Carbon ignites the spark of life Egoli needs
Luke Dale-Roberts’ new Test Kitchen Carbon just opened across from his Shortmarket Club in Jozi’s Oxford Parks. It’s a confirming and astonishing addition to our food life up here.
First, I mull over the name. It’s evocative of the Dark part of the Test Kitchen that Luke Dale-Roberts had in Cape Town, though nothing really like, except for some blacked boards and two menu items. So it’s its own phoenix, something specially evolved in terms of food and for the restaurant’s own and future life in Jozi. It’s also the element central to living, carbon having given us life in the first place, with a bit of water.
Ah, food. It’s a wonderful feeling, knowing even before one starts feeding that it’s going to be an interesting process. Already it’s beginning, with a grand nibble.
“Try to have it in two bites,” advises Nkosana Masuku as he puts down a wooden plinth bearing my and another’s little first tastes. I place my incisors like a bunny, in the middle of my dice-shape morsel. It’s wise advice because the second half of the experience confirms what seemed improbable after my first mini-gnaw. A buttery-crumbly-savoury-sweetish-umami pow. All I can detect from examining the other one is that a sliver of dark chocolate seems to separate layers of rich chicken parfait from a truffles suspension. It’s called Billionaire’s Shortbread for fun, as is a tiny square of gold leaf smoothed atop.
Nkosana’s the man who’s seeing to this table and he’s back with grinning eyes above his mask and another share-plate. This one contains two small buns to break into and drag through fresh cottage cheese, celery oil and dark onion dust. It feels ridiculously naughty to be enjoying a soft, white little milk roll after all these years but surprisingly nice.
The kitchen is right here like a wall of white-jacket activity, quite loud, exciting. Ten chefs are busy, some clanging pots. This is not a quietly carpeted restaurant of hush and whispers. A deejay holds forth up there above a ladder to the first floor during evening service. There’s a long bar type arrangement for eating right up even closer to the pass. At one end is Luke Dale-Roberts in a cobalt blue T-shirt but in a moment I see him appear at the other end, tasting something heaped in a spoon. As it happens there’s a lot of tasting going on here down the line all the time. I like that.
“It gets intense in that line because there’s a lot going on with each dish,” says Jason Kosmos, once of the Pot Luck Club in Cape Town. He’s the executive chef, people man of the group, and the group is based in Jozi now.
I think the cobalt T-shirt means not-the-chef. One of the 10 in line is the new Test Kitchen Carbon head chef, Tyron Gentry, just 28 “and a half”, he adds. Luke has always believed in young talent. This particular talent has been with him for most of Tyron’s chef career anyway, with a breakaway in Nice at JAN, under South Africa’s own Michelin man, Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen. Tyron returned to the previous Test Kitchen in Cape Town as chef de partie. Already Luke had singled him out as being “ready to fly”.
A quail pancake on the menu has been replaced by yellowfin tuna with yuzu, one of my favourite citrons, tart and sour, here a sauce, probably incorporating its rare juice and the zest, poured over it and the finest-cut chillies I’ve ever seen, like short red threads among the mini daikon and spring onion. At the end I use a teaspoon to gather every shred and deep-tasting drop, marvelling at how sums of parts work in masterful food.
All the way, from the little buns on, I’ve chosen to have my dishes matched, not with wines, though so many of them are startlingly tempting, but with teas. I reckoned they’d go well with some of these Japanese tastes and they do. I imagine they’re also better for retaining my legs and my taste buds. This is my second food and tea tasting and I can rave about this one. Served in small wine glasses for the most part, I am tending to sip them as I would wines, sensing food taste contrasts and teasings. I also feel a bit virtuous.
The one I’ve just finished with the yellowfin was Singapore Breakfast tea, chosen for its riciness and slightly sour raspberriness. All the teas are TWG (The Wellbeing Group). The sommelier who’s also a wine judge, Tinashe Nyemudoka, is the subject of a Carte Blanche shoot today, partly because of his Zimbabwean roots, he says. He explains the teas as animatedly as he does the wines. My next one that will bring out the best of a Japanese gazpacho because of salmon and creme fraiche having a role in it as well as miso floss (can’t wait) and tempura of shiso, is Silver Moon tea, “a green one with good berries and hints of vanilla”.
Opening The Test Kitchen Carbon in Jozi is a greatly confirming addition to our restaurant landscape. The city already has a stash of greats, often overlooked in the food media focus on the winelands and Cape Town. The secret to the success of Jozi restaurants is always that Joburgers are habitual eaters out, at all levels of income. We don’t rely that much on tourists to fill restaurants. Yet, Joburgers have often bought into the more glossy spread slant. It’s something like that business of South Africans once imagining that anything from “overseas” was always superior.
It’s the Somewhere Else syndrome in which people can’t properly see or value what is familiar. Joburgers also didn’t stop to recognise that city streets restaurants are not the winelands. Of the limited number of restaurants on those Cape Town streets, Luke Dale-Roberts dominated them in excellence. He even found that position embarrassing but all three of his places did that. All three of those restaurants are and, with one still to come, will be in Jozi.
So it’s not just the tea that makes this multi-level “gazpacho” served with fried nori and aubergine melt my heart en route to the tum. It’s the foodwork of genius. It’s part of one of the most exciting experiences to be had in Jozi.
This restaurant’s décor is the work of Sandalene Dale-Roberts as is the one across the way, the Shortmarket Club. Here she’s been using some of her fine signature metalwork and also the charred looking wood, one piece a portrait of her husband as chef. The restaurant manages not to look “decorated” and big industrial lights hang down a storey, though this is but a 38 seater. On the table, alongside the ever-changing cutlery for each tasting course, is a set of pointy Japanese chopsticks. I keep wondering if there’s one dish more than another that might encourage their use.
Oddly enough it could be now, with another cross cultural, successful detente dish, just landed. It’s Paella style risotto. I’m describing it as perfect risotto rice, harbouring substantial crayfish tail flesh, squid heads and mussels, maybe calamari, flavour-heightened by hot oil still sizzling with lemon and calamari juices.
A very silent Japanese family, including a remarkably wail-free, surely just-born baby in a black pram, is a table away. All of them, not the baby of course, are using the heavy cutlery, not the chopsticks.
“Dis ’n baie lekker lusmaker,” winks a man next to me, to his date.
I notice he has what seems a little more than that. I also have it, softly-softly tender wagyu ribeye slices, under hot dashi broth, nudging a substantial beauty of a wild-mushroom filled dumpling. The textures and tastes are both silky and sophisticated contrasted with crispy-fresh vegetable shavings.
The teas with this and the next dish are also uncannily ideal, a Milk Oolong, no milk whatsoever in it, but smacking of, as Tinashe says, fermented milk and toast. The next one is Pink Flamingo, a mixture of green tea and smoky hibiscus that ends up surprisingly fruitily tart in the glass.
This last is sipped with a ruby colour carpaccio of springbok on which are pieces almost as tender as the chicken and goose liver parfait on it and a burstingly ripe fig. Well, that’s heavenly, I think to myself, so happy to be eating like this, putting what looks like a rose petal and is a fine slice of pale pink raw beetroot in my mouth.
“Astonishing.” I hear that word and think I might have said it but someone else did. I hear it again when two people get up after their meal. I mention it to Chef Tyron and he looks astonished just to hear it from me. He says it’s the word he hears said most often here.
He goes on to praise Luke for his constant good energy and for allowing this restaurant to be unique. Tyron also mentions that the wagyu dish will probably be replaced by something even more exciting they’ve been testing this very day. And so it goes at the cutting edge of restaurants, always something better and better again. Even when it seems perfect already.
We also talk about ex food trends, the fatuous stuff, the gel baubles and smoke whisps and soils that are often not intrinsic to the taste and essence of the dish, but extra, impressive seeming additions. You can bank on Luke Dale-Roberts as one of the real brigades. Everything has to mean something to the tongue. We can bank on Tyron Gentry here. He’s not at all pretentious either.
While Luke wings his way back to Cape Town and up again every couple of weeks, saying he quite likes it because he sleeps then, Tyron and his bank of chefs continue the miracle.
And so I consume another one because it’s pudding time and my miracle is a tart, an upside-down lemon tart with a fast-melting sorbet made with tequila and the minty shiso leaf. Cracking the sweet-sour crust base, which is the top here, is my final act of deliciousness, so that the sorbet drenches it and the eggy lemon filling is now the base for divine biscuity shards.
The dessert I didn’t have was a choccy fantasy of chocolate, mascarpone with smoked white chocolate ice cream and which sounded a lot like orgasms when I heard it being eaten by others.
One very last thing is that chef Tyron has added a millionaire, looking like a shaggy petit four. As the end or to remind one of the beginning. I eat my one in two bites as I did before. It’s triple coconutty.
With the addition of Carbon, Jozi has all the diamonds it could want in its own restaurant crown now. DM/TGIFood
The Test Kitchen Carbon, Oxford Parks, 199 Oxford Road. 010 745 3999
The writer supports Nosh Food Rescue, an NGO that helps Jozi feeding schemes with food ‘rescued’ from the food chain. Please support them here.