“Do we really want to travel in hermetically-sealed popemobiles through the rural provinces of France, Mexico, and the Far East, eating only in Hard Rock Cafes and McDonald’s? Or do we want to eat without fear, tearing into the local stew, the humble taqueria’s mystery meat, the sincerely offered gift of a lightly grilled fish head? I know what I want. I want it all. I want to try everything once.” – Anthony Bourdain
We may not have ventured out to eat fish heads (though I would gladly do so as well…), but today was the much-anticipated journey to one of South Africa’s finest culinary experiences. The Test Kitchen is the brainchild of Chef Luke Dale-Roberts, one of the brightest and most talented chefs in South Africa. A regular fixture on the World’s Top 50 Restaurants, The Test Kitchen is regularly known as THE best restaurant in the country. We were only able to score by setting an alarm for 2am ET three months in advance to make a coveted online reservation; even getting into their reservation system just minutes after it opened, we were lucky to snag the last remaining seats at the bar.
We flew to Cape Town from Johannesburg on a domestic airline called Kulula, whose planes were painted lime green. So ugly! It was a short 2-hour flight to Cape Town, where we picked up our rental car, a little VW Golf with standard transmission. Now would be the time Doug would have his hand at driving on the left side of the road, while sitting on the right side and shifting gears with his left hand. And the roads off the airport were all highways! It was a trial by fire learning experience involving both of us keeping us between the lanes at all times, but we did alright.
We stayed at a little B&B called Southern Comfort that was in a quiet neighborhood called Orangezicht, with amazing rooftop views of Table Mountain. But even this seemingly normal hotel room was underwhelming after the luxurious chalets we stayed at in the bush. And even though Cape Town has come a long way from being the dangerous city it once was, most homes and buildings still were gated and protected by barbed wire.
It was a quick Uber ride (with an eye-opening story from our driver about growing up so poor they had to bathe in an alligator-infested river), to the Old Biscuit Mill, a neighborhood on the rise thanks to the addition of these new restaurants. Our dining experience kicked off in the Dark Room, a bar area near the front where we were presented small snacks representing 8 different countries, paired with two cocktails of our choice based on the four taste bud regions: sweet, salty, bitter, or sour.
Rollover each pic below to read more about each dish…
After our first 8 little plates, we were escorted into the Light Room, the main dining room, where we would complete our culinary journey. Here, we were seated at a counter by the open kitchen, so we were entertained by line chefs pouring sauces into beakers and piecing together exquisite plates. We had 2 amuse-bouches to start us off, a lemongrass water palate cleanser, complimentary glass of champagne, a 5-course meal, and some more sweets to send us off with, compliments of the chef. All in all, we had about 17 courses by the end of the night (of varying sizes…thank goodness), encompassing about 3.5 hours, but nonetheless were in a complete food coma. Our assessment of the restaurant? We were really impressed with the creativity of TTK’s menu and presentation, and the food was all top notch. It still didn’t quite compare to NYC’s Eleven Madison Park, which will likely keep its spot at the top of our restaurant list for quite a bit longer. The service was good, each course spaced out nicely to digest, but the presentation of each dish was a bit hurried so coupled with a thicker South African accent, I had trouble noting some of the details of some of the dishes. Each dish was undoubtedly creative, utilizing molecular gastronomy and innovative techniques, but the dishes didn’t always feel cohesive. I loved the small bites around the world at the dark room better than the bigger dishes in the light room but I generally prefer appetizers over entrees anyhow.
Summary of dishes…those with asterisk were our favorites.
DARK ROOM (bar snacks):
Billionaires (Scotland) – porcini mushroom shortbread, truffle, duck pate, truffle, 24-carat gold dustings
*Bo-Kaap Slaintjies (South Africa) – chickpea chip
*Wagyu Biltong (South Africa) – licorice-cured Wagyu
Ssamjang Veg (South Korea) – baby vegetables with a ssamjang paste and marmite
*Pork Scratchings (England) – crispy pork skin served alongside a Guinness/sherry foam dip with celeriac salt
Tandoori Quail (India) – served on a poppadum
*Lamb XO Dressing (China)
Stinging Nettle Granita (Japan) – pine needle granita with gin and tonic jelly
LIGHT ROOM (more formal dining room):
Amuse Bouche – Log filled with bleu cheese mousse, grilled asparagus, cherry tomato
Amuse Bouche – Bleu cheese and caramelized onion pot with leeks
*Sea bass tartare with lovage oil and horseradish snow
Rare Seasonal Mushrooms seared and served with celeriac extraction
Lightly grilled scallop wrapped with bacon over cauliflower cheese foam, capers, and black garlic salsa (me) OR Crab and corn risotto with corn foam (Doug)
Pork belly, wood roasted sweet potato, smoked chestnut, orange dashi
Springbok, beetroot, bone marrow, hazelnut, curd
Dessert – Fennel and berry eton mess, amasi and lime snow
*Dessert – “Bread, milk, and honey”
Candy plate – gummies three ways, truffles, homemade marshmallow