How dining out feels and tastes better when it’s a special indulgence
Why do we eat out? And does the experience feel and taste better when it’s a special treat or a long-anticipated moment, or will that mean we put unnecessary expectations in place?
Binge-watching a few MasterChef South Africa episodes recently, I heard judge Gregory Czarnecki say that in deciding on a career as a chef, he made a mental switch from eating to live, to living to eat. It’s a cliché but it does reflect a singularity of purpose, something that many good chefs and people in the hospitality and wine trade do, to better understand how flavours, textures and techniques can work together. And it often applies to some regular souls with a healthy bank balance labelled “foodies” or “gourmands”. A few of them verge on the ridiculous, in their quest to experience a new dining trend, or obsession with ticking off “top” restaurants from some or other “best of” list.
As another episode focused on creating dishes inspired by childhood memories of favourite sweets or snacks, it struck me that as much as we crave or cook what’s familiar from our family traditions or travel recollections, we also dine out to create food memories. There’s a reason anniversaries are celebrated over special meals out (and I don’t mean those couples marking a calendar date with a dutiful reservation at a soulless spot).
Dining outside your home doesn’t have to be fancy to leave a lasting impression, but to become a meaningful memory I do think it should be carefully considered. Who you eat out with, and the experience of it, is an integral part of a positive culinary recall.
I’ve been reminded of this on a few occasions recently. A very good friend, a cancer survivor, learnt last year that her disease had returned and spread aggressively. She is an amazing soul, full of vitality and wisdom, and now she has finite time left. After the initial disbelief, despair and anger, she changed tack. She’ll never stop asking “why me?”, but this year, she and her partner started making the most of the good moments. They have taken grand train trips to fabulous waterfalls with family, and booked an overseas holiday with an enthusiastic couple, to spend days relaxing, eating and drinking the Mediterranean way.
A few months back, our friends arranged a glorious beachside birthday weekend stay of gourmet braais, brunch with bubbles, and sunset gin chats on a sand dune deck. A lucky few were invited to share it. We planned. Then we met, and cooked together. I could swear the breakfast eggs were brighter, the MCC in my glass more full-bodied.
And I started thinking that this is what it’s about.
Life hasn’t been easy for many South Africans in recent months; we’re all feeling the pinch. Just paying bond or rent, school fees and monthly expenses, sucks up more than many of us earn. The Household Affordability Index by civil society initiative Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice & Dignity group showed that year-on-year in March 2022, a household food basket (44 typical foods many low-income households buy) increased by 10.2%, or R410,53. People who prize good eating are grabbing a far greater variety of foodstuffs than maize flour, cooking oil and frozen chicken portions, and spending significantly more on their grocery bills.
Our family doesn’t eat out often, and if we do, it’s along the lines of pizza, burgers or fish and chips. So when I recently sold an item for cash, I should have sensibly settled a sizeable plumbing bill. Instead, we acted on an email reminding that George Jardine was closing his fine-dining restaurant at Jordan Estate in Stellenbosch, during April. It seemed time for our near-teenage son, who enjoys cooking with his dad, to experience his first smarter dining experience. Reservations were made for Sunday lunch.
As lunch out drew closer, there was collective excitement in our home. We were having a life moment, and it felt right.
To put the meal into context, I reviewed Jardine’s first restaurant on Cape Town’s Bree Street long before it became a buzzing eating strip. In 2009, when George and wife Louise set up their restaurant’s open kitchen on Jordan Estate, extending to al fresco dining tables on a raised veranda with panoramas of rural Stellenbosch, I always felt lucky to eat there.
Returning this month, seated at a veranda table overlooking indigenous shrubs, a farm dam and distant Stellenbosch mountains, I felt lucky again. Autumn sunshine, a glass of Jordan Chenin, and three courses of tasty food made with care will do that.
Menu highlights were a beautiful beef carpaccio with micro-leaves and radishes, exotic micro-mushrooms and curry aioli flavour notes. My son unwrapped a paper parcel of Thai-style broth holding aromatic coconut mussels, while my husband’s crusted beef sirloin with aubergine chips was a robust flavour triumph. We swapped a little, shared… The dish of the day was velvet-soft pork belly, rolled and fried in crumbs, coming alive with deliciously (cheesy?) cauliflower puree polenta, plus baby carrots and beets. We finished with a George signature: hot, sweet poppy seed souffle with a dollop of vanilla ice cream.
Finer dining is an experience, where you put yourself in a kitchen’s hands to deliver an expectation of skill. You might be asked to eat something new, or to dip into this or that. You won’t always agree on the combinations; you might think there’s one froth too many. But it’s fun, and for the adventurous eater, there’s no better opportunity to learn where your personal boundaries lie.
Is eating out better when it’s anticipated and something you don’t do often, but shared with people you love? In the right cook’s hands, definitely. DM/ ML
The last service of Jordan Restaurant with George Jardine is 18 April. Chef Jardine is getting involved in private consulting projects. Jardine Food & Wine Bar is still trading on Andringa Street, Stellenbosch.
Kim Maxwell writes about restaurants, wine and property trends. She also works as a subeditor.