TGIFOOD

BEAT THIS, CAPE TOWN

The holy grail of a fine restaurant — and it’s in Durban

The holy grail of a fine restaurant — and it’s in Durban
The Richters, Johanna, left, and Johannes, welcoming us in person on arrival at The LivingRoom at Summerhill in Cowies Hill, Durban. Left, the sublime mussel dish. Right, that lamb neck with its marvellous pair of sauces, a magical lamb jus and a Cheddar cheese sauce which, despite how odd it might seem, made perfect sense on the palate. (Photos: Tony Jackman)

The LivingRoom at Summerhill has everything. It’s beautiful. It’s gracious. Its cuisine is original, distinctive, glorious yet restrained. And it is very hard to beat, because almost every other top South African restaurant would have to rethink its very oeuvre to match it.

This was rarer than a blue moon, and it had a meteoric impact on my palate. I felt side-swiped by flavour, knocked back in my chair. I had put to my mouth a spoonful of a mussel and lime leaf reduction sauce served by Chef Johannes Richter at The LivingRoom at Summerhill in Durban. It was the most delectable spoonful of ANYTHING I have eaten in years.

But wait, there was more. Several courses later, there came barbecue lamb neck with all manner of things, but finishing it off, a lamb jus and a Cheddar cheese sauce. You couldn’t begin to have the slightest idea how delicious this was, because delicious just does not begin to cut it. A new word needs to be invented for this. 

And the marigold granita. Marigold! What!? Green. Luminescent. Shining, beguiling. And it tasted like no morsel of anything that has ever found my palate.

The house viewed from the pool area. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

What are all the Cape Town chefs doing while this man is cooking this extraordinary food, this cuisine that digs deep into what grows and shuffles and breathes all around this restaurant within a 100 km radius (or, to be more precise, 90% of it comes from that radius, allowing a little room for things that come from, say, Tanzania)?

A part of the interior. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

And whoever thought of mussels and lime leaf in a sauce to go with a small course of yes, mussels, and turned out a sauce so exquisite that I couldn’t help myself, I got up and walked across to Johanna Richter at the other end of the room and said I’m sorry to swear Johanna, but this is the most fucking delicious thing I have eaten in my entire fucking life. And far from being offended at my profanity she clasped her hands with delight and ran to the kitchen to tell Johannes.

And more of the interior. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

So, yes, their names are almost identical, Johannes the Durban boy who had the privilege of growing up in this beautiful thatch-roofed house in a lush garden, and Johanna, the Austrian girl Johannes met while they were both working at the three-Michelin-star Restaurant Rutz in Berlin.

Johanna Hebenstreit, a dark-haired beauty from Sankt Veit an der Glan in Carinthia, Austria, where the legendary chef Wolfgang Puck was born, and Johannes Richter, a boy from Pinetown, KwaZulu-Natal who had been studying law and statistics but somehow they hadn’t taken. The dollar signs he’d had in his eyes were switched off when it dawned on him that it was cooking that made him happy. Johanna, meanwhile, had had a bit of a love affair with Africa — he was cheffing at Restaurant Rutz and she was a waitress, they clicked, and they married a year later.

The rest of the story moves to Cowies Hill, where they run their restaurant at Johannes’ family home of Summerhill, where what is now called The LivingRoom really was his childhood lounge, where he cooks his delectably subtle food in the kitchen while Johanna operates front-of-house. She is the sommelier, and one of few who in my experience truly gets the matching of wine to particular foods, but she runs the room too, with effortless precision.

Then, one day, came glory. At the 2022 edition of the annual Eat Out Awards, suddenly the room fell silent (this being in Cape Town, you understand) when a flippin’ restaurant from Durban was announced as restaurant of the year. Huh? I wrote this about it, and my story sure did make waves. They were also awarded three stars, the highest accolade.

Then, a year later, in November 2023, the Eat Out people really messed things up, downgrading their restaurant to two stars, which was one of the chief reasons why chef Kobus van der Merwe of Wolfgat, Paternoster fame decided he was going to step out from the cheffy pack and speak what was on his mind. Which he did with aplomb, winning the admiration and respect of chefs throughout the country. And the reasons for challenging it are valid, because as any seasoned chef will tell you, no professional restaurateur worth his Maldon salt is going to lower standards after winning accolades at that level. So where, they are all asking, is the consistency? But credit where it’s due because the Eat Out people rose to the challenge and have rethought the way these things are judged.

So, I had to go there myself.

Down to business

We were in Durban, and I’d started the day with a long stroll along the promenade from roughly where the Maharani Hotel is to the port end, where there was a huge, white cruise ship at berth further along the lengthy harbour. I thought of it as a sort of port day in Durban, imagining the passengers all disembarking and wondering what they might do. Just as, not long ago, I had had a port day in Cape Town and had walked through the city to have lunch at FYN. I wrote about that fine day here.

But here’s the thing: we all know that all of the really great restaurants are in Cape Town, obviously, that there is surely nowhere in Joburg worth dining out at if you like the fine end of good food, and that Durban’s cuisine is barely existent. Right? So, all of those fabulous curries to be found throughout the city, they all just don’t count, right?

Into that milieu comes a restaurant that is like no other in Durban, in the province, in the country and most likely in the world. A venue that uses only local ingredients (well, 90%) and as Johannes says, everyone thought they were mad, were taking an insane gamble, it could not possibly work.

Yet, here we are. They have found the pinnacle. Even if the approach to their place is unassuming, even mysterious. A gate with much foliage behind it. A path. A white house with a thatched roof, light pouring out of broad windows suggesting life, laughter and the tinkle of cutlery on porcelain within.

And on your plate, and on your fork, the richness of the soil and greenery, the msobo berries and the lime leaves, not far away from that front door. Seeded crispbread and homemade sourdough “aromatised” with lime and coriander seeds. Fresh and preserved mango salad with cottage cheese and spiced cashew crunch. Marula soup with “last year’s marula vinegar”. That’s just the bread course.

The bread course. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Balls of watermelon with homemade heirloom chipotle sauce, a salad of fermented watermelon skin and feta pearls. Surrounded by chipotle mayonnaise and a coriander mole. Finished off with a watermelon gazpacho.

Watermelon. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Bushmans River trout ceviche from the Drakensberg with amasi tiger’s milk, preserved lemon oil, a pumpkin flower filled with smoked trout rillette, amasi and onion crunch.

Bushmans River trout from the Drakensberg. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Aqua-cultured mussels are next, and mussels, Johannes says, are “the most sustainable seafood”, and everything the Richters do has everything to do with sustainability. “We want to leave as little impact on the beautiful environments/ecosystems around us as possible,” he tells me. They try to use only ingredients “that are category one on the nova scale, small suppliers (90% in a 100km radius, using endemic and indigenous wild food (venison, fungi, fruit, plants), cutting single-use plastic out completely and harvesting our power from the sun”.

Mussels and that sauce. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Presented to you are sweetcorn amagwinya, peri-peri mussels, a sweetcorn chip, smoked mussel tartar, and that mussel and lime leaf velouté, the velouté evidence of his French training only a few kilometres from the French Alps. I could have drunk a jug of that sauce.

Vanessa Collocott’s hand reared chicken, magicked into a sublime dish by Johannes Richter. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

The next course celebrates the chickens of Vanessa Collocott’s Blue Orange Farm, nearby. “To show as much respect (as possible) to the organically grown chicken, and ensure nothing goes to waste.” Golden nugget squash. Sugo of chicken hearts, “like a saucy savoury mince”. Parfait of chicken liver with prune gel and a pumpkin salad. Crisp, dry-aged chicken skin with a prune glaze. The chickens are “90 days free-ranged, five days dry-aged, slaughtered at the farm”. 

The Wagyu brisket bitterballen. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Wagyu tartar with heirloom tomatoes, bitterballen of braised and pulled brisket, imbuya (wild amaranth), fermented tomato sauce, an amaranth cracker and preserved tomatoes. Tomato and beef, perfect.

The lamb neck and those two amazing sauces. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Midlands lamb neck, so golden brown and succulent, as perfect as it gets. With pigeon pea purée, sundried tomato paste, a ball of matured Cheddar cheese, and a pair of sauces: lamb jus and cheddar cheese sauce, in a little side jug. They intermingled on the plate like lovers slinking past each other in a slow dance after everyone else in the nightclub has gone home. They belonged together. That is what makes a great chef.

A palate cleanser arrived to clear the way for two desserts: plum sorbet with kombucha gel and preserved galangal. 

The main dessert celebrated msobo berries (African nightshade). Banana bread with caramelised pecan nut butter and fresh msobo berries. Sorghum beer espuma with pecan nut ice cream and msobo berry jam. Amabele panna cotta with msobo berry sauce and “crispy textures” (msobo meringue, sorghum chips, green banana chips, pecans).

And finally, “mango and pumpkin seeds”. A Tanzanian chocolate tartlet, praline, dried mango and pumpkin seeds. Sort of sweet yet savoury. Balance.

A subtle and gentle end to a fine repast, a meal like no other. The Eat Out judges (first time around) were right. (The second bunch of judges were wrong in downgrading them because of the ablution facilities, for God’s sake: There is nothing wrong with the toilets, they are perfectly pleasant and clean. What did they want, an actual throne?)

Johannes Richter laughing when I popped my head into the kitchen to tell him that I had photographed the toilet, right, and that I had found it perfectly satisfactory despite the Eat Out judges’ concerns. (Photos: Tony Jackman)

Judge a restaurant by its food, and little else. I could have eaten this meal in a shed. A pinnacle has indeed been reached. And they have reached that pinnacle by doing something that shouldn’t have worked or found a market. You might think, as I did, that most of their customer base would be foreign tourists. Because that is largely what is going down in all of those fancy-schmancy fine dining palaces at the Cape. But no: chef Johannes is doing something that hardly anyone in Cape Town is doing, serving local ingredients to local people. 

And guess what? Seventy to 80% of the customers at The LivingRoom are Durbanites. Almost the entire house. Which makes Durban a massive golden opportunity for creative chefs. An untapped market. And what’s more, it’s completely democratically mixed.

All of this adds up to something. And what it adds up to is that Eat Out got it right in 2022, if not in 2023. That The LivingRoom at Summerhill is indeed the best restaurant in the country if that is measured by the following things:

  • Creates top-level cuisine with originality and flair;
  • Celebrates the ingredients in their close vicinity, using those ingredients with care and ingenuity; and
  • Serves their local community, with that community taking note and becoming satisfied customers.

That is the holy grail of a fine restaurant. Beat that, Cape Town.

Coda

Having said that, there is one other South African restaurant that is every bit as distinctive and innovative as The LivingRoom. But you’ll have to come back here next week to find out what it is. DM

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Hylton Warburton says:

    Yes, yes, yes – we live just up the road from the Living Room, and we couldn’t be more excited to have such an exquisite place to enjoy fine dining in our beloved city of Durban!

    When we were there in March, I requested non-seafood options for my wife (who is deathly allergic) ahead of time. Chef Johannes took great care to recreate the mussel and fish dishes in a complementary way – both visually and in terms of flavour. My wife assured me that the aubergine swap for mussels with the lime leaf velouté was so delicious that she had to stop herself from cleaning the plate with her fingers. The waiters too were extra careful and gracious considering the restrictions and treating us like their only guests that night.

    And we won’t easily forget Johanna: she paired some equally impressive wines with the gorgeous dishes – our favourite being the 2021 Saskia Cape White blend by Miles Mossop. The variety of new flavours and names left us savouring each mouthful, and every moment.

    Bravo, we will be there again soon to taste what Chef Johannes has put together for the Winter menu!

  • Glenda Caine says:

    Thank you for a thoughtful “spot on” review. Summerhill is a fine restaurant that deserves every accolade it gets. It’s an original and unashamedly itself! We are lucky to have it here in KZN

  • Cape Doctor says:

    The Restaurant sounds wonderful on its own merit. It’s a grubby and disingenuous South African sport to compare it to anything in Cape Town or elsewhere. Are we still so parochial in 2024? When I eat fine food in Cape Town, the last thing on my mind is how much better the food here is compared to that in Durban. But then, I don’t write for the daily Maverick, do I?

  • Tinker Tonker says:

    You sound a bit OTT mate….calm yourself down…. do you not have money to travel down to Cape Town? Your review actually put me off visiting this place.

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