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Zest: On trend and on fire, capturing the zeitgeist of Cape Town

Zest: On trend and on fire, capturing the zeitgeist of Cape Town
Dinner with a view. (Photo: Supplied)

My friend Lynne Gordon took me to dinner at Zest for my birthday. To me, a Southern Suburbs girl, it seemed enhanced and shiny, channelling Dubai or New York.

Zest is an independently operated restaurant on the third floor of the newkingshotel in Sea Point. It is known mainly to a select few, but gathering thread all the time. 

A lot is due to the décor which subtly channels Africa with a veil of thin hammered gold, a major African colour, from sunsets to mines to scatterings of minerals.

The head designer described how she felt drawn to the space. “We wanted to layer it carefully, inviting a mood that was earthy, contemporary and raw yet still polished.”

View of the restaurant with its earthy African flavour, hanging plants, spacious interior, exotic finishes and well stocked bar. (Photo: Supplied)

The wood fired grill is at its heart, warming the room and smoking up the atmosphere. Fire is the current trend, everything that can be cooked on fire is cooked on fire.

Personally, I have found fires very disobliging on the whole and once waited for three hours for a potato to be cooked while a friend extolled the virtues of a fire-cooked potato. Fire is only as good as the person making it.

Chef Pavel is the man. He is more than a cook. He understands the staging and drama of a restaurant. Recall Pigalle.

Chef Pavel, the owner and chief cook at Zest. (Photo: Supplied). (Photo: Supplied)

My friend the late Gail Behr, supreme stylist, said fire and ice were always sure successes in the restaurant business and also in finding a rich husband.

Tonight it is a beacon of light, belting out a multi layered, luxurious brightness, rows of lights that shine out against a thin cuticle of pink which is the setting sun in the distance. 

It captures the zeitgeist of Cape Town at the moment, earthy but polished, always producing the unexpected.

The chef Paul (Pavel) Dimitrov is of Bulgarian extraction, a complex man, with the dedication of a priest to producing good food. The food is simple. He does not use gels or powders and you won’t have a night of heavy indigestion.

It is a vocation and produces a slight anxiousness in his demeanour, is it okay? Dedication, attention to minutiae, a desire to please and be of service are a combination that seldom fails.

Plus a real understanding of, mainly good European food with intelligent combinations. Really good food is cooked by bright people who optimise potential, nix short cuts, and respect the raw ingredient.

Norwegian salmon, fennel and charred cauliflower, pumpkin and sweet potato. (Photo: Supplied)

These are some of the imaginative starters, citrus tea cured line fish, pickled cucumber, yoghurt, dill and wasabi dressing.

“I just adored the starters,” a friend says and he eats them all in one go. What is there not to love about charred sweet potato, baby spinach, feta, roasted walnuts and raisins and the small Zest salad is a proper salad unlike most South African salads which are put in the fridge overnight and covered with cellophane wrap, at only R55 for a small salad, it is filled with cos and butter lettuce, avo, tomato, onion, olives, divine.

On arrival we were immediately brought bread, very civilised, and small pots of butter and tomato jam. I chose grilled springbok, carrot and miso puree, garlic confit and carrots.

Fire roasted springbok, onions, pumpkin and carrot sprinkled with watercress. (Photo: Supplied)

I eat a lot of venison and know how difficult it is to get it tender and fresh. It has a habit of suddenly turning an unalluring deep grey colour. This piece, well three pieces were juicy, slightly bloody, soft as egg white. The sauce was nuanced with miso (something I also use a lot of), a touch of garlic and thinly sliced carrots.

All portions come in small, medium or large, a lifesaver for people with small appetites.

We were double questioned on allergies. Turns out most of the Atlantic seaboard have some allergy or other, recall that whiney voice, “I am allergic to dairy.” Well I am here to tell them it is not dairy they are allergic to but the way it is produced. Anyone would be allergic to most commercial milk produced in South Africa because too many cows are grain fed.

View of veranda, heated with gas burners, and lit with traditional Moroccan translucent lights. (Photo: Supplied)

Tonight Zest is full; some people sitting out on the veranda in groups or even standing in the lobby. I love the slightly hotel atmosphere, everyone knows how I love hotels. They are safe in these days of armed robberies and provide underground parking.

Although it is a cold winter night, many people have chosen to sit outside where braziers flame and you can watch a man undressing in the flat opposite.

There are lots of side dishes to mix and match, miso eggplant, side fennel salad, grilled sweet potato, marinated chilli peppers and potato wedges.

My friends both had chicken thighs with cucumber miso, pineapple, sesame, pumpkin seed salad.

Prices are more than reasonable, the small chicken thigh with cucumber miso was R100. I once joined a group demonstrating against pineapple on pizzas and this combo was perhaps a little too sweet but very moreish, chicken soft and thinly roasted to absorb the delicate sauce.

I felt all the dishes had an individuality that was carefully thought out. My friend who suffers from allergies was very enthusiastic about the fact that we practically had to fill in a form about our medical conditions.

This sense of individual attention runs throughout the restaurant. Because it was my birthday, they brought me the most delicious pumpkin cake with grilled pineapple (yep again, obviously not a member of my anti pineapple group) but somehow it worked well together with peanut ice cream.

I can only describe the puddings as flash, full of forgotten tastes like nutmeg and coconut, milk jam and mocha, shards of dark and light chocolate like lightning. With their silky innards, they were sharp and dewy at the same time. Who could resist a lemon and thyme meringue with lemonade parfait soured with spoonfuls of yoghurt.

There is also a taste menu, two tables nearby were whipping through a Catherine wheel of fugitive tastes from wood fire roasted tomatoes to coconut pannacotta, almond brittle and charred baby marrows, R295.

Plus a vegetarian summer menu with inventive suggestions such as charred broccolini stem and, I fear, a bit of grilled pineapple. Mondays to Thursdays only, R245.

The restaurant offers breakfasts, lunch, dinner, oysters, cocktails, and fine wines and bubbly daily. DM/TGIFood

Zest Restaurant | 2nd floor, newkings boutique hotel, Piazza da Luz, 94 Regent Road, Sea Point, Cape Town | Zest

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