FINE DINING ANTIDOTE
Three new Cape Town restaurants rocking the casual vibe
Where to eat when you want great food and a lively vibe in Cape Town? Head to one of these three new spots: Boma on Bree, Therapy, and Vadivelu.
Awards season is in full swing and the spotlight is firmly on our stars in the fine dining firmament. But there’s a lot more to the Cape Town food scene than a series of tasting menus.
Don’t get me wrong… I love fine dining, and they thoroughly deserve these accolades, but for me a meal at the likes of Pier, Fyn and Salsify is a special occasion affair, something to be looked forward to and savoured. There’s a tendency for visitors to Cape Town to skim the awards lists and cram the cream of the crop into one week of culinary excess, thereby doing their palates (and livers) a disservice, and missing out on the sheer variety that is to be found in the Mother City. And for locals who don’t have the budget to even aspire to jaded palates, there are so many exciting unsung food experiences to be discovered.
So let’s put the spotlight on three upbeat and upmarket (but not a tasting menu in sight) Cape Town eateries that have opened in the last six months, don’t appear on any awards lists (yet) and serve flavour-packed food in a relaxed and vibey atmosphere.
Boma on Bree – fire-cooking with an upbeat vibe
Walking past on Bree Street you’re likely to be ambushed by enticing aromas of lamb ribs sizzling over an open fire, which lure you in to Boma on Bree, and the first thing you’ll notice about the décor is the cactus theme.
“I’ve always had an affinity for the desert,” says co-owner Reg Macdonald. “Pini (his wife and business partner) and I go on trips to Namibia and through the Karoo on my vintage Harley Davidson, so Boma is inspired by all the things I love about the desert.”
People see the cactus and think Mexican, an easy mistake to make, but the idea behind Boma is to showcase the fire-cooked flavours of South Africa (not a quesadilla in sight).
“Pini and I point out that we have cactus in the Karoo as well,” Reg says. The quiver tree in a planter by the door is pure Southern African desert, as are the warm oranges, ochres and muted greens of the boma-style seating, and the collections of vintage kitchenware reminiscent of an old Karoo homestead.
Recreating the fireside intimacy of the traditional African boma, (with the addition of a lively bar and upbeat soundtrack), Reg and Pini already knew they wanted the food to have a fire element — but the concept really came into focus when they ate at the Edge pop-up at the Mount Nelson earlier this year and met chef Vusi Ndlovu and Absie Pantshwa.
“Andrew Nel (of Frankie Fenner Meat Merchants) suggested they would be the best people to execute the vision I had. After dinner at Edge, we started chatting and we clicked from day one. Our food philosophy is to be on the same level of quality as fine dining, but presented in a dressed-down informal way,” Reg says.
“Vusi and I try extremely hard to make it look like we’re not trying hard. It looks simple but it’s carefully thought out. It’s not a suit, it’s jeans and sneakers… designer sneakers if you look carefully.”
Absie is the front-of-house manager and business whizz who has partnered with Vusi since the start of his nomadic Edge restaurant concept. Now that they have found a permanent home at Boma, she’s at the pass keeping things running smoothly and telling the stories, while Vusi and team deftly work wonders over the open fires.
Absie brings us lightly poached oysters with a fermented chilli sauce which has a story all its own. Three years ago in Franschhoek, Vusi made a batch to preserve a whole bag of chillies he was given, then forgot it on a back shelf. Three years on it turned out to be chilli perfection.
“He’s a real lab guy when it comes to fermentation, now he’s trying to reverse engineer it,” she says, before moving on to explain the inspiration behind the Boma menu.
“When we moved here, we wanted to find out what Capetonians actually eat. We never found one place that pays homage to it all — there’s an Afrikaans kitchen, a Xhosa kitchen, a Cape Malay kitchen, shisa nyama … So when we were talking to Reg and Pini, we said, let’s come up with something that all Capetonians will recognise and resonate with, but make it a little bit fancier. We also wanted tourists to have somewhere to come and taste all the flavours of Cape Town. Every single dish has a fire element.”
We’re tucking into a blister-edged bread (askoek) cooked in the coals and served with gorgeously simple chicken fat butter.
“In Xhosa culture there are road runner chickens — umleqwa — a full-on free-range chicken,” Absie says. “We use the offcuts from the chicken dishes to make this butter. It’s a two-day process. Vusi grills the skin and bones over the fire, then makes an emulsion of the yellow chicken fat, and then whips in butter for creaminess.” It’s delicious.
Vusi runs a no-waste kitchen, so comes up with inventive ways to use every last scrap. And the menu rolls with the seasons.
“The farmers tell us what they’ve got, the chefs are very versatile,” Absie continues. “We get a surprise box from Oranjezicht City Farm and it really is a surprise, whatever is in the garden today. Andy Nel from Frankie Fenner worked with Vusi on a special Boma burger patty, lamb sausage, spicy boerewors. And we get meat from Ryan Boon and Oom Eddie.”
Reg jumps in to explain that Amy and Steven Kitsoff (the red-headed Springbok) are partners in the business.
“Amy grew up in the Karoo on a sheep farm near Beaufort West, so she insisted we try her dad Oom Eddie’s lamb,” he says. “He’s like a mad scientist with sheep and raises the dorper, which is a meat sheep. He feeds them a specific natural grain and he’s got the tastiest sheep in the world.”
Soon we’re tucking into a plate of perfectly grilled lamb ribs, juicy, full of flavour and with the fat melting and crisp. These are the source of those tantalising aromas spilling out onto Bree Street. Every last Sunday of the month you’ll find them going the extra mile with lamb spitbraais, whole sheep roasting on the pavement.
If you need any more home-grown nostalgia, a taste of the jaffle takes you back to childhood memories — 60-day-aged raclette cheese and a homemade blatjang (Cape Malay chutney) made from an old recipe Vusi discovered. Or the leeks (roasted in the coals), cheese and mushroom dish that is a moreish melty indulgence inspired by Vusi’s nostalgic memory of a Simba chip flavour. We finished with churros (the only nod to Mexican on the menu). These, though, are pampoen churros, the pumpkin roasted over the fire before being whisked into the cold kitchen to make the churro batter, and a divine cinnamon-scented pumpkin butterscotch sauce.
Therapy — an inclusive upmarket eatery
Equally rooted in South African flavours, with a contemporary flourish of upmarket chic, Therapy (just off Kloof Street next door to Thali) is the long-held dream of Cape Town-born and Khayelitsha-bred DJs and creatives, Loyiso Mdebuka and Vincent Mvelase Manzini (aka DJ Loyd and Sir Vincent).
“On my first TV job, we used to shoot across the road and have Friday drinks here, back when it was Manos,” says Loyd. “I used to joke with my friends that one day I’ll own this place. Fast-forward a few years and here we are.”
They see themselves as black pioneers in the city.
“There wasn’t another young black-owned establishment in the city centre, we’re first of our kind. As someone who comes from Cape Town, we wanted to open those doors.”
The restaurant is chic and comfortable, upmarket but relaxed, with glass doors folding back onto a wide front terrace for summer.
“More than just a restaurant we wanted a space where we join as a community,” says Vincent. “Conversations that are meaningful happen in such spaces, over good food, nice fine wine. We’re progressive people and we want to build a society that is equally progressive, from all walks of life. We all know what the past was like… for us to go forward it needs all of us to be inclusive.”
The name came from the idea that connecting over a table is healing.
“In African black language there is no word for therapy,” says Loyd. “It’s taboo to attend therapy. This is a subliminal reminder of the need to seek therapy. And the therapeutic function of honest, deep chats with your friends over great food.”
For menu development, they turned to chef Paolo Santo of Gemelli in Joburg (Gemelli owner, Alex Khojane, is one of their partners at Therapy). As we tuck into sticky lamb ribs piled high on a couscous salad with dollops of harissa mayo and topped with pistachio granola, it’s clear that this is generous food that packs a flavour punch, with a few contemporary flourishes but no pretence. Definitely feel-good food.
The ribs would have happily done me as a main course although they’re on the small plates section of the menu, designed for sharing; the same for the buttermilk fried chicken thighs, piping hot and served with apple slaw and ginger sweet soy. There are lavish pasta dishes and straightforward meat mains: braised beef short rib on polenta with gremolata; sole with caper butter; lamb loin chops, comfort food for the soul.
Food, cocktails and fine wine are the primary focus, with regular live music sessions and plenty of space to let your hair down, but Loyd emphasises that “we want to authentically grow the experience without making it a party venue”.
“A restaurant speaks to us in food, creating community, and it’s therapy,” says Vincent. “This is what is missing in the city, in the country, in the world. Come feeling heavy, leave feeling lighter.”
Vadivelu — Indian with attitude
This Kloof Street newcomer has taken over the space that used to be Manna Epicure and has been a local magnet since the first day it opened back in June. Warm orange and sage tones, a prowling Tamil tiger mosaic at the entrance and chic jungle wallpaper (by designer Cara Saven) clue you in that Vadivelu is a new breed of Indian restaurant.
Their mantra too… Indian with Attitude. It’s very Kloof Street chic, but is a family affair at heart: cousins Jason and Kevin, and their brother-in-law Tim, got together wanting to change the idiom of the traditional Indian restaurant without losing the essence.
“Jason and myself worked in the Maharajah (on Kloof Nek Road) growing up,” says Kevin. “Everything we know we learned from our uncle there. It just grew on us, this was our calling. We never looked at it as a job, it’s a passion, something to be proud of. At Vadivelu it’s like you’re coming to my home. And like in any Indian household, it’s customary that you never leave hungry, you must be holding your belt! So we’re always happy to send you home with takeaway containers of leftovers.”
South African born, their family heritage is South Indian, hence the Tamil tigers.
“Our chef Jai is from South India and he studied in Tamil Nadu – he can do the dosas and everything,” says Jason. The dosas being traditional fermented rice and lentil pancakes: perfectly thin, the width of a large frying pan, they come wrapped around a delicious filling of either potato masala, chicken or lamb curry alongside coconut and curry dipping sauces — we shared ours between two as a starter.
They’re staying true to the flavours of South Indian cuisine, but updating the presentation, so the pani puri curry bombs (stuffed with a savoury potato, mint and thick tamarind sauce and topped up with a tamarind water shooter) come on Mervyn Gers plates, as does the delicious prawn tikka from the tandoori oven.
We liked the easy approach on the wine menu, three price tiers and a selection within each, so you just have to decide how rich you’re feeling. Tim professes to be a wine lover, not a sommelier, but has done a great job of choosing accessible wines that partner well with spice.
“We have lots of shiraz and chenins, something with a bit of pepper in it to go well with the spice,” he says. “Alsatian wines like Gewürztraminer, an absolutely beautiful wine that is too floral to drink by itself, go beautifully with a chicken curry. Riesling as well, that sweetness balances it out.”
We fell in love with the Saronsberg Provenance Shiraz, delicious with the rich and fragrant lamb tikka masala.
Dessert tends to be overlooked on the Indian menu and, truth be told, on our first visit we were indeed holding our belts as we staggered off with leftovers, without even glancing at dessert. But on a return visit, we held back and were rewarded with the ultimate comfort food: a not-too-sweet version of a southern Indian rice pudding (payasam) delicately spiced and with a savoury poppadom for contrast. And the equally charming semolina (suji), buttery and warmly scented, like a hug, with cinnamon and cardamom.
With Cape Town’s streets bursting with food experiences as varied as these, your palate never needs to become jaded. DM
Boma on Bree https://thefirmct.co.za/boma
For more about Therapy https://www.therapyrestaurant.co.za/
Follow Kit Heathcock on Instagram @kitheathcock