Brent Meersmann: Bitten by the food bug

By philip
25 September 2013

Over Brent Meersman’s past 150 food columns, he has run the gastronomic gamut. “Cape Town is without question the most sophisticated, diverse, food-conscious city in Africa. It’s the perfect playground for a restaurant reviewer,” is certainly worth highlighting.

I was dispatched to review restaurants because it seemed to be the only thing we Capetonians cared enough about to grow the M&G’s subscriber base. As it happens, I started just as gastroculture surged globally.

Cape Town is without question the most sophisticated, diverse, food-conscious city in Africa. It’s the perfect playground for a restaurant reviewer.

I’ve run the gamut: from cuisine prepared by Michelin-star chefs to restaurants serving soup indistinguishable from salad dressing; from my most expensive meal, R1 150 before the tip (at the Tasting Room), to my cheapest, R25 for a full plate of injera with toppings (at the Cuisine Africaine beneath a curio market in Long Street).

There was also that R750 seven-course omakase meal at Nobu that prompted a reader to comment that I made them choke on their own vomit, and did I “know how many bags of mealie meal, bottles of cooking oil, bags of sugar and cans of pilchards that would buy?”

My Cape to Cuba review provoked a letter from the embassy to say that I was maligning their island nation.

I’ve been able to revisit cuisines from my foreign travels in Cape Town – Moroccan, Spanish, Turkish, German, Kurdish, French, Italian, Sicilian, north and south Indian, Peruvian, Thai, Korean, Mexican, Japanese, Ethiopian, Hungarian, Sephardic, Chinese, Lebanese, Belgian, Cuban and Greek, and I still haven’t exhausted the ethnic eateries of the city.

Foreign cooks have always led the restaurant scene in South Africa. Until the 1980s, the assumption  was that if you were not from South Africa you could probably cook, which wasn’t entirely untrue.

We had a deadly triad of British blandness, apartheid isolation and suspicious Calvinism (think of the biddies in Babette’s Feast). In addition, there was bad industrial production, the United States without the Americans, instant food and TV dinners, and a growing dependency on Aromat from Switzerland.

As South Africa started to embrace its new democracy, we began to look for ways to redefine ourselves. We stopped simply copying Europe and stopped thinking of the indigenous and African as inferior.

It’s an ongoing process.

At first, local chefs began emulating the Californians and the Australians, trying to invent a new cuisine for South Africa as those countries had done for themselves, incorporating local ingredients and world trends. But those experiments soon petered out.

Now our chefs freely embrace the abundance available to them and, spurred on by the foraging movement and a hunger for discovery, num-nums ( the Natal plum) and morogo are back on the menu. A highlight for me must be chef Margot Janse’s sensational chakalaka lollipops.

When I began, critics were preoccupied with how close ethnic food came to the authentic thing. That consideration has fallen away today; it’s asking the wrong question.

Still others complain of cultural imperialism, of chefs plundering and debasing their food cultures —but that seems to me too hardline. So-called authentic cuisine is as bastardised as any other.

The culinary scene drills down into our cultural life, from roadside shisa nyama grills in the townships to the braai in the suburban backyard. I’ve explored township eats, Kosher delis, Ramadan feasts and food at the Hare Krishna temple.

There have been the crazies too – raw foodism, a kind of religion in itself – and perhaps the not so crazy proponents of insect meat that sent me in search of the disgusting mopane worm.

It hasn’t all been upper-crust fare from Gordon Ramsay, Nobu Matsuhisa and Hemant Oberoi. I’ve ?also pursued popcorn, bread, yoghurt, sardines, pub grub, fish and chips, hamburgers, boerewors rolls and franchised pizza, as well as the worlds of tea and coffee. Then there have been the more unusual places – a picnic in a forest, lunch in Parliament and at Pollsmoor Prison, and a restaurant run by the mentally different.

Once Bitten has visited our oldest surviving restaurants such as  the Harlequin (1957) and La Perla (1959), documented how the restaurant scene is now spreading like a fifth column of gentrification to Vredehoek and Woodstock, and poked fun at food apps and the trendiest newcomers.

Sadly, even in five years, places reviewed when they opened have already disappeared.

Give me five more years, please.

Brent Meersman’s 30 Best Food Spots in Cape Town

Best Food

Bizerca, Bombay Brasserie (tasting menu), Bosman’s, La Colombe, Oep ve Koep Bistro (Paternoster), Planet Restaurant (five-course vegan menu), Pot Luck Club, The Tasting Room, The Test Kitchen

Impressive

Aubergine, Babel, Fyndraai, La Mouette, Myoga, Nobu, The Roundhouse, Tokara

Personal Favourites

Anatoli’s, Bukhara (Church Street), Guiseppe Massolini’s lunch club, Kyoto Garden Sushi, Lazari’s, Masala Dosa

Pure Charm

Bird’s Cafe, Dear Me, I love my laundry, The Kitchen, Little Ethiopia, O’Ways

For full story by Brent Meersmann visit Mail & Guardian.