Black nights, white lights in the City of Golden food

Black nights, white lights in the City of Golden food
Moonlight over Rosebank. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Three nights in Johannesburg, in the shadow of a giant black diamond in uber-cool Rosebank, has you questioning whether the country’s food capital is anywhere near where Capetonians have long presumed it to be. It’s not necessarily at the coast.

The City of Gold shines diamond-black. The gleaming omnipresence of the AngloAmerican De Beers Group headquarters, an architectural masterpiece that looks like a giant ship made of cut-glass black diamonds, ironically at berth in supercharged Rosebank, oversees a sea change in Jozi’s food life.

Her passengers seem to have been spewed out into the streets below, dispersing into cafés, restaurants and bars to eat, drink, laugh and shuck off life’s stresses in tall tales of trial and triumph, washed down with world-wise humour and stoicism. This is a hard city; it parties at the edge over which any may plunge in a flash of bad judgement.

The new AngloAmerican De Beers Group headquarters on Oxford Road. They fled Marshalltown in the old CBD, the firm’s traditional home. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Somewhere in the middle of it all I’ve found Proud Mary, a swish bar-eatery that reminds me of a Soho brasserie. At dusk here the people spill out of offices and into bars and restaurants the way they do in London before getting the Tube home. I remark on this to my friend and colleague Jillian Green, who has come to meet me for a drink and catch-up before getting back to the Daily Maverick grind. She adds context for me, and context is everything. Sandton is the high end, the gilt heel, the fat wallet; Rosebank is more real, less flashy. And it’s where a restaurant revolution has been happening since lockdown locked down so many restaurants, forever.

I had stayed here in 2018, before all that happened. The precinct is barely recognisable now. Where there were a handful of familiar franchises, Bright Young Things and their cosmopolitan elders now flit in and out of a slew of new eateries on every street and block. Finding them all, in a well planned brief visit, turned out to be a comedy of errors. I Ubered from place to place, day after night, only to find that each was only a short walk from the other. The restaurant I went to on my last night was barely 50 metres from the Indian place where I’d met an old friend on my first night.

This is a business visit to meet my colleague Ferial Haffajee to talk all things TGIFood and bringing you more of what you like on our food platform, but I’ve built into it some time to renew vintage friendships, not least my old friend Darryl Accone, who suggests we go to Modern Tailors, which despite its perplexing name is an Indian restaurant that specialises in subcontinental street food. It’s a smashing concept and deserves to be cloned and franchised everywhere. Talk is rich with shared memories, what we’ve both been doing in the interim (we met in 1988 as young arts journalists) and a good gossip about this and that in the current SA media milieu, names mentioned, but not here. Ears elsewhere must have buzzed that night.

Modern Tailors. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Modern Tailors plates up the food of the streets of India with a bit of flair but no attempt at fussiness. Instead of that? Quality. You order samoosas. You expect a greasy samoosa, the pastry just a tad too thick, a chewiness without which it would be perfect. Instead you get? Perfection. Pastry with crunch. A delightful meaty interior with all the flavour you hope for and no cloying grease. I spent most of my life in Cape Town. I had to go to Joburg to find the best samoosa I have ever eaten.

I had to go to Joburg to find the best samoosa I have ever eaten. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Then, goat curry. I don’t remember ever seeing goat on an Indian menu in South Africa, despite it being a popular meat on the subcontinent. It is, if you don’t know it, much like mutton in texture. This was on the bone and beautifully flavoured, tender but retaining form and bite. Just right.

Goat curry, in the foreground. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

To go with Darryl’s coffee, saffron soji (semolina pudding), and chai-misu to share; a massive portion of tiramisu made with chai spices and Jack Daniel’s. It was delightful, but we couldn’t finish it.

The bill arrives in a wooden casket mounted with a miniature vintage black sewing machine. Ah! Got it: Run up the bill… at least I hope they were being that clever. I looked around furtively, wondering if they’d notice if this little treasure suddenly wasn’t there.

Could you run up the bill for me, please? (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Monday finds Ferial and I at Sotto Sopra for lunch. Italian, but an interpretation, not traditional. The raviolo, instead of being the small serrated-edged parcels we’re familiar with (ravioli), was a large square with a filling of spinach and ricotta, basted generously with a truffled butter sauce. My colleague Marie-Lais Emond, whom I was to meet the next day (we have only communicated by email and WhatsApp until now), had written about and recommended the dish. She has, undoubtedly, an extraordinary palate and excellent taste; TGIFood is well served by her in covering the Jozi food scene she knows so well.

Raviolo at Sotto Sopra. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Encouraged by Ferial to have anything I fancied, I could not resist the Linguine al Tartufo; truffle again. This was all about mushrooms, or fungi, more accurately. The languid linguine lazed silkily in a mousse of exotic mushrooms and truffle, slivers of porcini, sprinkled with mushroom dust. Remarkable; yet just another day in Rosebank. I felt rather greedy wolfing down a caramel affogato with vanilla gelato and dark espresso after all that. But honour was at stake; I’m the food editor, I have responsibilities.

Creamy, dreamy linguine al Tartufo. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Truffle black, night falls on Rosebank. I’ve Ubered from my hotel to The Test Kitchen Carbon to meet Jenny Crwys-Williams for dinner and talk people, books and a mutual departed friend. It takes all of a minute to get there and when I alight on the pavement I can see my hotel just down the road. I have been warned several times a day, however: you can’t walk here, even in daylight. A car will stop and your phone will be grabbed, and whoosh, they’ll be gone. On every street corner there’s a security guy in uniform. Ask them to walk with you to the next corner, Marie-Lais advises. Nah, says the hotel receptionist: Uber, sir.

Amid shiny buildings with double-volume windows, I look up. The moon is bearing down on me from between two well-lighted monoliths.

Luke Dale-Roberts has treated us to the new innovation, The Best Of Menu: Recipes from Test Kitchen Carbon (he closed the Cape Town original), The Pot Luck Club, which survives in the Mother City, and Fledgelings, which was based at the former Shortmarket Club premises in Cape Town but now occupies the premises of the original Test Kitchen at the Old Biscuit Mill precinct in Woodstock, Cape Town.

At his new Shortmarket Club (which ironically is no longer in Shortmarket Street, Cape Town but only a few steps away from this Rosebank venue), chef Taryn Smith brings a mix of Asian, Middle Eastern and Indian dishes alongside classics including fine steaks and a good bottle of wine, as Luke puts it.

There is a tapas menu at Carbon too, which can be chosen, but he has recommended we have the Best Of Menu with local wine pairings. There are 10 courses, of which we have eight, as the last four are choices of two each. This is a “punchy” menu, he says, designed for the Joburg palate, of dishes across all three menus. 

Grilled octopus. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

As with any dish served under the purview of this great chef, every morsel was delicious. Delectable grilled octopus with smoked paprika and orange escabeche, creamy and garlicky skordalia and a crunchy fennel salad; wagyu ribeye with foie gras, perfect; succulent calamari with a crunchy wafer and spiky velouté, and the best dish of the night, lobster, apple and prawn bisque. 

The medallions of lobster couldn’t have been better, and the bisque sublime. But they were buried beneath a mini mound of shredded vegetables whose only purpose seemed to be to hide the jewels from you. Remove those, and perfection languished below.

Lobster and exquisite bisque. It’s underneath. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Two meaty dishes followed: Penang pork belly, delicious but easily identified as the “one course too many” to be found on most of these degustation menus, and Korean roast duck (we both eschewed the risotto option) with kimchi and pancakes, the pickled vegetables a good match in this instance.

Korean roast duck. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

All along the way, fine wines are served with aplomb, and they come so thick and fast as new dishes arrive and plates are cleared that it’s honestly hard to keep up with it all. It is time, I think, for these culinary walks through a chef’s imagination to be trimmed back a little; anything more than five or six courses is too much, like an artist not knowing when to stop adding even a single brushstroke to the canvas. You step back, walk away and know that the job is done. This very fine menu could easily be trimmed by three courses.

You must, absolutely must, says Jenny before a shared Uber drops me at my hotel and takes her home, visit David Higgs’s Pantry near his lauded Marble restaurant, which I had tried to book for but couldn’t get into. I promise her I’ll pop in at Pantry the next day. It feels a bit silly getting out of the Uber barely half a block away.

Tuesday finds me at 44 Stanley, the shopping precinct I know well from Marie-Lais’s writings. It turns out to be right near the old Milpark hotel where I stayed every year in the Eighties while covering television for the Cape Argus, with the Auckland Park tower just up the road. Strangely familiar. I go into shopping overdrive and come away with four Time Life cookbook classics from the wonderful l’Elephant Terrible bookshop, a Le Chat Noir poster from The Bioscope, and sundry tiny wooden spoons from a gift shop which I leave in my hotel room before flying home.

An entire little shop dedicated to Drum magazine captivates me, and I have to slap my hand away every time it reaches for my wallet. At thousands of rand apiece, these limited edition posters of old front pages are highly desirable but I cannot afford them. I strongly advise all memorabilia buffs to get there.

I wanted to buy everything. I bought nothing. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

We have a light brunch at Salvation, a café that has nothing to do with evangelising or the Salvation Army, and which serves utterly wonderful bagels topped with smoked salmon and cream cheese, beneath a mound of rocket, pickled red onion and microherbs. 

Bagels with a Scandinavian touch. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Back outside my hotel I hand the Time Life books to Marie-Lais who is going to courier them to me, go upstairs and mislay the little spoons, and get an Uber to Pantry at Marble. Which of course is just around the corner.

I walk in and am staring at a shelf full of all things truffle. My wallet reaches for a jar of two black summer truffles and is off to the till while I wail after it pathetically. On the way I grab a packet of black noodles, because a recipe is forming, at last, on a theme of Black.

I had been sent a gift of a bottle of Krone Night Nectar blanc de blancs from Tweejongegezellen wine estate, many months ago, and with it came a tiny black diamond in a little black velvet box. My brother-in-law, who knows about these things, tells me that it will not make me rich but is a thing of beauty, and there was something about the bottle, with its gold label, that seemed to illustrate this extraordinary sojourn in the City of Gold, across the road from the gleaning noir De Beers headquarters. And that’s the cooking challenge I’ve set myself this weekend. I’ll write about it right there.

At Proud Mary on Tuesday evening, Jillian explains that I don’t need to Uber to the Grillhouse, where I’m to meet an old school friend for dinner. “It’s just there. You go down there, turn right.” 

Proud Mary at the Voco Hotel. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Leaving the sunset crowd behind, I’m halfway up the road Jillian had pointed me to when a smartly dressed young man hustles me. City-wise, having negotiated my way through streets from London and New York to Hong Kong and Prague (where two elderly men tried to grab my camera while I side-stepped them like the Artful Dodger), I skip-and-jive while he lies, “I’m not trying to hassle you, sir.” Yeah, right, that would be why you’re not hassling me, I mutter over my shoulder.

I turn right and find the Grillhouse where I treat my friend to calamari and fillet on the bone, which he can’t finish, so he’s carrying a doggy bag when, after dinner, I ask him to walk a few metres with me before he gets his Uber so that I don’t get lost. A well-dressed young man is suddenly between us. “Can I have that for my breakfast please?” But his hand is out, taking hold of the parcel as if to make it clear: that is mine now. My friend meekly lets him take it.

The Grillhouse is 30 paces behind us. We wave goodbye, I look up, and I’m right next to Modern Tailors, scene of my first night’s dinner. My hotel room is three minutes’ walk away. DM/TGIFood

Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Champion 2021. His book, foodSTUFF, is available in the DM Shop. Buy it here

Follow Tony Jackman on Instagram @tony_jackman_cooks. Share your versions of his recipes with him on Instagram and he’ll see them and respond.

SUBSCRIBE to TGIFood here. Also visit the TGIFood platform, a repository of all of our food writing.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Michael Forsyth says:

    Aaah Tony, Tony, TONY! What does the Cape know about making Samoosas. The very finest I ever ate was at Silveranis in Durban. That together with their perfectly spiced (pretty warm) prawn curry and their Paratha was just the most divine flakiness.

  • David Bristow says:

    I was with you there, meeting all these new friends in my old hood, right until the octopus. It’s like eating family (and they’re not sustainable).

  • Gustav Bertram says:

    What I miss most about Joburg is not the fine dining, but the humbler experiences.

    Like Cyrildene, where in dingy restaurants with menus in Chinese with poor English translations and abrupt service, one finds simply the best Chinese food in the country.

    Like the Schwarma Co in Grant Avenue, with their unparalleled salad selection, where your best meal is a platter with your selection of salads, with the freshest falafel and pita, perhaps accented with a divine lamb shish kebab, finished off with a Turkish coffee.

    Like Japa in Rivonia, the only sushi restaurant in the country that I know has a Japanese chef. Where you can ask for Omakase, and be sure to receive an experience rather than a blank look. The only place where one can get Calpis cordial, served the same way it is in Japan.

    I miss the Black Forest cake from places like Fournos, which Cape Town bakeries seem entirely unwilling or incapable of producing.

    I especially miss the dearly departed Pudding Shop in Parktown, which is still the finest vegan experience I’ve ever had, matched perhaps only by Foliage in Franchhoek, but much lighter on the wallet!

    I miss the Food Lover’s Markets with their actually fresh food, ideal for shopping after work to put together a seasonally inspired dinner, instead of the Cape Town branches with their sad, mouldering excuses for vegetables.

    The Joburg food that I miss most was humbler than Cape Town’s fine dining high notes, but consistently excellent and always unpretentious.

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