Six months before we even hit South African shores, when things were still very much in planning mode, anybody I quizzed that had been to Cape Town insisted we book a table at The Test Kitchen. Supposedly you need to book at least a couple of months early as you just may not get in. Yes, it’s one of those places.
These guys can boast about being top South African restaurant in 2014. Even on the list of Worlds 50 Best Restaurants, coming out at number 48. That’s pretty good going.
The Old Biscuit Mill in the gritty neighbourhood of Woodstock is an ideal address for such a top shelf eatery. A designer fit-out with a rustic, contemporary-industrial edge where the finest detail has been thought of; even down to the tie-dye napkins, leather aprons donned by the floor staff and hand-crafted plates for each individual dish.
The menu can be enjoyed as a la carte or a five-course experience for R470 or R770 with vino. We’d be silly not to go for the five courses, especially when it converts back to about $50. If only such things were this inexpensive in Sydney! And with two choices for each course, we thought we’d make it easy and order one of each.
A special note needs to be made about the bread that swiftly lands on the table, by the most friendly and informative staff quietly gliding between tables. Not just a bread roll or two, but a board of country loaf, milk & aniseed rolls and the most divine cheese, leek & onion scroll. Very nice touch with the muslin-wrapped house-made butter.
One thing, for sure, is the meals at Test Kitchen are about technique and visuals. Everything is executed to a T, with every dribble, dab or crumb placed with precision.
Check the assiette of summer tomatoes, a colourfully textured ensemble surrounded by drops of spanikopita mousse. There are two types of tomatoes – dehydrated plum and confited-pickled – with feta, potato & parmesan crisp, nutty wheat crust and mint droplets.
The pickled fish has delicate flavours all around. A snoek cream takes the centre – made up of meringue, olive oil and soy – surrounded by tuna that has been lightly pickled and filled with snoek, turmeric-infused red onions and raw carrots. An arc of salted apricot warms the plate with its golden colour and playful ribbons of crisp pastry swirl overhead.
The aroma of cinnamon hits us before the next courses arrive, to enhance the treacle and cinnamon in the TK autumn foie gras (R60 supplement). The twiggy stencil – made from quince purée -at the base is by local artist Peter Eastman, the same guy behind several elements designed for the restaurant.
Resembling fallen autumn foliage, there’s quince with macadamia purée, guinea fowl with sage brioche, creamy foie gras, vanilla & bourbon jellies and salt & vanilla sticks.
A plump, grilled scallop is the hero in this one, resting over a smear of miso-cured tofu cheese. We have green beans, pea tendril and raw shiitake with braised onion and miso toast. Very delicate flavours.
Two of my favourite things come together with the next one – pork belly and blue cheese. The cheese has been given the velouté treatment, spilling away from the melting pork in cheesy creaminess. Resting on the pork is parsley-pressed apple, crisp sage leaf, pancetta, pork crackling and ciabatta; carefully drizzled with rosemary-infused honey.
“In memory of Sunday roast” is the only menu clue to what the next dish is about. Slow-cooked lamb rump with butter-roasted carrot, a little roast potato, mint gel and potato crisp. Definitely from the same Sunday roast party many of us are familiar with. My favourite element was the compote, made with the num-num, or natal plum, that’s native to South Africa.
As with any degustation, there’s a palate cleanser before the final savouries arrive. This one’s a lemon & apple sorbet with shiso & apple jelly, green tea foam and shard of mint.
All refreshed now, so let’s continue.
The line fish is snoek, teamed with roasted potato skin purée, smoked red onion foam and a final pouring of Black Forest ham and fish jus. The fish is perfection.
The most substantial dish of the day had to be the confit duck leg. It rests on a lentil ragù with an intriguing “egg” by its side. The egg is actually made from chicken mousse that has a truffle centre. Other elements include Jerusalem artichoke & red onion purée and a porcini & sherry foam.
Desserts are just as complex at Test Kitchen as the rest of the menu items. Simply called tropical, our first dish comprises a base of mango & tamarind curd, beautifully arranged with banana panna cotta, Thai curry Turkish delight as well as Thai curry meringue shards. The curry flavours are very mild and work incredibly well with a quenelle of lime sorbet, streaks of coconut lassi and grilled pineapple.
And finally, the raspberries & figs. Torn chunks of fig leaf chiffon cake are arranged with raspberry kombucha jellies, fig leaf granita, passionfruit amasi ice cream – a type of South African fermented milk. Some little meringues are injected with mango curd, with a final adornment of coconut crumble shards.