What’s happening on the Jozi food scene – and what we didn’t see happening

What’s happening on the Jozi food scene – and what we didn’t see happening
Jozi food encapsulated: Top left and centre, from Basalt, are crispy wild boar and figs with mozzarella and roasted walnuts, and crisped, aged carrot (there’s a version made with gurnard) with broad bean hollandaise, rocket essence and borage. Bottom left, from Gigi, is a sweet potato main that features a date mole, pineapple achar, wild rice and beans. Bottom centre, Paris Brest from La Tarte. On the right: patisserie by La Tarte (it’s not artwork, it’s real). (Photos: Supplied)

Once again we bring you bang up to date on what’s new in the so-called north and what you may have missed here in the South African food capital of Johannesburg.

Everyone wants to know about Gigi. Whether all the hype is justified. Whether Gigi is slipping up or taking people’s breath away. But “just opened” is an unfair time for restaurants, no matter how strong the expectation. I really want to experience the breadth and depth of what one of our most talented chefs in the country, Besele Moses Moloi, can do at his very own place. All the chef awards he’s received have been at other people’s places, like Zioux in Sandton particularly. He was head chef at FYN in Cape Town during award years too. But let’s give him some time.

I have David Higgs of the Marble Group to thank for first mentioning what a talent he is, even before those awards, so have been following him for a time. I’ve eaten his Zioux food quite a few times and have even had the pleasure of attending a dinner cheffed by both Candice Philip the great, and Moses Moloi at last year’s Luxe Restaurant Awards in Rosebank.

Gigi, like all major restaurants, was late in the completion, late in the opening but somehow managed to swing open its beautiful doors at Waterfall Corner in Midrand, for Valentine’s Day, just a month ago. Moloi has hardly had a chance to breathe yet. The place is doing breakfasts, lunches and à la carte dinners, Mondays to Sundays. The food concept has been described as “South African flavours with an international twist”. That expression, “with a twist”, not Baloi’s, regarding restaurant food I find madly irritating mainly because so many people love to repeat it as much as they once did “fusion”. But his South African food tenet is great. In no time he’ll be judged internationally for awards, and local is what those judges and we want to see. Baloi has travelled a lot, so many dishes can’t help reflecting some of it too. He’s just told me that he’s waiting for all the dust to settle and, in a month or two, he’ll have that Gigi tasting menu ready. I’ll be there for TGIFood.

Having spoken of the great chef Candice Philip, she, not surprisingly, turned down a recent offer to back what was expected to be her next dream restaurant, when she spotted another agenda lurking. She’s all for integrity and we’re all for her being able to reflect more of her talent at its fullest and finest, as she’s already done, winning global awards for us.

Food I Love You is the site of the prison kitchen in days of scary yore. Right: It’s a marvellously moody space and Mpho Phalane makes even more of it with her good taste. (Photos: Marie-Lais Emond)

In Braamfontein, actually atop Constitution Hill, I’m putting my imaginary future food awards money on Food I Love You. Ex-advertising exec, now self-taught chef, Mpho Phalane is just what Constitution Hill needed. She has a good and relevant restaurant there in the very place where the prison kitchen stood in days of scary yore. The ConCourt judges eat there today. The overseas visitors eat there. It’s a marvellously moody space and she makes even more of it with her good taste. I love being there. The staff are fun and intelligent, the wines are remarkable, chosen by Clive Hlabathe, a favourite oenophile of mine because of his exciting, contemporary examples and who I last saw at Les Creatifs.

Mpho’s food hits the right-now culinary note, based on African and South African dishes and ingredients. At lunch she lays on a moreish, very seasonal, very fresh buffet style thing, plates weighed, etc, but, my heavens, it’s an excellent version. From May, Food I Love You will be open over weekends as well as weekdays. There’ll also be a set three-course menu lunch available if there are 10 or more people, served sharing style.

What’s been thoroughly missed by the people with the tick-box lists is And Then There Was Fire. I’d say there’s no restaurant award that’s been created for places on the border of two provinces, though just outside Jozi, that’s in an outdoor gallery (Nirox). And then what would the category be? It’s too difficult for ticking boxes because it defies categories, as you can see here. There’s the exquisite lightness of digging your toes into pale sand. Of white gauzy panels floating in the breeze, over pale wood. It must be the most simply-beautiful restaurant in South Africa and maybe our most enjoyably whole experience.

Rustic looking plates of food that would be difficult to replicate, simple as it may look. At And then there was Fire. (Photo: Supplied)

The name refers to the place being in the Cradle of Humankind and there is a wonderful wall of fire for meats and just as especially, vegetables. Bernardo Corti’s simple-seeming dishes are constantly changing, being invented, often assisted by the international guest chefs-in-residence programme. The food is the sort you can’t replicate, simple as it may look, because even the ingredients here have been made from scratch, from those growing and walking in the environs. On the menu at present is a Next-door Farm Oxtail Stew. That sort of thing.

On the Basalt menu right now is something I dream about, Crispy Wild Boar and Figs, with mozzarella and roasted walnuts (left). Crisped, aged carrot (right, and there’s a version made with gurnard) with broad bean hollandaise, rocket essence and borage. (Photos: Supplied)

Something that often slips the glib lists of “finests” is a restaurant in a hotel. In this case, the restaurant is in the grounds of a Melrose North boutique hotel, The Peech, and the restaurant is Basalt.

“Ufff, how come I didn’t think of Basalt?” is the sort of thing we say when we’re quizzing each other for the most exciting and rewarding dinner suggestions of the day. “Of course! Basalt. What’s he got on the menu at the moment?” Maybe it’s because we’re right here within this huge spread of 800 restaurants all over Johannesburg that we’re so spoiled for choice. When there, you hear accents at other tables of people from all over the world but also see many locals dining, who obviously aren’t as daffy as we are. In fact, you do need to book.

I think the “big secret” of chef James Diack’s dishes is taste. No, really! I’ve spent the past two decades proving to myself that organic, responsible, sustainable, natural food tastes way nicer, of itself, than even the almost organic versions. And all of James’s food is grown specially for his restaurants, especially Basalt, on the very naturally run family farm, Brightside. The animals are grown there too by his mom. Real boars romp around under the trees. Real everything is there, except potatoes. They’re the only things he won’t grow, for free-range snuffling animal reasons. “Imagine!” he tries to say, laughing helplessly. Sometimes people insist on ocean fish (Basalt likes to use local freshwater fish) and then it’s specially pole-caught by the designated fisherman.

The sausages and cheeses are made on the farm too, like the ferments and pickles and preserves. This is the tasting menu with ultimate taste. Artful and accomplished fine dining expert that James is, he never lets a culinary process interfere with that special taste of his Basalt food, the exquisite taste of fresh from the soil or off the land.

On first sight of this photograph, your Food Editor thought he was looking at a painting. Patisserie by La Tarte, sold at various markets. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

There’s recently been an almighty burst onto the patisserie scene. La Tarte is a food phenomenon, the likes of which we haven’t seen outside Paris. And it’s here in Jozi, reaping superlative after superlative.

Now many of us remember Jared Melamed, who I have also written about, at Sotto Sopra, doing wow food which was certainly not Italian nonna style. Nevertheless, he took the foodies here by storm, but what he was also doing was deliberately making enough money to start the French patisserie of his life. Instead, his real Italian partner pulled out and all of Jared’s equity and equipment went with him. So Jared has started anyway, from scratch, in a ghost kitchen in Sandton. He sells at the French top-notch markets mostly and people say every day that they can’t believe it’s not Paris.

He’s not a chef. Jared taught himself his patisserie by book-studying the old French master chefs, emulating what they did for more than 13 of his years while diving professionally in the East. He’d visit Paris at least once a year, patisserie by patisserie. Then he’d watch and follow the new patissiers. Even in Paris there are famous patissiers who have largely taught themselves.

He once told me that while he was washing his vest and underpants in a river in Cambodia one hot afternoon, he swore he would do this one day. He has.

One place that I had not ever seen happening, until a few days ago, is where I went to interview the chef grandson of an Italian prisoner of war, for an Italian lifestyle piece. I followed the directions to a small centre in Bryanston, to a deli called The Italian Job. I walked in slowly, marvelling, and walked and walked and walked.

Chef Lorenzo Mottalini in his enormous and very Italian deli, left, and right, one small part of Lorenzo’s deli. (Photo Marie-Lais Emond)

It could easily have been a super contender for our Rise of the Superdelis story if it hadn’t been started by chef Lorenzo Mottalini one and a half decades ago. He and his cousin Claudia built the interior themselves, a lot of it with wood from the deck of her swimming pool. There are shop spaces within the shop and a section that’s a daytime restaurant, particularly well known, though never before to me, as a fantastic Sunday lunch place. It’s another place that requires booking for those lunches. I think the daily ones are okay just to arrive for. Last Sunday there was both roasted duck and rabbit cacciatore as secondi, among the pastas and other primi and dolci.

It’s very Italian and quite Piemontese because that PoW granddad came from the Valle d’Aosta way up in the north. As a deli, it sells cheeses, cured meats, salumi, sausages, pickles, vinegars, mustards, wines, fresh Italian-favoured vegetables, own-blend delicious coffee, pastries, premises-made breads, pastas, cans of various things, many of them artichokes, I note.

I’ve since heard from Italian friends that this place is a helluva find. Not only for Italians but anyone who appreciates the food. No one, by the way, ever gets to say here that they’d like something instead of what’s in a dish or that they don’t eat certain things. No. And on Fridays it’s fish.

Three very Jozi food institutions are seldom seen happening by the rest of the country, most probably because they also defy restaurant categories. They are not the only, but these three are the renowned, the esteemed. They could be called dinner clubs or private restaurants and they are all personality driven.

The most popular, especially with visitors from other countries but also with constant local fans like myself, is the Yeoville Dinner Club. Sanza Sandile cooks the many dishes spread the length of the table and never runs out of entertaining stories about the pan-African foods. Most ingredients are sourced from the Yeoville market that spreads over a whole block almost opposite the two-storey building that houses the “club”.

Su-Yen Thornhill has an eccentric mother who may or may not have been a Chinese chef but certainly knew how to cook, and married a landed Scotsman. Her family-chosen nickname was Mrs Fong. Su-yen’s weekly dinners in South Africa are booked as Chez Fong. Part of her Forest Town home is given over to these weekly “pan-far-Eastern meals”.  Su-yen is a wonderfully energetic raconteuse, who prepares all the many courses right in front of guests and serves everyone, just with one assistant. Guests return and return.

Nick Scott started an exceptional restaurant with his then wife, Carolina Rasenti. It was the Great Eastern Food Bar in Melville and there was nothing like it for vibe and food. He went on to run a very interesting almost-hole-in-the-wall place, called Glory, also in Melville that served two kinds of chicken dishes, both stupendously tasty, using birds he was breeding. And hanging. 

It became something of a legend. Together with his current partner, stylist and designer Caroline Olavarrieta, he started popular dinner evenings in Westdene, popped up at Brik café and The Artivist and is now doing the evenings in Parktown North, which is what he’s been working towards. He particularly likes cooking vegetables, also freshwater fish, a good idea for Jozi restaurants, with his Asian culinary slant. The next event is always on Instagram. It’s become a must-do among the food fixated.

Jozi is so spread out and such a lot of it is very good food, it’s hard to know exactly where to eat the most rewarding meals if you don’t live here. This should help you know what’s happening and even what slips our minds in the welter of choice. DM 

Gigi | Waterfall Shopping Centre, Midrand| to book:  

Food I Love You | Constitution Hill, Human Rights Precinct, Braamfontein | 079 386 8786

And Then There Was Fire… | NIROX Sculpture Park, Cradle of Humankind | to book:

Basalt Restaurant | The Peech Hotel, 61 North St, Melrose | 011 537 9797

La Tarte Patisserie | 082 601 7877 | instagram: @latarte_patisserie

The Italian Job Deli | Posthouse St, Bryanston | 083 634 0947

Yeoville Dinner Club | 24 Rockey St, Bellevue | 083 447 4235 Whatsapp!

Chez Fong | Forest Town (address supplied with booking) | 074 361 9079

Glory 17 4th Ave, Parktown North | 063 766 1238 | instagram: @gloryjoburg 


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