Out of town, and out of this world

Out of town, and out of this world
Wildebeest loin with aubergine and olive oil dressing. (Photo: Lin Sampson)

The rise of the Osteria Ragazzi in a country town called McGregor.

The world of McGregor is a cliché, powdery blue sky, cottages with white walls and climbing clematis and old roses. April and the Temenos Retreat in McGregor is at its most beguiling and scattered with reliquaries of various religions, the sublime and humble visage of Mother Mary, a lot of plump buddhas, small hidden chapels with sparkling stained glass. There is an infectious lightness of being, enhanced by a garden of flowering shrubs, a lot of weigelas, lilac, a huge buddleia, a keurboom like a giant sweet pea, some hybrid tea roses the colour of newly drawn blood and the name that has tripped off my tongue since I was a small child, pittosporum. 

Wandering around is a solemn hem of people, reading books on spirituality, looking for nirvana and Scones and Cream. One is reading On murder Considered one of the Fine Arts. I can’t see the author’s name, but I think I have read it. Gore and God, always such good companions, set off by the sweet landscape of this artful garden with its lack of suburban foliage and its small homages to all the Gods we know – and a few we don’t know. The most spiritual thing I saw was a Monarch butterfly that must have just completed an epic journey South but had a fluttering nonchalance even though it was about to die.

Butterflies, they got a head start on all this.

When I was a child, my ma was mad about taking me to museums. I got through the day by imagining what I would eat afterwards. On museum days, I think even my ma hated them, we were allowed a really lurid milkshake at the local caf.

McGregor offers something unexpected. Oh, how I love the unexpected. The restaurant Ragazzi which means girls in Italian (I think Girls would have been a better name) is an Osteria which in Italy means a simple, inexpensive restaurant, almost like a wayside inn; an informal place with low prices and good food.

Its interior has about it a ski-hut roughness combined with a smooth expertise that lifts confidence, a large double volume room, coolly spacious and with a sort of Norwegian chic, just right, not overdone, lots of space left between tables, solid cutlery and thick linen table napkins and not a laminated menu in sight. At one end near large doors opening to the garden is a bar and for a moment the last of the light turns all our hair red and shines the bottles of liquor a jewel-like gold and ruby. The sun is at its most gorgeous when it is about to disappear.

Clinton Drake polishes a glass in the bar. (Photo: Lin Sampson)

The owner, Clinton Drake, is a young man who said he was a chef. “I have spent my life in French fine dining, and I hate it,” he announces it like a personal mantra. I am not sure what French fine dining is, as far as I know there is just good food and bad. Ragazzi has the best food. No fuss, no drama, no flourish of serviettes and recitation of menus; properly priced and with very good cutlery. A cool breeze shifts through the room, harbinger of nightfall.

An early supper is advised before it gets too full.

A black and white Italian movie plays above our heads. The men all wear hats, mainly Fedoras and Homburgs and a few Borsellinos, and some in characteristic Sicilian style worn on the back of the head skollie-like. There are also Peaky Blinders tweed caps, the Irish and Italian working class have always shared some heart. My dining companion has placed his own Fedora, the colour of thick blood, on the white tablecloth.

Who would have thought, in McGregor where I have eaten before and often been disappointed with variations on Hospital Tray, that here I would eat one of the best meals I have had in South Africa.

Freedom is nothing but the distance between a hunter and his prey. And my prey tonight is food.

Patagonian squid, softly fried. (Photo: Lin Sampson)

Skip to main content. I, who would have been satisfied with one course, am cajoled into two. My friend says, you know the Italians they like lots of courses, such rich exotica as pickled octopus, celery, potato, rocket, chilli vinaigrette, but I went instead for an old favourite Patagonian squid sauteed with pickled vegetables, watercress and garlic. The calamari were squidgy-smooth and the tentacled heads, my favourite, were crispy-tight and crunchy. I love squid and eat a lot of it, but this had a really rigorous flavour and even those white bellies, often like eating your school eraser, had a kick back verve.

My main course was carne di cervo, 200g (I brought half of it home and it made two extra meals for me) of wildebeest loin. Well all I can say after eating a slice of its loin, I hope I don’t have a close encounter with a wildebeest. The outer rim of my steak was crisped to almost the consistency of toast and inside it was both coarse and soft, rather like snow on a doormat, crispy but yielding. When I knifed it, it oozed blood that mingled with the melted aubergine and olive oil dressing that added a sweetness to the rigour of the meat. It tasted the way you might imagine mashed gardenias would taste, something unknown but very well cared for. It was flesh incarnate, since we are sticking to a religious theme.

My religious maniac friend (god I hope he doesn’t say a prayer) ordered first a bacon, feta and red onion pizza, crisp and thin as a credit card, followed by cob, as big as a brick, pesce fresco, with a bright green parsley garlic pesto which, replete with wildebeest, I didn’t even taste but looked light and fulsome and not over cooked and all the fish-white was nicely set off (might that be a good colour scheme for my block of flats?) with a startlingly green sauce. As he was eating with a voluminous silk handkerchief tucked into his shirt neck, the owner of the restaurant came to the table and said, “Sir, I would like to compliment you on your clothes.” Red Borsellino hat, white shirt, hand woven tweed jacket, rusty coloured trousers, red bow tie. Yep, suited the meal.

Beans, tomatoes, vinaigrette, simple. (Photo: Lin Sampson)

After the meal we were served salads, always a scary prospect in South Africa where they are often put in the fridge the night before and/or are decorated with enormous onion rings and uncut half frozen tomatoes and pieces of feta. However, these large shallow dishes (why are so many salad side dishes crammed into tiny bowls?) seemed to sparkle with rigorousness (cutting is everything) and pieces of onion and lettuce, French parsley, green beans, all cut to eatable size so you don’t end up with half a tomato in your lap. The salad was varnished with the thinnest layer of olive oil vinaigrette (so many salads are swimming in dressing or are not dressed at all). These salads had the healthy shine of a well-trained athlete.

You can tell a lot by how a restaurant makes a salad. 

I am not a pasta fan, stared into too many cheap bowls of cold pasta as a student and as an au pair in Italy ate one too many bowls of naked spaghetti. When I am asked out to dinner, very, very occasionally, I consider leaving when I see that bowl of tasteless spaghetti. I might as well eat my toes. But I had already intuited that this would not be a Fatti’s and Moni’s dump.

The pasta at Ragazzi is used, as it should be, as an adjunct to the meal and sounded scrumptious, prawn stuffed ravioli, broccoli cream and roasted prawns, a real risotto with braised guinea fowl, wild mushrooms and caramelised onions, gnocchi, a favourite I learnt to make when I lived in Argentina and Parpadelle, handmade pasta ribbon, peas, pea cream and pancetta, my particular love, and only R80.

We didn’t have pudding although Japie’s plum tart sounded like something that shouldn’t be missed. There is something about the unexpected that trumps everything. Who would have thought that in this small, rather naf town, hidden in the mountains, one could eat so well – and for such a good price. It was a meal worth leaving home for.

Two course meals for two with three glasses of wine (I don’t drink so have no idea about the wine), cost R800. DM/TGIFood

Ragazzi Osteria, 41 Voortrekker Road, McGregor


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