95 Keerom, Milanese-Italian restaurant and the battle of the olive oils

Sometimes the simplest things are the most sublime. The cannelleni bean salad on the side with sprinkles of Italian Parsley and spring onions at 95 Keerom springs to mind. The little beans – cooked for not a second too long – are tender but firm offering a gentle flavour that brings out the flat-leaf parsley and a grassy olive oil.

95 Keerom
+27 (0)21 422 0765
95 Keerom St
Cape Town CBD

The waiter tells me the beans are fresh but I don’t believe it for a second, especially after recently eating green-fresh lupini (tremoços) beans in a salad at a braai. Nothing wrong with dry beans for they are excellent here, just a misinformed waiter.

The starter of two Lego bricks of tuna and Norwegian Salmon tartare is in the same restrained vein and an altogether more elegant dish. It is presented with capers, parsley and red onion perched on what looked like lime slices and stripes down either side of something mayonnaisy.

This tartare di tonno e salmone makes for a light summery lunch and the chopped raw fish is best accompanied with the onion. Unfortunately the fish, while there is nothing wrong with it, is bland. There is only so much a squeeze of lemon and salt – provided here unlike at some foodie joints – can lift it.

Peruvian ‘raw’ ceviche (expertly prepared at Nobu), cured briefly in lime and often chilli beats this hands down. While the South American version couldn’t be more different from Japan’s truly raw fish, it is definitely the gastronomic equal to the salty soy and taste bud tingling wasabi of sushi.

The main course, osso bucco Milanese shank with tomato, celery and parsley, has no pretension of elegance. Sparing use of grated lemon rind gives it a twist and lightens the stew. Gremolata (lemon zest, garlic and parsley) is not common in our stews. Neither are the fresher flavours of the celery, carrot and parsley, which are only briefly cooked unlike the deeper cooking of the same ingredients in French-style stocks and stews that give them their richness.

Here there is a full flavour from the bone, its marrow and a smattering of fat. While in appearance it is more country-style hearty than pretty, again simplicity wins the prize.  Indeed it is the unpretentious food this restaurant promises.

Osso bucco is a staple of Milan’s regional Lombardi cuisine. Here dairy can be preferred to olive oil, making for heavier and meatier dishes than the Mediterranean food of the warmer south. Likewise risotto and even mealies (polenta) give pasta a run for its money.

The osso bucco is accompanied by the already mentioned side salad of beans, one of the dumbest combinations I have ever selected. While the salad is overwhelmed by the tomato there is a method to my madness. I am just curious to try the salad and make sure mouthfuls of each never meet.

On arrival I was ushered upstairs to take advantage of the bright window-licous space that illuminates blonde wood and affords a view of a flowering Jacaranda. It is a little too warm and the interior talking point, what I believe to be an adult Wild Olive Tree, has dead leaves on the side away from the glass wall.

Downstairs, for I have eaten here often in the past, it is far cosier with the stripped plaster revealing crumbling stone, brick, wood and mortar in what must be one of the finest night-time dining rooms in the country. Old world textures combined with a modern minimalist bent.

On one previous occasion I attended one of the off-the-record monthly dinners given for journalists by the ‘arms dealers’, intended to give background spin on the controversial navy arms contract. The scrumptious garlic green beans were on the menu, held in the private dining room. These businessmen, who helped supply the four frigates, were less than yummy. More like sinister too-red Viennas from a dodgy takeout.

A man who is seeking no privacy today and was quite far removed from the arms deal scandal is politician and businessman Sam Shilowa. Shilowa appears to be dining with his lawyer discussing political leadership squabbles in the restaurant that once housed slaves from The Company’s Garden.

Litigious politicians have been good for lawyers of late but as always only the lawyers really seem to end up winning. Shilowa might do best to join forces with old comrade and trade unionist Zwelinzama Vavi but then Shilowa and Cope* rival Terror Lekota may be now damaged goods, tainted by shenanigans in the party. Careers in business may be the best option for these two.

A tempting starter option is the caprese salad with the fresh buffalo mozzarella flown in from Naples every two days. The mozzarella, along with the Parmigiano and gorgonzola cheeses, are indeed the only ingredients imported at this ‘locavore’ leaning restaurant. As one would expect it makes its own pasta. Asparagus with Hollandaise Sauce could be good too.

There are numerous options of raw fish, including the tartare and carpaccios. And beef versions of both too. A crayfish pasta on the day (R180) and at least three vegetarian pastas. Eating a vegetarian pasta before a meat main course is common in Italy. To follow are steaks, veal, venison, lamb, pork and around five fish options. You pay extra for the quality side dishes of starch and veggies, a traditional practice in Lombardia.

The two soufflé pudding sounds enticing. A white chocolate soufflé is filled with white rum and the dark chocolate one with liquid chocolate. Among others there is also a semifreddo (semi-frozen) ice cream with rum.

Service acceptable but not faultless. While being served a glass of fruity but dry Graham Beck Sauvignon Blanc 2009 I remember appreciating that at Twankey Champagne & Oyster Bar they show you the bottle and give you a taste before drinking Cape-style Champagne by the glass. I wonder if Twankey offer this touch with their still wines too?

Good wine list. Affordable wine by bottle from R100 and R35 by glass for white. Not bad entry-level prices for a fine dining joint.  A dozen grappas available.

For the hell of it I order a Fernet-Branca to digest the stew. Once my father gave my brother a shot of it to cure seasickness on the ill-fated Achillle Lauro. It didn’t work but then as an eight-year-old he may have been a bit too tender for this potent drink, though tough Italian mamas administer it to babies for colic The verdict: it tastes like medicine because it is medicine.

James Hamilton-Paterson takes this digestif one step further in his novel, Cooking with Fernet Branca, which takes the piss out of Peter Mayle‘s A Year in Provence (though this book is set near ‘Chiantishire’ in Tuscany). Anyone for “stuffed (cow) udder with butterscotch” cooked in Fernet-Branca? Munching Alien Pie is “one of those experiences poised exquisitely between sorrow and oblivion,” the narrator tells us. 

The bill for one with coffee is R286.  At least there are other people out celebrating over lunch today even if they are rather subdued. Dining here can be expensive if you move through the Italian four course regime of antipasti, followed by primi, secondi and dolce.  The antipasto piques your appetite, the secondo sets you up, the secondo, or main , does grievous bodily harm, while the dolce or dessert is the final nail in the coffin!

4/5 stars over lunch.

To read a review of chef Giorgio Nava’s Carne other restaurant across the road (Carne) click here.

Battle of the olive oils
There is a battle royale going on between the fresh olive oils Morgenster and Willow Creek in supermarkets and restaurants. Morgenster, which is stocked by the bigger Pick n Pay and 95 Keerom, may be winning it. Willow Creek is in Woolworths and Overture restaurant prefer it (or the deal is better).  Both are delicious and worth the expense. Aren’t we lucky to have competition between such fine producers, not to mention the smaller Kloovenburg near Riebeeck Kasteel?

* Congress of the People (Cope)

Tom Robbins
Posted November 11, 2010

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