It's tough to get a reservation at the Test Kitchen.
The place has been one of the anchors of the burgeoning Cape Town food scene for three years, but what piqued my interest was its inclusion in the San Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants list. It didn't make the 50, but was listed as the restaurant with the world's greatest potential. That sounded as if it was worth investigating.
They told me the only hope was a cancellation, so while I waited, I ate. It took a week. I ate a lot. I discovered many things – like the fact that whites and blacks still mostly go to different restaurants, and that there are a lot of delicious elk-like creatures roaming the veldt – but mostly this: Cape Town's a good place to eat.
One of the best choices is 95 Keerom. I say this despite sending back my pasta. I don't usually send back pasta. It's especially odd in the middle of an otherwise careful, artful meal in a city whose food scene I was quickly learning would put up with nothing less. But the penne tasted like parboiled cardboard, so I did.
The filets of springbok, kudu and black wildebeest were extraordinary in ascending orders of magnitude. All vaguely beefy, the springbok was lean and dense; the kudu – one of those elk-like creatures with markings that make it look like it's been drizzled with white chocolate – tasted like the best Banff buffalo, a sort of beef squared; and the wildebeest had a texture between silken tofu and a fleshy Matsushima oyster that I'd never experienced.
About 20 minutes after I sent the pasta back, another dish came up, unordered: two house-made squash-stuffed ravioli. They were gelid, like the easiest of over-easy eggs, and the flavours were simple and pure. It was precisely what a prima piatti should be, but rarely is. It turned out the penne I ordered was the only pasta dish on the menu that came out of a box. Nice save.
The popular Dog's Bollocks is a 50-burger-a-night joint (that's all chef Nigel Wood feels like cooking; the enforced scarcity doesn't hurt the place's appeal either) in an unmarked garage in an alleyway. I needed a guide – from Wow Cape Town Tours in this case, which I recommend – to locate it. Its twentysomething clientele seemed as chuffed for having found the mysterious spot as they were for being served some of the biggest, best constructed burgers I've seen.
In Cape Town, sushi is still a novelty, and like the Peruvians, they've made their chefs bend to their will. In Peru, this means using local fish and lobbing in some lomo saltado. In Cape Town, it means sauces and seasonings. And at Willoughby & Co., it means Sam Wong, the Singaporean Chinese chef. He's built a vociferous following for his house-made embellishments. His popular Rainbow Reloaded can look more like stew than sushi, but it's got integrity. It would raise a Ginza purist's eyebrows, and possibly her gorge, but it's a legitimate style, refined over years, and reflects the white Capetonian palate, which leans to bold and basic flavours, well orchestrated.
The results of these preferences are evident everywhere, dovetailing with a near-absolute intolerance for bad food. The café at the top of the cable-car ride to Table Mountain, South Africa's biggest tourist attraction, has no reason to give its diners anything more than the average Niagara Falls tourist trap does. Yet its ingredients are brought up, fresh and local, by cable car every morning. The result: The steelhead trout-and-egg croissant is good, startlingly good. The Two Oceans restaurant at the country's third most popular tourist attraction, the Cape of Good Hope, has a tasting menu; a good tasting menu. As a result, food becomes a substantial part of your experience in Cape Town. It's a novel sensation.
The day before I was to leave town, word finally came through from the Test Kitchen: I had a 6:30 p.m. seat at the bar.
The Test Kitchen is dark to the point of obscurity, the only light coming from the open kitchen. I got the larger of the two tasting menus, the Gourmand, which cost $100, including nine glasses of wine with the nine-course meal.
There were missteps, like the kumquat shiso palate cleanser that cleansed my palate like bleach cleans a floor: It took the dregs of my South African Inverroche gin martini to rid me of it. But this was a good meal. The strip of blesbok (another elk-like thing), springbok medallion and marrow of eland (ditto) was bold, complementary, creamy, salty. The most exemplary dish was
the deconstructed Reuben sandwich. I had one of the originals, at Reuben's on Manhattan's Madison Avenue before they closed, and can say that this disjointed homage was utterly faithful: creative, distinctive and successfully basic.
I stayed, eating and drinking my way through various interstitial courses and the pre-dessert, dessert and post-dessert, until 11:30, and it was only then that I noticed the little note on the bottom of the menu saying that the Gourmand was meant to be enjoyed "by the whole table."
It'd been a week since I ate at 95 Keerom. Feeling nostalgic, I Googled it when I got back to my hotel. Chef Giorgio Nava, it seems, has just won Pasta World Championship in Parma, Italy, with a perfect score. The judges praised his dish for its simplicity. His customers back in Cape Town would be proud.
IF YOU GO
You can't fly direct from Canada to Cape Town, or even Johannesburg. Air Canada will take you through New York or London starting at about $1,200 (though you'll end up flying on either a British Airways or South African Airways plane). Lufthansa will take you through Munich and then direct to Cape Town starting at $1,700. All other flights, including those with Air Canada's partners, also transfer through Johannesburg.
Where to stay
Cape Town is a city of many fine hotels, but for me, the finest was the Mount Nelson, an old dear of a place redolent of South Africa's British past. It's across the street from one of the world's most beautiful gardens, Cape Town's Company Gardens, and easy walking distance to most of the rest of this compact city. The mattresses and pillows are fantastic. Rooms start at $475, including breakfast, Internet and free transportation to Table Mountain. mountnelson.co.za
Cape Grace is where folks like the Clintons stay when they come to town. It's more American-style luxury (think New England), located on the edge of the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, which is, among other things, the place you catch the boat to Robben Island. Rooms from $550 for two adults, breakfast included. capegrace.com
One & Only Cape Town is the newest hotel in town, where Justin Bieber stayed (and dented a golf cart or two) the month before I did. The big attraction here is the spa, built into a web of canals the hotel had built out back. Rooms start at $540, including breakfast, Internet and fresh fruit on arrival. capetown.oneandonlyresorts.com
Mandela Rhodes Place is right downtown, abutting St. George's Mall, which has an open-air food market every Thursday. The look is industrial, but the rooms are all suites, with kitchenettes, and they start at about $275, which doesn't include breakfast or Internet. mandelarhodesplace.co.za
Where to eat
95 Keerom is at 95 Keerom St. 27-0-21-422-0765. About $40 a person. 95keerom.com
If I tell you that The Dog's Bollocks is at 6 Roodehek St., off Buitenkant Street, it won't help you. Ask a local or get a guide. Or you could cheat and call 27-0-83-440-7843. About $6 a person.
Willoughby & Co. is shop No. 6132 at Victoria Wharf, V&A Waterfront, 27-0-21-418-6115. About $15 a person. willoughbyandco.co.za
The Test Kitchen, The Old Biscuit Mill, 375 Albert Rd., Woodstock, Cape Town, 27-0-21-447-2337. thetestkitchen.co.za
How to get around
I used Wow Cape Town Tours, whose owner-operator, Rushdi Harper, was an excellent guide around the town and the region. 27-21-697-0174; wowcapetowntours.co.za
The writer dined as a guest of the Test Kitchen, with accommodation courtesy of WESGRO, the Western Cape tourist board.