Who’s who at Zioux and will it lift the Jozi lunch jinx?

(Photo: Supplied)

Do Zioux by night or by day to discover what chef David Higgs and the rest of the Marble Group have here, to surprise and lift our spirits.

For the first time in nearly two years we all dress up in our shiny things, the men in dark suits (okay, some of them), including three women who may be surprised to find they are all wearing the same dazzling, vest-length dress consisting of Kruger Rand-size gold paillettes. Not many of the hundred or so other women wear anything longer, with their teetering heels, ever-tans, jewels and new mouths. We converge on The Marc centre in Sandton as daylight gives out. I am wondering how the food will work or if there is even going to be some.

Some champagne is poured for me right there at the door, just after I get an entrance bracelet in glittering peacock green. I walk into Zioux, gaze up and gawp. Most people walk in and are covered in lights as a bank of cameras flash at them, before they gaze up and gawp. 

Armed with my Mumms I bravely tour the place. A photographer asks to take a pic of me on a raised level in a clubby lounge, among the large portraits by photographic artist Krisjan Rossouw, of wildlife wearing Elizabethan and more fabulous costumes. A human among the other animals.

The only person I know so far is Maira Koutsoudakis whose Life Group of companies spans restaurants, historic buildings and she’s w-a-ay out of my social appearance league. Thankfully I spot another writer friend, Adele, and almost hurl myself at her. I stick with her at the darkened end of the bar, out of the classy crush. 

From here she and I taste a succession of fabulous fish snacks of ceviche, which is cubed and cured, and tiradito, which is sliced raw into a sauce, and some utterly delicious and less swanky corn and spring onion empanadas. The plates themselves are things of gorgeousness.

Snack sized swordfish tiradito, raw, with its caper, yellow habanero and nasturtium sauce. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

Overhead spotlights change from mauve to orange and back every now and then. The most desirable places have women deejays these days and Zioux surely has the most beautiful one. Every now and then Adele and I finger-wave at people we know, without engaging too much. Some visit us at our little round cocktail table before moving off to hobnob with actual celebs. 

Some remarkable things pass by. One is a throwback to THAT 1994 Versace dress worn by Elizabeth Hurley then, held over her with safety pins. This time it’s two-thirds shorter and paraded by a stunning, tanned-leggy blonde. 

Another thing is an extraordinary tropical-leaf-swathed drink we keep seeing, passing beyond our champagne flutes. It’s always in a very tall glass with a beaded-wire chameleon clinging to its length. 

While we’re trying to decide which huge-shouldered, handsome men in perfectly fitting dark silk suits are guests and which are bouncers, Adele avails herself of one of the chameleon drinks. It’s called an Agua de Me-hee-ko. Using one of the two straws, I’m mystified by the contents, what seem to be pearl-textured coconut water with tropical fruit and assuredly some innocuous-seeming spirit. 

It’s really Zioux’s signature drink, I find out a few days later. The innocuous spirit was Blanco tequila and there was no coconut water but a milky horchata liquid of ground almond and rice. It has orgeat almond syrup in it as well. There is mango juice and peach bitters, as well as a habanero tincture. I’d have thought I’d at least have identified the last, though much of the food I’d been tasting was chilli-spicy too. 

I also understand the food better now. No wonder it tasted so exciting. It’s South American influenced, mostly Peruvian, world-trendy for full-flavourful reasons. There was no namby pamby dish on the opening night.

It’s nearly lunchtime today, sunshine filtering into Zioux’s massive spaces, glancing off more glass, marble, showing up the creamy textures and witty black detail, for example, some giant ants racing down a pillar above me.

Instead of being overwhelming and daunting, by day it seems like a welcoming and surprisingly comfortable place in which to hang out, maybe to have a meeting with a favoured client and another glass of shining champagne. I have just such a prospect in mind. He’ll be madly impressed at least. Maybe enough to consider my handling a particular project. Is this how business is “done”?

Meantime, this is just the time for considering the interesting Jozi restaurant nub.

There’s a kind of lunch trade jinx on Jozi restaurants and it’s been here since long before Covid. I see many restaurants and many chefs in Jozi every week, month, year. Some are new, some established. Almost all the ones I see are good to best, in terms of the quality and styles of their food. They all tell me, especially when and where Covid is not an issue, that their evening trade is great but that they so wish their lunch trade was. Some even have special lunch menus and dishes. Nothing has seemed to work.

Quite often, I’ll see a few that seem quite well occupied during the day but nothing like the urgent evening crowds and booked out dinners the restaurateurs are puzzled not to have at lunch times. 

An ideal small plate, which could be one of a few others, maybe a ceviche of salmon, red habanero and red peppers, served with lime. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

Yes, the boozy business lunch is long dead. But where are business people eating? Do they eat out during daylight hours any more? There are lots of guesses about eating in-house, about not wanting much food at lunch times when they have to eat dinner somewhere later with spouses, dates or business prospects. Many restaurants have tried many lures. Many have just given up fighting for it.

Though Zioux is also a bar, this is a lounge-restaurant, serving a selection or succession of small plates at purposely little tables.

David Higgs says to me, “Is this not the perfect sort of lunch for people around here with busy schedules, with health concerns, who’d like plenty of taste satisfaction without the volume of big plates and courses?”

Guajillo chilli-cured little plate of yellowtail, languishing in naartjie aguachile and yellow corn. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

While I eat an appetisingly cool, greenest of green, smallish-but-plenty salad of steamed asparagus, green beans, zucchini and what tastes like a fantastic pea dressing, on what is a wiltingly hot day out there, I do think this might just be the sort of place and situation that could very well break the Joburg lunch jinx.

I follow the green plate with an equally cool though guajillo chilli-cured little plate of yellowtail. It’s languishing in the liquid bed of naartjie aguachile and corn with coriander. 

There is no filling, munchy bread on my round café-style table. Instead, there are a couple of little pots of crunchy tacos shapes, some made with nori. Since I don’t feel overladen after that whumpf of spicy yellowtail taste, I even have some little vetkoek halves topped with tender oxtail that smacks of my favourite spice, tamarind and ginger, with it’s teeny salsa of jalapeno and spring onions. Enough, enough. I want to go out on those delicious notes. 

Tender oxtail that smacks of my favourite spice, tamarind, on vetkoek. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

Zioux might look playfully grand and lush but below the beautiful tweed seating are plug points. The Wi-Fi is automatic of course. I’m on it without logging in. Service the other night was perfect, even through that crowd. Today the service is equally excellent and Thami Mbudu, with his exotic-looking peacock feather pin, knows everything there is to know about the menu, about the timing for producing the little dishes, about recommendations after a couple of neat questions.

In addition to having realised that wealthier Joburgers need some escapism and freedom, as here, David Higgs also has interesting things to say about the volume to success ratio of restaurants. The new bigger volume restaurants have the greatest chance of success, he reckons, as opposed to what people might think of as manageable sizes. Zioux seats 120 people.

Knowing who’s who in Zioux is knowing that the Marble Company includes our famous chef David Higgs of course. He and the others are business partners. Higgs designed the menu and the food at Zioux. The restaurant is right next to Saint in the same Maude Street shopping centre, The Mark. Saint is already a restaurant of the Marble Group but Higgs doesn’t see these two restaurants living off one another in any way. “They are separate entities.” 

As Zioux settles down, chef David Higgs still plans to spend time at its pass but his main time will then be spent at Marble, his pet project all along. He says he’s sweated and bled for that place, made mistakes and turned them into values and success and that it’s really his overall attachment within the Marble Group’s great projects.

Irene Kyriacou, designer of the Zioux interiors, with her husband, Gary of the Marble Group. (Photo by Marie-Lais Emond)

Gary Kyriacou, the first partner in the Marble Group, is here today and I watch him talking across the space, over there, with his incredibly talented wife, Irene. I admired the restraint she showed in designing and effecting the interiors at Marble and now this – the gorgeous unrestrained and spirit-lifting looks of Zioux. The other member of the Marble Group is Dino Constantinou.

“This is really Dino’s project, says Higgs of Zioux. “He’s the operations director.” It was up to Higgs of course to appoint the cream of the chefs for Zioux. To show how seriously the group takes the food offering at Zioux, we only need to realise that chef Mike van Rooyen has been at both Rust en Vrede and at Marble, with Higgs, and interned before that at Michelin starred places in Stockholm, the Netherlands and London. Then, chef Moses Moloi is from FYN, a world best restaurant, having also been at the Greenhouse and the Ritz-Carlton in Florida.  

As I leave, from among the first lunch timers at Zioux, I recognise two people I know, one from this Sandton end of Jozi, also having lunch. I think this is pretty encouraging and reminds me to invite that prospect. I can already see him running a hand through his bouncing curls, smiling amusedly, surprised even, at this alternative way of ‘doing lunch’. And er, in this light, maybe even discussing that great project with me. He’s almost certainly reading this. DM/TGIFood

Zioux: The Marc, cnr Rivonia Rd and Maude St, Sandton. 011 594 5455

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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