices of them including the dessert ones, you could try to be flash but with better taste by having oysters and then pan-roasted duck with a chive spätzle, different textures of beetroot, pickled fruits and those roasting juices.
As it happens, Tumelo Moyana, our waiter, talks me into an oyster with Nam Jin sauce, or two really, since I’ll be sharing.
Joining me is a friend who was there for the dramatic Hallmark Rooftop lunch, the person who somehow swallowed all the coffee beans off his cocktail in enthusiasm. He was very interested in the food there and, well, it’s the same chef here, now at his personal best. When David arrives I’ve been squinting at the mouse-print menu with and without glasses in the low light. Tricky. It’s going to be a matter of cellphone lights I can tell, watching him do all the things I’ve already been doing to read it.
It’s dim here. Of course. It’s a jazz club. Not dim with cigarette smoke as in the movies but dimly lit. A deco style cigar and smoking lounge leads off the dining area where there’s a picture of Ike Cohen and Sons, with Ike perhaps, sitting on a chair on the pavement wearing a yarmulke. A sign in his window says he’d buy your gold, jewellery and watches although he also sells meat and all kinds of necessaries as his main line in business.
The idea of this menu, blessedly short, in its weeny point size, is that you tick off the little plates, having three or so each before you get to any sweet stuff. The prices are also rather illegible so it’s a bit of a gamble, especially since one of the two little plates from Something To Start With includes the oysters. The other is flammekueche, an Armstrong recommendation.
We table-talk about the concept of jazz and excellent food. Locally, I can’t remember ever eating at Kippies. Given the crush in what was once an Edwardian public loo building, I think it would have been impossible. I can remember eating at the Bassline in Melville. It was quite jazz-apt Cajun type food. “We can blacken anything,” as a waitress once offered. At the time it was very cool, before it moved to Newtown. Niki’s Oasis in Newtown has burgers but also relevant dishes like mogodu or mutton bredie with an option of umngqusho that I prefer to other side starches. The food at the Orbit in Braamfontein wasn’t bad but nowhere near as special as when the premises housed the Narina Trogon restaurant.
We agree that The Marabi Club is one of a kind. The chefs and food standard were always going to be outstanding, considering it has links to the Saxon Hotel, being part of Steyn Entertainment.
David hasn’t been here before but I entered a different way now, through reception and down a lift floor. It used to be past the long blue-lit bar from the back. The slightly raised area already has Marabi’s resident band setting up. I feel an excited thrill just looking at it. An even greater thrill tonight will be hearing and seeing Lucas Senyatso, available just this one night before he goes on tour once again.
The first plates arrive, both oysters served on little beds of frozen salt with a refreshing version of that Nam Jin sauce, redolent of lime. I believe there are few times you can improve on a fresh oyster and would probably not have ordered these myself, but I have to admit Tumelo was right and that here we have one of those times. I guess the flammekueche, often inadequately described as a kind of pizza, takes the place of a bread dish, very thin dough, roughly circular, unrolled from a pin, quickly panned with fine red onions, spread with crème fraîche and truffle oil in this instance. Like many Alsace dishes, you wonder what all the fuss is about until you have it made casually by an expert.
The house band has begun to play and now I’m loath to use the cellphone torch but I know there is an odd number of little plates coming soon, five in all. I know one is broccoli or broccolini, satay style with roasted groundnuts involved. And one is the Sea Bass that chef Armstrong loves. The fish reminds him of barramundi back in Oz. It’s going to be served with a tomato-chilli salsa, rice pilaf and champagne cream. He said it is also Dale de Ruig’s favourite dish. Dale is Hallmark’s co-owner with TJ Steyn.
When I look around, the restaurant is already nearly full. Next to our table is another seating eight. Or nine, including a baby who’s not seated so much as draped across a man’s chest. His wife feeds the little one but her husband seems to want to do the rest.
As two more little plates arrive, the man takes the little child, who’s very quiet and wide-eyed about what must be quite a noisy experience, up to the band. He’s introducing the baby to the keyboards section in particular, lifting the child up the better to appreciate it.
The Marabi Dance by Modikwe Dikobe has long been one of my favourite books, set in the Doornfontein slums of the 1930s, a few blocks from here. It tells of overcrowding, gangsterism and backyard jazz, alluring in one way, awful in another, before black people were forcibly removed from these city areas.
The broccolini are on one of the plates, a stunning array of just-charred wanna-have deliciousness. I’d forgotten that Tumelo had also suggested a two-prawn little dish, alongside cocky looking poppadom crisps, with a so-right spiced coconut sauce and coriander-mint dressing. The studs of caramelised pineapple remind me that Armstrong, probably like most Ozzies, likes to use that fruit. It’s more unusual for us to have it with meat and fish but it tastes heavenly on my half of the small plate before I swap with David.
Every now and then the delightful manager, Odidi Bukashe, comes over to ask and discuss something we had. First it was about the citrusiness of the Tim Jan sauce and then it was the broccoli. He must have our orders on his tablet. What a great touch. I love discussing food. David is fascinated by the service and also that things like broccoli can taste “just so damn interesting given the right treatment and understanding”.
Lucas Senyatso, tonight’s jazz star, has just taken his place on the stage as another plate arrives on the table. His own band members must have set up while we’ve been chatting. There’s a palpable thrum in the air. He’s the bassist that travelled the world with Hugh Masekela but has worked with so many greats nationally and internationally.
He has a tall double bass player who has an engaging style of almost dancing with his own pretty tall, gleaming instrument.
I can’t remember when we ordered these mushrooms but they are, first, wild and then combined with pickled shimeji. Second, they’re touched with chocolate oil of all things and mingled with ricotta, kataifi-wrapped. In the dark, it’s a chiaroscuro effect, a tangle of earthy tastes and tease of textures. They work just right with jazzy bass music.
A woman in a stunningly glam white party dress has been tripping back and forth across the length of the room from the loos maybe five times so far. I think we’ve all appreciated the outfit a lot and she settles down with her friends in all jazz seriousness.
We can’t really talk much now and don’t really want to with this wonderful jazz going on but we’re ready for the anticipated sea bass and another recommended dish of Tumelo. It turns out to be chicken thigh cooked Portuguese style, chilli-hot with maybe the nicest jollof rice I’ve had, along with fire-roasted cabbage and onion.
The two chefs had spoken to me about desserts before the evening started. People always love dense chocolatey desserts and there is one on the current menu but Armstrong had mentioned a thing he likes doing that is not quite a dessert but more of a pre-dessert thing, a cheese plate of sorts.
He uses Gorgonzola in a panna cotta with a Parmesan-tasting wafer and a little truffle. The plate has pieces of pure sweet pear on it, almost a little like a palate cleanser, I think smiling when I taste it.
Chef Uzile Maqungo had told me about the strawberry delight. I find it is a real delight, with real strawberries, not “sparkleberries”. Here’s a strawberry compôte, the berries themselves and a strawberry crumble, with a balsamic gelato. David says it reminds him of everything really strawberry he hoped for and never quite got enough of as a child.
It is a happiness-soul plate and, what with the everything-I-could-hope-for jazz, I suppose we’re both grinning individually and crazily into the low-lit and sonorous night. Soon it’ll be mask time again and it will all be over. DM/TGIFood
The Marabi Club, Hallmark House, Maboneng. 010 591 2879
The writer supports Nosh Food Rescue, an NGO that helps Jozi feeding schemes with food ‘rescued’ from the food chain. Please support them here.