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Where to eat in Pretoria

October 1, 2009
by Winemag.co.za
in Archive
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Marching to Pretoria

Everything tastes better in Tshwane, reckons Anna Trapido, describing this in-depth round-up as a mere peek at the pleasures that lie behind the boerewors curtain.

Whenever out-of-province people ask me where they should eat in Johannesburg, I tell them to get into their cars and drive to Pretoria. Recommending a secondary city (and a 60km drive) over Egoli’s economic powerhouse might sound strange but the reality is that everything from high-skill, gourmet glamour to comfort kos and caf cool tastes better in Tshwane.

So why does Pretoria proe so much nicer than its larger, richer and nominally more sophisticated neighbour? As Bill Clinton once said, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Pretoria, and the broader municipal district of Tshwane within which the city falls, is the last bastion of the entertainment allowance.

Classic fine dining is a dying art the world over, and Pretoria is no exception, but a combination of diplomatic dinners and government lingering lunches has allowed South Africa’s administrative capital to sustain several deluxe eating options where high staff to customer ratios, exceptional winelists and skilled, innovative cuisine are still the order of the day.

Super-smart restaurants cannot survive on the odd anniversary dinner date; they need regular bites at a lunch trade that begins in foie gras and ends in cigars. Contemporary commercial transactions in Johannesburg tend to be concluded via conference calls not Cognac, but Pretoria still does a relatively high proportion of its deals with a knife and fork in hand.

Of course there have been culinary casualties to the economics of the email age. Gauteng gourmands speak of the closure of Restaurant La Perla in Brooklyn and Gerard Moerdyk Restaurant in Arcadia with tears in their eyes – and so they should – but relative to those in other cities, Pretoria patrons have got off lightly.

Furthermore, the future of posh nosh seems safe in the city. The presence of Elze Roome at Brasserie de Paris, Anne Leusch at La Madeleine and Chantel Dartnell- Fuss of Restaurant Mosaic at the Orient Hotel (all of whom have not yet reached their 30th birthdays) suggests that there is a succession plan in place. Roome, Leusch and Dartnell-Fuss might be young in years but they all create classically inspired, contemporary culinary cool in an ber-adult manner. One mouthful of Leusch’s truffle crme brle amuse bouche and it is abundantly clear that patronising these girls is not an option.

Speaking of younger brethren, those who like to eat and drink well in kidcompatible spots should know that it is not uncommon to see a cabinet minister with Costata Fiorentina-seared T-bone steak and a bottle of St-milion’s finest sitting cheek by jowl with a family pizzaand- Peroni outing at the five-star Ritrovo Ristorante in Waterkloof Heights. Similarly, Villa San Giovanni at the Wonderboom airport offers an impressive list of South African, French and Italian oenological treasures, as well as opportunities for little boys to watch planes come and go from the terrace tables.

Big girls tend to use the same space for Casablanca-style fantasies. Savour superb saltimbocca while deciding whether to stay with Rick or get on the plane with Victor Lazlow. First lady of Czechoslovakia or embittered barfly’s moll, the choice is yours. The gnocchi are excellent either way.

ALIMENTARY INDIVIDUALITY

While the expense account factor might explain the survival of certain iconic epicurean institutions, it doesn’t account for Pretoria’s deliciously innovative caf culture.

For that, one needs to look to food media exposure – or, rather, the lack thereof. The much vaunted culinary clash of the titans between the eateries of Johannesburg and those of Cape Town has served smaller cities well. Both Johannesburg- and Cape Town-based food journalists baulk at the idea of crossing what they persist in seeing as the boerewors curtain, and so it is that Pretoria has largely slipped under the restaurant reviewer radar. Away from faddishness that such attention engenders, Pretoria cuisine has developed an alimentary individuality that might otherwise have struggled to emerge and survive.

The creativity of Pretoria chefs isn’t thwarted by having fashionistas looking over their shoulder and judging them as to what a chef “ought” to be doing. Fortunato Mazzone at Ritrovo makes olive oil and Veritas gold-winning wine but the Pretoria award for coming out of the kitchen must surely go to Lientjie Wessels, chef-patronne of the inner-city eatery Li-bel, who decided that the tables upon which her food sat did it no justice. So she branched out into furniture design. Chef Wessels reasoned that sumac-sprinkled salads and rosemary-infused pear and walnut crumbles deserved better than shop-bought seats.

She now serves her madly eclectic meals off fittings made of cleared invader wood. She also sells these alimentary art forms for a small fortune at Oppenheimer heiress Mary Slack’s Amaridian gallery in Soho, New York.

Rather than turning out the dreary Mediterranean-lite-style plates that dog the trendier towns, Pretoria chefs are courageous about acknowledging their ethnic identity and carrying it with them into the brave new world that is post-apartheid South Africa. Rachel Botes, chef-patronne of Carlton Caf Delicious in Menlo Park, not only serves superb renditions of European and American food favourites – her brioche would give the best that Paris has to offer a run for its money and New York could take lessons from her baked cheesecake – but also elegantly executed, reconfigured Afrikaner classics. You have no idea about the perfection that is ontbyt until you have tasted Botes’s fig-laden melkos or her krummelpap with mascarpone and olive oil-fried biltong.

Not to say that it’s all post-modern reinterpretation. If you like your boerekos served without irony but with souskluitjies, there are several old-style eateries to explore.

These range from the deliciously daft through to the borderline alarming. At its most benign, you really cannot say that you understand Pretoria food culture until you have eaten banana chutneyladen, sosatie-filled vetkoek at the 5am to 9am Pretoria boeremark. This fabulous farmers market is a glorious jumble of cheese-makers, moerkoffie purveyors and, inexplicably, a pannekoek-selling family that arrives each week with a nappy-wearing vervet monkey as part of their party. Even in the dead of winter, the car guard is barefoot and wears a T-shirt stating that “Pretoria bly Pretoria”. Indeed.

For those who like to live closer to the epicurean edge, the Voortrekker Monument’s Sunday buffet offers lashings of boere-boontjies, venison pies and Jan Ellis pudding. For utterly extreme cuisine, there is the vierkleur flag-decorated eatery adjoining Maders butchery in Mayville. Maders is so far beyond bizarre that, despite the signs inviting customers to write to krisis@boerevryheid.co.za, it appears to have lost all ability to intimidate.

Antique farm equipment and ye-olde SADF memorabilia clutter what is essentially a chisa-nyama joint. You buy a steak several times bigger than your head and have it sizzled and seared to perfection while you wait. At least a third of the customers are black, the sausage rolls are superb and the only krisis in evidence is impending coronary artery overload. And if you don’t care for vierkleur at the dinner table, Lynnwood’s Hillside Tavern is Pretoria’s socially acceptable carnivorous hot spot.

FROM UNCOOL TO AFRO-CHIC

Blaming the media is always fun but, in this case, press indifference to Pretoria is only partly responsible for the remarkable restaurants therein. Pretoria patrons must also share their portion of the praise.

There is a fickleness in Johannesburg and Cape Town diners that is seldom seen in Pretoria. Obviously there are exceptions to the rule but, broadly speaking, Cape Town diners want to be seen to be at the hip-and-happening place du jour (and it really does appear to change daily) and Johannesburg diners want to be observed in the act of spending money. Neither unsavoury state of mind engenders loyalty to a particular restaurant or chef, and both mindsets favour venues that define themselves as brands and/or concepts rather than as the artistic expression of a skilled and talented individual.

Conversely, the majority of Pretoria restaurants still operate under the care of a chef-patron. The customers love their chefs, greet them by name and get so sulky when they aren’t in residence that they almost always are. In a throwback to a bygone gastronomic age, the vast majority of Pretoria restaurants are still closed on a Monday because the chefs are so exhausted by the amount of individual attention that their customers require during the rest of the week that they need a day to recharge. Brands and concepts don’t take days off to recharge. And it shows on the plates.

Then there is the presence of large numbers of bourgeois West and Central Africans. No one lives in Pretoria to be cool. But most people who have lived in Lagos or Lubumbashi have had their fill of excitement. Big, sexy, frightening African cities like Johannesburg are not why Angolan businessmen brought their families to South Africa. Such people might need to work in Johannesburg (or in many cases they have simply discovered that it is easier to commute to and from Paris via OR Tambo than to do so from Kinshasa) but they come home to the relative serenity of Pretoria.

This social phenomenon is most deliciously refl ected at Zemara restaurant in Arcadia. While Johannesburg has a wide variety of interesting immigrant inner-city dives, Zemara is an authentic Afro-chic suburban restaurant where Burundian billionaires do deals while diplomats sip Champagne and savour antiloppe en sauce arichide. A word to the wise: if you aren’t conversant with the food genre of Central Africa, do ask chef Jackie Picard for help when ordering.

I recently received an outraged letter from a diner who, having read a review of mine, had visited Zemara. He had ordered acheke and aloko and was then angered when no sauces or proteins were served to him. Since he had asked for cassava couscous and fried plantain bananas, it is hard to know what proteins and sauces he expected.

Of course, Zemara’s perfect presentation of the beauty that is Congolese cuisine serves to underline the relative lack of indigenous South African food in Pretoria’s mainstream restaurant culture. With the appetising exception of Janicky’s in Atteridgeville (which offers everything from mageu to Mot with mala mogodu tripe, ting-fermented sorghum and a surprisingly assertive courgette chakalaka), the taste of township Tshwane is sadly missing from the Pretoria restaurant repertoire.

There is Mashika Butchery Chisa Nyama in Mamelodi West and Kwazi’s in Sunnyside (where the menu extends from thakwana cow’s hooves to gemmer ginger beer) but neither carries Pretoria’s home-grown cuisine into the realm of restaurant chic. Where are the venues that will transform the family flavours we know and love into contemporary epicurean events?

THE DOWNSIDE?

Like any other South African city, Pretoria has its fair share of nondescript mall restaurants, but this enthusiastic overview really has offered only the merest peek of the pleasures that lie behind the boerewors gordyn. I know that a flood of irate emails to the editor listing delicious dining options that I have neglected to mention are already wending their way to WINE magazine.

I haven’t spoken about the neo-psychedelic experience that is Shane Sauvage’s La Pentola, the jewellike sweetmeats and syrup-laden jalebis at Laudium’s Al Medina, the Venetian splendour of Villa Francesco or the fast-food chic that is Toni’s Fully Furnished Pizza Company. But space is limited and in a place that punches so considerably above its weight, something(s) had to give.

While I was writing this piece, I was so worried that I couldn’t think of anything nasty to say about the taste of Tshwane that I gathered a group of friends together to discuss what we didn’t like about the city’s restaurants. We toyed with the idea that vegetarians are not very well catered for but decided that the situation is no worse than in Johannesburg. We considered feeling aggrieved about the lack of a Chinatown but this felt fi nicky given the numerous perfectly acceptable, if spreadout, Chinese restaurants on offer.

After a while, someone pointed out that at Caf 41 in Groenkloof it can be alarming to look up from your coffee and croissant to see creepy apartheid-era biological and chemical weapons specialist Wouter Basson at the neighbouring table. Then we remembered that he had moved to Cape Town…

RECOMMENDED
RESTAURANTS


Deluxe Dining

Ritrovo – Waterkloof Heights
Centre, Club Avenue, Waterkloof
Heights. Tel 012 460 4367

La Madeleine – 122 Priory Road,
Lynnwood. Tel 012 361 3667

Zemara – 933 Schoeman Street,
Arcadia. Tel 012 342 3080

Brasserie de Paris – 381 Aries Street,
Waterkloof Ridge. Tel 012 460 3583

Mosaic – The Orient Hotel,
Francolin Conservation Area,
Elandsfontein, Crocodile River
Valley. Tel 012 371 2902

Casual kos
Delicious Carlton Caf – 71 13th
street Menlo Park. Tel 012 460 7996

Janicky’s Restaurant – 165 Monroe
Street, Atteridgeville.
Tel 012 373 4238

Monument Restaurant – Eeufees
Road, Voortrekker Monument.
Tel 012 321 6230/70/71

Li-bel – Cnr Jorrison and Johnston
Streets, Sunnyside. Tel 012 343 8277

Kwazi’s – 283 Esselen Street,
Sunnyside. Tel 012 341 8088


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Wine magazine was published from October 1993 until September 2011 and now lives on in digital form as Winemag.co.za. We cover everything to do with South African wine.