Sunsets, mermaids and ‘Durbanism’ crest the Umhlanga wave

Sunsets, mermaids and ‘Durbanism’ crest the Umhlanga wave
Lighthouse lobster, a Sunsets & Mermaids special, featuring wild-caught East Coast crayfish and surf-city tiki-bar ambience with Italian flair. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

Fabled chef Brendan Newport’s intriguing new collaboration blends East Coast cooking, Italian flair and Durban’s surf culture in a high-end tiki-bar, which wakes up at sunset. And talking Umhlanga, it wouldn’t do to leave out The Chefs Table.

If you were to count them, I’d wager that the number of eateries at Umhlanga — inside the malls, along the streets, strips and terraces, butting the beachfront promenade, at the hotels, time-shares and in the office blocks and complexes, on the ridge and in the village — would add up to not having to eat more than once at any of them in a given year. Thinking of the relentless growth, development and extensions going on, maybe make that two years.

So why is it that the last four times I’ve gone to Umhlanga to meet my retired food writer friend, Anne Stevens, for lunch, we’ve gone to the same place? While Anne chooses to no longer write about restaurants, she has anything but retired from keeping on top of who’s doing what in the food zoo in her home town, which for many years has been Umhlanga.

“Isn’t there something new, small, independent, great food, good vibe?” I asked a couple of weeks ago, same as the previous time we were meeting. But as before, no luck. Or good luck, looking at it glass half-full.

Because once again, it was Sunsets & Mermaids. To select from the menu of fabled Durban chef, a long-time favourite of many, Brendon Newport, who seems to have a knack for coming up with compelling concepts and innovative dishes, while at the same time forging collaborating with just the right out-the-box creative partners. What emanates being unerringly suited to the times, the neighbourhood, the prevailing milieu.

Remember Bean Bag Bohemia? The location in Greyville from back in the day has been under renovation seemingly forever. Right next door to Zai Restaurant (Argentinian grill-house, cocktails) in lower Morningside, which — serendipitously? —  attracts the crowds and jams the street just like Bean Bag used to do.

Bean Bag is long gone. But if you were in Durbs between 1995 and 2007, the memory most likely lives on. I was living in California but still, it is indelibly stamped from late-night drop-ins during trips back. A quickie Google and a lot jumps up online. A few words about Bean Bag from a 2007 story by veteran KZN investigative journalist, Fred Kockott: “…a legendary hub for the city’s creative talents, an institution of sorts. Its meals, music and manifesto — “being uninhibited, unbuttoned, creative and free” — (have made it) a regular drawcard for visitors and locals alike.”

Also, from back then, these words from Carol Brown, art curator and a former director of the Durban Art Gallery: “Durban’s Bean Bag Bohemia café, bar and art gallery has become one of the city’s iconic venues, bringing artists, poets, musicians, models and wannabes to their doors. Chef Brendan Newport has turned eating into an art form with creative and exciting food.”

Brendon Newport with kitchen head Londi Ndlela and, from the summer menu, seared sesame-crusted AAA-grade tuna, a dish with history developed by one of Newport’s long-time culinary collaborators, Marcelle Roberts, for Durban’s erstwhile Café 1999. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

On to the present. A week after my lunch with Anne, I head back to talk with Newport about his newest — might I say off-the-wall? — gem in Umhlanga’s little village strip. It is a summer heatwave day. A redemptive sea breeze funnels between the Beverly Hills, with its relaxed ocean-viewing veranda, and the Oyster Box, where one takes visitors to Durban to see the hotel’s over-the-top style and awesome art collection.

While walking from my car it strikes me that Umhlanga, what Wikipedia calls a residential, commercial and resort town, probably has something for everyone. If less for those of us who don’t like to pretend we’re in Dubai, what with the high-rise skyscraping towers and new Oceans Mall featuring Gucci, Armani, Versace and the like.

Or those in the minority, it would seem, who avoid the “English pub” vibe of The (hugely popular) George. And those of us who value the existence of, but aren’t drawn to, the wall-to-wall, low-rise village stretch of chain restaurants with outdoor seating across from Sunsets & Mermaids. And yes, for expediency I will shorten this to S&M. So bind me and flog me.

The summer menu

From the summer menu, Newport has seared sesame-crusted AAA-grade tuna waiting. It is a dish with a history, developed by one of Newport’s long-time culinary collaborators, Marcelle Roberts. The pair, who consulted as a two-person dream team during Covid, graduated at the same time from the late Christina Martin’s famed and acclaimed eponymous Durban culinary school. Roberts had the tuna dish on the menu at Café 1999, for years one of Durban’s top independent restaurants before Covid shuttered it. (Café Monroe is in the spot now, making Durbanites happy.)

East Coast crayfish from the menu. And on the wall, Durban-born 1977 world surfing champ Shaun Tomson’s “pipeline” board, from iconic Durban surfboard shaper Spider Murphy. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

Thinking about it, when Anne and I meet at S&M, it is for the food. The quality of it. The creativity. The flavour. To eat things one hasn’t tried before and wouldn’t make at home, or why bother going out? It goes without saying that first and foremost we are there to get together. To hang out. To catch up. It is choosing a place that is conducive. Otherwise one may as well Zoom or WhatsApp.

In a sense it seems odd that we keep getting pulled back to an upscale tiki-bar, which wakes up at sunset and comes truly alive as the evening wears on.

Newport grew up surfing at South Beach. He talks a lot about “Durbanism”, which he interprets as urban enlightenment and interconnection. “It represents artisanal, communal creativity and entrepreneurship.” The interconnectedness of Durban and Umhlanga, too. Surf Riders Café, now Chef Sam Small-Shaw’s great spot at Addington Beach, was one of his post-Bean Bag ventures. Go there. Ask about Chef Sam’s raved-about speciality menu. Try her Durban-style orange crab curry or her whole roasted wood-fired fish, with or without prawns. Know the prep-time is one hour and 20 minutes so be prepared for the (worthwhile) wait.

“I had glorious, magnificent, over-the-top ideas when we opened Surf Riders,” Newport laughs, warming up to memories. Through a friend who was importing, he “ordered 15 Maine lobsters”. (Mammoth, huge clawed, from North America’s Atlantic coast.) “When they arrived, to cover costs, we realised we would have to sell them at R3,500 each. So had to upsell, yes. But also, back then (around 2010), we were drawing people from Ballito and Umhlanga. Getting a lot of support.”

Newport grew up surfing at South Beach so what’s more apt than a high-end tiki-bar in Umhlanga with seafood, sushi, cocktails and Italian flavours in focus, and telling the story of Durban’s early surf scene with images from the fifties to mid eighties. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

Given that Anne and I are both Durbs women who love the beach, maybe part of the S&M attraction is the framed photos that line the walls depicting Durban beachfront’s surf identity. The history of the city’s surf culture. Images from the fifties to the mid eighties, many of which were previously at a (now closed) surf museum at North Beach.

Newport tells me a board on the wall near the mermaid bar, signed by iconic Durban surfboard shaper Spider Murphy, was Durban-born 1977 world surfing champ Shaun Tomson’s “pipeline” board ridden in the 2008 documentary, Bustin’ Down The Door, featuring Tomson, narrated by Edward Norton.

The documentary chronicles the inception of professional surfing in the early 1970s. Here is a link to the movie’s trailer. And to a cool talk Tomson gave at Google about the film, his philosophy, life and surfing. You never know what rabbit hole the simple act of going out for lunch might take you down.

The S&M menu, in part, is built around tapas and sharing. Here, a dish of light and luscious jiaozi chicken dumplings with soy and sesame and knock-your-head-off chilli. Italian-inspired tapas include polpette (meatballs) and carciofi (an artichoke dish). (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

“We have regular nighttime events so a lot of our menu, representing the best of East Coast living, with a focus on local coastal cooking intermixed with surf culture, is built around tapas and sharing,” says Newport. They’re open from 7am until late, seven days a week “so we have a breakfast menu”.

Italian-themed “Benetello” aka (eggs) Benedict, three versions: streaky bacon and ham, smoked Norwegian salmon, or rosa tomatoes and spinach, all options with toasted ciabatta, perfectly poached eggs and beautiful creamy hollandaise. And surf-themed brekkie bowls with house-made granola, chai seeds and seasonal fruit, these named Mavericks (California), Pipeline (Hawaii), Supertubes (Jeffreys Bay), Uluwatu (Bali) and Teahupo’o (Tahiti).

Dumplings are trending, Newport says. Theirs are made from scratch, natch. In the kitchen using their pasta machine, pasta rolled thin. “Our intention is to encapsulate coastal cooking.” Specifically, East Coast cooking. The jiaozi chicken dumplings and the beef tataki bao buns, Asian-influenced.

Framed surf legend photos on the walls, posters and surfboards hit the lip with the strong seafood focus. The seared tuna comes with sautéed greens, wasabi mash, teriyaki glaze and senpai umami sauce, telling a story of Asian-flair East Coast living. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

It doesn’t take more than a cursory glance through the menu — the pasta section with items such as ravioli di nonna and seafood al forno, the fritto misto, vitello al forno, tapas such as polpette (salsiccia and veal meatballs) and carciofi (a Roman artichoke dish) — to see the Italian influences. Not surprising, as in this venture, Newport’s partner in food is Biaggo Pelliccia, whose late dad bought Taste, a café in nearby La Lucia Mall, in 2012. With him at the helm it became Amici Café.

While on holidays from school (Kearsney), Pelliccia started off cleaning tables. When a little older, he hosted. He generally got to know the food business by helping his dad. 

Post-high school, he played U19 with the Sharks Academy. Then an U20 rugby season in Italy. After an injury, he spent two years working in the Med on yachts. Came back and took over Amici when his dad succumbed to Covid in January 2021.

Mid-year 2023, while planning the summer menu and the direction of S&M menu, Newport, Pelliccia and their charming, silent — but very involved — partner, Alan Williams, who tells me he was in IT all his life until now, did a research and development trip to New York, Italy and London.

In New York, it was a week in Hell’s Kitchen. A stint in the kitchen for Newport at Italian-themed ViceVersa. They ate at iconic Balthazar, Pastis, Katz’s Deli and David Chang’s two-Michelin starred Momofuku Ko (which closed in November).

In Italy, Newport worked in the kitchen with a couple of “Italian mamas” and through Pelliccia’s Italian connections they had dinner in the kitchen with acclaimed chef, Valentino Marcattilii, at Ristorante San Domenico near Bologna. They now have Marcattilii’s famous ravioli al uovo (egg yolk raviolis) on the S&M menu (as Ravioli di San Domenico). 

“We do a new menu every three to four months. Seasonal. We came back and rewrote the menu from the ideas and experiences.”

The Chefs’ Table executive chef, Calvin Metior, left, changes the menu daily. In the open-plan kitchen with Morgan Liebenberg and Keolan Mudaly, he serves up locally caught sous vide Cape salmon with mango chutney and cauliflower done three ways. And (insert) an artichoke dish with truffle emulsion and porcini powder. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

In a village full of franchises, S&M is one of the few independents. They are next door to Tiki Tonga Coffee, which matches them well in vibe and is all but independent, the roastery being in London and it being the only Tiki Tonga in KZN. To give Umhlanga shoutouts, Anne is always up for Grimaldi’s, where she enthuses over the lightness, the perfection, of the gorgonzola gnocchi. She will be tempted by Joita’s (Portuguese) anytime. And by African Roots Coffee, where they have just extended the menu and changed roasters. And an Umhlanga foodie friend recently had a heartening experience at Mo Noodles (Asian fusion), which is holding its own several years after moving from Durban to Umhlanga.

S&M is directly under The Chefs’ Table, one of KZN’s top restaurants since it opened with Chef Kayla-Ann Osborn at the helm. Where I would choose to go for a special occasion any time, any night. Executive chef, Calvin Metior, who has been there a year, arrived with significant fine-dining experience, having worked with and been inspired by Mark Hix, one of Britain’s most celebrated chefs and restaurateurs.

In London the Durban-born chef also spent time in the kitchen at Plateau restaurant (contemporary French, now closed). Then at the Michelin-starred Angler (seafood). And at the (then) 2-Michelin star The Flitch of Bacon (now Pig & Truffle).

“We print a new menu daily. Soon as I find a new ingredient, something is in season or the temperature changes,” he says.

For our photoshoot, he prepped his last of the season artichokes, from spring (“we cooked and preserved them”).

“We made a truffle emulsion with saved winter truffles (from Kokstad). Put on a 36-month-aged Gruberg from Stanford (Klein River). Then we put a little mixed wild herb salad on top and dusted it with porcini powder (mushrooms from Kokstad, like the truffles, but a different farm).”

On the other plate, “our sous vide line fish. Cape salmon caught in local waters by the guys from Bartho’s. It’s summertime and we have beautiful mangoes, so we made a mango chilli chutney and we did a curried cauliflower purée, a curried cauliflower couscous and a curried cauliflower and coconut velouté (sauce).”

Back to Newport. He’ll be extending the Durbanism concept, taking the Sunsets & Mermaids identity to Cape Town on 23 March. Joining former collaborators, culinary entrepreneur and influencer Guy Wood, and former Durban restaurateur now based in Amsterdam, Neil Roake. The three will be making the Shit Hot Fest happen. Check it out. DM

Follow Sunsets & Mermaids on Instagram and on Facebook and Brendon Newport on Instagram. Follow The Chefs Table on Instagram and on Facebook.

Follow Wanda on Instagram @wanda_hennig_new



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