Luke Dale Roberts’ newish little venture in the dodgier end of Woodstock isn’t what I expected it to be, none-the-less the food I am eating today is exceeding those expectations. Naively I assumed the dishes would be less luxurious. For two reasons.
|The Test Kitchen
+27 (0)21 447 2337
The Old Biscuit Mill
375 Albert Rd
First is the word “Test” in its name. Dale-Roberts’ publicly stated intention is to experiment and learn. (I suspect the real reason he now only consults at La Colombe is that this fine diner struggles outside of peak season.) I had thought his Woodstock venture may be similar to the experimental neo-bistros that are all the rage among Paris’ younger set, in a city that has restaurants meals that cost a month’s salary. They offer simple (read cheap) but fresh ingredients, some unusual, in new combinations.
I say I naïvely expected this of Test Kitchen because a chef that took La Colombe from the 38th best restaurant in the world* to the 12th with foie gras and the occasional truffle is, on second thoughts, unlikely to ‘buy down’ into ordering lower priced ingredients. Indeed there are two dishes with foie gras at Test Kitchen on the menu tonight. Well I’ll be dammed. As I write this Spill tweets that Spaniard Ferran Adrià of El Bulli fame has just announced that the average spend at his new tapas bar will be R80.
The second reason I had thought Dale-Roberts’ joint might be more geared for the economic downturn is the décor. A preliminary peek-in before dining there revealed neither a white tablecloth nor a starched-white serviette in sight. Rather I saw a comfortable combination of browns and beiges that puts Sol Kerzner’s One & Only to shame, where the only great public space is the double volume bar.
The closer inspection on eating at Test Kitchen reveals that no cost has been spared on the décor: plush leather seats, a ceramic take on the iconic egg box design to hold the salt and pepper felt lampshades. Indeed I believe a different designer was hired to contribute each element of the interior, from crockery to furniture.
The guests are equally expensively attired and hardly the 20-something ‘creative industries’ market that works in this area by day.
It is however like a neo-bistro in two senses: the unique combinations of ingredients and fact that apart from the luxury goods it also includes keenly priced goods. At lunch it may have less lofty ambitions. Dale-Roberts could do the neo bistro but he simply doesn’t need to – the place is packed.
I start with quail done three ways with a scallop, licorice, ginger and lime gremolata (grated zest with garlic and parsley) and other flavourings. The tickle of licorice is the only taste that stands out, successfully lifting the gamey pungence of the dark-meat bird. This is not to criticise the use of ginger and gremolata, for they may purposefully be used to combine in a savoury fushion. Exclude them and they may be missed.
All the while Dale-Roberts plates the ingredients provided by his chefs with the deft fingers of a concert pianist.
For mains I turn to the post-nightshift breakfast smoothie of the black working class – milk stout. I don’t know if it is Castle Milk Stout, one of SAB’s finest beers, but cooking risotto rice in it is just the kind of South African innovation many are crying out for. It makes for a rich pairing with its accomplice, the fillet, but lacks the meatiness that this cut needs to rise above simply being tender.
Would it help to use truly free range fillet for this dish? Please comment below.
Then there is the gob-smacking caprese salad pudding. Cherry tomatoes (possibly briefly grilled to caramelise the sugars), the stringy texture of Italian buffalo mozzarella and the sweetest basil I have ever tasted. Already it is the best caprese I’ve eaten but wait there’s more…lightly stewed Cape Gooseberries, with a conscious effort to make sure the gooseberry syrup doesn’t touch the salad. This allows you to eat the salad two ways: on its own and with the not too sugary gooseberry. But just in case you think the salad is getting too sweet it is book ended by two snowballs of sour-sweet yoghurt ice cream. A brilliant concoction that is neither starter nor salad, yet both.
I found it quick and easy to make this dish for friends, though the buffalo mozzarella from Woolworths lacked the stringiness and their yoghurt ice cream is understandably sweeter. (The product from local buffalo mozzarella pioneers Buffalo Ridge, available at Saucisse Deli opposite Test Kitchen, is also far from being this good.)
Our table interacts with co-owner and manager Sandalene, who reveals she is Dale-Roberts’ wife, about the dish. Ms Dale-Roberts told her husband it was too avant garde for Cape Town palates, until she tasted it and was won over. A sign that there has been thoughtful debate and much testing in the kitchen before new funky dishes are unleashed on us.
While the service is in excellent, probably the greatest disappointment of the evening is the introduction of the cheeses, with only marginal information provided once prompted.
Other dishes of the month with curious combinations include boozer’s lamb fillets with Jägermeister and beetroot; foie gras with the underused Jerusalem Artichokes; and a lemon tart with nectarine and elderflower. The elderflower may be common in England but is rarely used in this country despite the fact that it grows well in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands.
The restaurant is super comfy – it is just some of the other diners that are stiff. Overall the only brilliant course is the caprese salad pudding. Starter and mains are good but not head and shoulders above other top end options in the Cape. But it is still early days for this restaurant and one gets the sense from the creativity and professionalism they will only get better and better. I am now going to make one of the most unqualified forecasts a person who has never eaten in a three star Michelin even once could ever make: Test Kitchen may even have the opportunity to become one of the world’s great restaurants.
Prices: three courses for R345; five courses for R440 and R600 paired with wine. Some dishes have additional charge for expensive ingredients. There is also the option to eat at the tapas bar and order only one course (booking required). Lunch simpler and much cheaper and also doesn’t have the fixed price three-course menu.
The quail I eat is paired with Newton Johnson Chardonnay; the fillet with Remhoogte Merlot; and the caprese salad pud with Quoin Rock Vine Dried Sauvignon Blanc.
While the restaurant is on the sleazier end of Woodstock bordering on Salt River, it should be perfectly safe as it is in the Biscuit Mill complex that offers secure parking.
If I am wrong and there are any other new proper restaurants in this area please let me know.
Comfortably 4/5 stars on the night.
* According to the San Pellegrino 50 Best Restaurants of the World Awards 2010. La Colombe remains a very good restaurant but the English Premiership is a better test of football than any restaurant ranking system.
Posted January 13, 2011