Breaking it down at Blockman
Nothing goes to waste at The Blockman. Bones are used for rich stocks. The beef fat is used in the lovely butters made to melt onto steaks. Biltong is made here too.
It doesn’t feel as though I’m on a mission to look at Using it All, when it comes to meat (even fish these days). This is probably because I’m clutching a crystal, clubby cocktail glass in the middle of the day.
When I told the manageress at The Blockman I was going to see chef Vassilios Holiasmenos, she frowned at my ordering water and insisted I taste his house cocktail. A ginger and carrot Whisky Sour, it has me at the first carroty-lemony, spiky-frothy sip. I seem to be getting superior treatment just by mentioning the owner-chef’s name. I was led to two rows of dark easy chairs facing each other over a long, low table, on a cowhide rug. Only one of the chairs is adorned with an additional, long-hairy cushion. It’s where the manageress indicated for me to sit so it’s under my bum as I imbibe and watch, from here, chef figures darting around in The Blockman’s smoky, sizzly kitchen interior.
Fridays are carcass days at The Blockman and that’s really why I’m here, having missed carcass Tuesday. The Blockman uses everything that’s received from the abattoir. There is no middleman or butcher between the animal and the chef’s own butcher block.
I’ve eaten delightedly at Holiasmenos’ other two restaurants, all within striding distance of each other on this street in Parkhurst. I’ll always have a soft spot for Modena (see The real and the surreal on a Joburg table) since it was the very first restaurant I entered just as lockdown was easing slightly for the first time. Even my boot soles had been sprayed there on arrival and we had to be back home again just after sundown. It was an ideal place for three scared people, venturing out to get the welcome taste of excellent chef-prepared food once more.
The Blockman didn’t exist then and came about late last year because Holiasmenos realised he didn’t need a meat middleman. No, he was already trained in butchery within his chef training and hadn’t let that training slip, putting thought and practice into particular cuts he could effect. He could far better control the excellence of the basic meat product.
“I love the breaking down process. I always have. Breaking down a carcass. I even love filleting a fish.”
I like hearing that the whole carcass can now be utilised across all three restaurants in various ways. That’s how it works here. Nothing goes to waste. Bones are used for rich stocks. The beef fat is used in the lovely, already quite famed butters made here to melt onto steaks. Biltong is made here too and can be bought in the deli, but I’ll get there.
Kolonaki for instance, a high-end Greek restaurant, uses a lot of the lamb from the carcass, while The Blockman uses the lamb tails as a starter, lamb chops and more of the lamb meat in a roulade, also as starters, plus grilled ribs as a main. Beef is mainly used here at The Blockman as steak cuts. Braised kidneys with beef are a popular Blockman dish. No wonder, when they come with mash and milk stout, wild mushrooms and bread sauce. Other beef sections, ground, are used in Modena for typical Italian dishes.
“Bring your drink.” I follow him into the kitchen, the bustling furnace I’d been watching earlier. “Don’t touch anything! Everything’s insanely hot and will burn you.” I nurse my glass, my pen and notebook through steamy billows, being introduced to cloudy chefs in the heat. Grill surfaces glow and Vassilios even opens the charcoal cavern of an oven, a more gentle mouthwatering aroma escaping. The kitchen is open to the restaurant at the pass of course, but the whole streetside is open onto Fourth Avenue.
Holiasmenos lived in Britain and I remember that as he says, “It’s nice to have that local butchery feel, on the street, where it’s possible to be in touch and talk to the man who’s in charge of your meat.
“Hang onto the rail. These steps are wet and might be slippery.“ I juggle the stuff in my hands. I’ve still got that cocktail with me. We burst in on the block room, I suppose. Men in white coats look up, surprised, from cleaving some already broken down carcasses.
I have no major qualms about meat eating, though I did once. A qualm is what the animal eats and how and where. I now reckon if that’s what you’re going to do, you’d better make sure the whole animal, not just the piece you eat, is respected by not wasting its life, using e-ve-ry single bit. The animals The Blockman receives are Chalmar, sustainably reared and walked over to the abattoir, rather than trucked, the great horror.
My next stop, still with my cocktail glass, is where chef Vassilios pauses and asks if I’d like something warm to put on, like a jacket. “Hey, me!?” I think, stubbornly. “I’ve been in cold rooms before.” So we push into the dry-aging meat chamber, where the cuts are moved onto the next shelves as they get older. Far from being like a caveman’s gory stash, there’s a certain beauty here in the way the meat is developing, how the fat colour ages and the classic still-life, darkening colours of the pieces. Surprisingly, it smells savoury instead of bloody. It’s admirably neat, tangible too, the labels hand-witten, something like being in a wine-collector friend’s long wine cellar. Vassilios Holiasmenos looks every bit as proud.
Most of the cuts just here are rib related as I notice, standing where I am with the cocktail. I spot Black Angus tomahawks, much marbled wagyu ribeyes and Jersey loin strips or New Yorkers. So I am pleased to relate that the rest of each animal is used as well. Chef Vassilios holds a fully dry-aged tomahawk out to me to feel the meat section. Breaking down is what happens here too. The meat feels like a ball of silk.
What’s received directly from the abattoir is the carcass, empty of its head and inside organs but for the kidneys. I’m sad about the offal and head not being used here, fond and approving as I am of using those pieces. But they are used. Those sections are the big business of any abattoir in South Africa as I know. In our country they go into a pot instead of a bin.
I’m still figuring out the cuts because these are not faithfully Australian or British or American. “Or Argentinean,” Holiasmenos reminds me. I had noticed in the brief look I’ve had of the menu that he includes a picanha as one of his cuts. Then, to explain the “three in one” of his rump cuts, he illustrates by patting the side of his bottom.
I’m planning to stay and have lunch and haven’t really examined the menu enough to decide on anything. We talk about T-bones, not that I want to order such a big thing for myself but the mystery of cooking the two different sections in one go has, after all these years, been solved for me in editor Tony Jackman’s recent TGIFood piece: What’s cooking today: Bistecca alla Fiorentina.
Vassilios looks interested and smiles. “I’m going to make a choice for you, I hope you don’t mind. You might not finish it either but then you take the rest away with you.”
Holiasmenos assures me The Blockman is where steak bargains can be bought. When I arrived, I tarried at the deli section on either side of the entrance area, one side with bones, the other with boneless cuts. I was struck by the extreme thickness of the latter. “It’s surprisingly inexpensive to buy because it’s all broken down and aged here. You’ll find it quite a bit cheaper than other outlets.” Note to self and carnivore friends.
In the restaurant I finish my well-travelled cocktail at last, sitting at a pale blond wooden table. And I do get the water instead of a glass of wine. I’ve probably had enough alcohol before tasting food properly. The mural, also pale, looks a little like an abstract version of knives and cutting implements I think, maybe fancifully. A pot of biltong strips is on the table and one of the men on the floor, who looks somehow familiar, asks how I am.
“Denzel. You remember me from Coobs.” Coobs is another great Jozi restaurant, owned by chef James Diack, once on this Parkhurst street I can see from here, past a big table of mostly men already at the end of their meal. Indeed, I remember Denzel also used to be at James’ pre-Covid parties. How comforting to see him again and reminisce. Coobs has since moved to Parktown North.
There is a thing about steakhouses and it’s a tricky thing. For the seriously meat eating market there are some expectations, some of them fairly vintage. I know without looking at the menu there would have to be snails, a steak served with blue cheese, a surf-and-turf and something like an Irish coffee. I curled my lip a bit once when I was doing recipe development for a lovely restaurant and they asked me for a blue-cheese sauce for steak, apparently for some Blue Bulls that came to eat there on Saturdays. I said it was a food kitsch item but I know we all seem to have one we love. Mine is stuffed eggs at catered parties. There, I’ve said it.
When I look at this menu there is even an Avocado Ritz, so retro it must be bang-on again. But there are cunning persuasive touches. The snails come with the requisite garlic but with the aforementioned roquefort as a vodka cream, with caramelised onions and ciabatta. There are a great many other wonderful seeming starters anyway. There’s a fantastically fruity burrata dish I want desperately next time. Or I might, if I weren’t in for a big main, have ordered The Blockman’s version of a steak tartare, with cognac, egg and anchovies, chives and a roasted onion mousse, vegetable crisps and a pesto swirled aioli.
So I find the surf-and-turf equivalent at the end of the starters that sounds not half bad, featuring beef fillet, crayfish, corn puree, carrot, crayfish caramel and beef jus. I can’t find a blue cheese sauce with steak. With the fab butters here, a sauce seems superfluous. Under playful adult shakes, I see an Irish coffee one.
My chef-chosen steak is enormous, even on a tray of a plate. I guess it’s the bone-in ribeye, dry-aged of course, and the flavour – it’s fully packed with the stuff. Now I know what four weeks tastes like. A little Bordelaise wets the plate. I smile when I see what’s alongside it. There’s super crisp cos lettuce chopped into two pieces with, wait for it, blue cheese dressing, a biltong crumble and crispy onions. The biltong is in aged rings rather than dusty crumbs and the side is so damn juicy and creamily delicious, I have to stop myself finishing it all. I have all this steak to demolish.
Chef Vassilios appears at the table. I gibber a bit. I’m sure it happens a lot at The Blockman.
“You’ll have sandwiches for days to come.”
When I ask the waiter for the bill, I receive a dessert as well as a gift. I need to find a small corner to slip some into for it is worthy of the search. It’s a perfect cheesecake, surrounded by the gooey sort of wonderful meringues, just-scorched, a fresh raspberry coulis and the fresh berries with white Turkish Delight. It’s the sweetest pale cloud of luxuries wildly overtaken by sassy scarlet fruit.
While eating I am thinking about breaking things down. I know it’s a pleasure for Vassilios Holiasmenos but the whole and holistic pleasure of having it all used to such an enjoyable purpose is what makes it such a winner here. The Blockman has just won SA Steakhouse of the Year in the 2022 Luxe Restaurant Awards. DM/TGIFood
The Blockman, 33 4th Ave, Parkhurst. www.blockman.co.za
The writer supports Nosh Food Rescue, an NGO that helps Jozi feeding schemes with food ‘rescued’ from the food chain. Please support them here.