One of my best before dinner drinks spots is the sumptuous One & Only Hotel, staying for dinner is a real treat. How wonderful to head to Nobu to meet the new chef, Harold Hurtada, who recently came to Cape Town. After seven years at Nobu in Dubai he has the master’s philosophy firmly imprinted in his heart – “To source from the country first and then use it in a Nobu way.” Harold cooks from the heart, and constantly reminds his team that they need to feel as if they are cooking for, or serving, your family – it needs to be really special. He is also quick to tell them that there is no shame in saying a dish is not available because the quality of the ingredients are not good enough. His standards are high, and his challenge in the Mother City is to get to know her seasons. If there is no watermelon, meet the green winter melon (known as honeydew in Dubai).
Born in the Philippines, Harold likes to eat simple things. Whilst studying to be an engineer he changed course to become a sushi chef. Although he is an executive chef his heart is at a sushi bar, and that is where you will often find him – he knows blindfolded if sushi is good!
At Nobu the options on the menu are endless (do we start with sake, sake cocktails or cocktails?), so we chose to put ourselves in the wonderful hands of the team there – GM Carl Heinz Habel and his staff are all knowledgeable and happy to help.
What seemed like an avalanche of incredible dishes found their way to our table, from steamed Edamame, spicy tuna miso tacos and chicken anticucho tacos to start. Some of our stand-outs included the salmon sashimi gently topped with Woodford black truffles, the langoustine and caviar, and then the spinach salad with kohlrabi and Canadian lobster. The ‘you cannot order what I want’ rule worked well, so that we saw and salivated over a wide variety of food. After spectacular sushi the scallop, foie gras and miso hit the high note for me. Kingklip and sweet melon followed, and then we knew we were on the slippery slide – signature dish of the Alaskan black cod, which is marinaded for three days and caramelized under the salamander, is heavenly, as is the other signature dish the Wagyu beef on hot rocks flambéed with brandy.
So hard to encapsulate an epicurean experience of this standard in one word, but perhaps I should start with exceptional? Exceptional everything.
Oh and talking of exceptional, hello Greg Czarnecki of the Restaurant at Waterkloof. Wonderful to catch up with this maestro again – we worked together when he arrived in 2008. I had a quiet giggle when he spoke of how the culinary scene was about to explode in our country. “If I had come here a few years earlier I may not have stayed” he claims. It does not seem to have occurred to him that he has been a trailblazer in this movement, making food more celebrated?
Born in Beaune in Burgundy, he has lived in 19 countries, so it is no surprise that there is such creativity in his food, or that he is constantly inspired – by seasons, the weather, and flavours. “Creativity and inspiration come at different stages and levels – it is something one constantly works on.” He sometimes spends up to three years working on a dish, going back to it to perfect it. Or sometimes he visualizes it and on first attempt it is perfect. Initially he found it hard to get used to the fact that here we do not have specialty shops and ingredients as they do in France (patisserie, boulangerie, charcuterie…) – there every town has artisans they are proud of. “It is hard to find stable sources of some ingredients like purple potatoes.”
The Restaurant at Waterkloof, with its grandiose views and vineyard setting, sees a gradual changing of the menu in sync with the seasons. His favourite ingredients depend on the season – Greg loves forgotten fruit and veg like quinces and the Jerusalem artichoke. “I love elegant and distinctive flavours that do not need to be overworked.”
From being at Waterkloof from concept and during building, Greg works as if this restaurant is his own. He has certainly put his own stamp on it – and the SA restaurant scene. I love his philosophy (less is more, in life and on a plate) and style, contemporary minimalistic.
The degustation menu commands each of your senses, from start to finish. Each plate is a work of art, and each mouthful something to be cherished. After I declared that I had been filled to an elegant sufficiency, suddenly I was gifted with my desserts to savour at home. This is the kind of experience you wish could last forever…
A quick catch-up with chef Mike Basset at Myoga, a perennial favourite, and my week could be declared decadent beyond anyone’s dreams. There are many accolades to give here – good value being one of them – another being Mike’s trademark of ensuring that his tasting menu comes full circle, always relating the first and last course. In between the tickler are umami, smoke, fire, pressure, finish, and then full circle. His duck breast with orange teriyaki, truffle peas, barley foam, toasted beer, braised barley, and burnt chicory tempura makes Myoga worth a visit. He is inspired by Asian flavours – which are not just about soy sauce, fish sauce, shrimp paste or miso (he makes his own miso). Mike loves new cooking methods and techniques – in his words, ‘transforming traditional” – like blackening baby beets and chicory, or braising a gem lettuce. He is currently enjoying super foods, root veg, black garlic and liquorice. His menu changes seasonally, when he clears the slate and starts again – he is known to never repeat a dish – and the current menus are seeing fewer ingredients on a plate. For him, cooking is a personal interpretation of discovery. “The taste and texture are really important, the plating is not as big an issue,” he claims. Well you could have fooled me – his plating is exquisite.
I was fascinated to discover that this chef, who trained under Raymond Blanc and originally wanted to be a quantum physicist, has the unique skill of sitting in front of his PC and writing a recipe, then visualizing it. We digressed to discuss a few age-old truths – like the fact that lack of discipline in a kitchen shows in the quality of food, how open kitchens are more serene, and that it all depends on the ingredients, and how you work with them. Wonderful way to end a week of hard work and copious culinary treats.