Blockhouse Kitchen, Constantia
By Daisy Jones, 10 March 2020
Brad Ball reminds me a bit of Jamie Oliver. He’s got a big face and a big grin. He produces authentic Italian, French bistro and Japanese dishes that work for comfort eaters. He genuinely cares about the environment: Ball has not served a prawn in any of his restaurants for years. Plus, he seems like a hugger.
Ball’s latest restaurant, The Blockhouse Kitchen at Constantia Uitsig, will not surprise fans of his previous Constantia restaurants – places like The River Café, Bistro 1682 and Peddlars & Co. The Blockhouse Kitchen (or “TBK”, as it’s referred to on the menu) does spicy-crispy Asia-inspired small plates, bistro-inspired mains like steaks with duck fat potatoes, and authentic Italian pastas and risottos.
Here’s what’s new: Ball is having a love affair with the land. On the restaurant website there are phrases like “conscious kitchen”, “freshest seasonal and local produce” and “whole animals, fish and vegetables”.
It is absolutely nothing new – in fact it’s almost standard – for chefs these days to say they prefer to use local ingredients, in season, and that they abhor waste, choosing instead to cook “nose to tail” with animals and “root to tip” with plants. There’s a bit of fussing with ferments, preserves and pickles – and with drying and smoking – to prove that even in-season excess is not wasted.
It sounds good but it doesn’t always taste good. Cooking with the seasons isn’t easy. It requires flexibility and knowledge. What’s the best way to showcase a box of baby fennel bulbs? You need to decide today, and it needs to be on the menu tonight. Seasonal cooking requires humility. You might love the grill, but some produce is better raw, and some is better stewed. Customers are another challenge: your braised leeks may be exceptional, but will your seasonal dish outsell your famous dirty cheeseburger?
At The Blockhouse Kitchen, Ball doesn’t change the menu every day. He prints a new menu every season, with signature dishes like the eggs benedict and “salt ‘n’ vinegar” potatoes never shifting. There is, however, a specials board that changes every few days.
We ordered the tuna tataki and pigs cheeks off this board. We ordered fish cakes, crispy beef and a green salad off the summer menu. We were excited about the tuna tataki. Ball’s beef tataki at Bistro 1682 was the signature small plate. The fish cakes were coming with miso and lime mayonnaise; the crispy beef dish included onion rings, radish, slivers of ripe chilli and a thick, dark, dipping sauce. We only ordered the salad because we thought it sounded ladylike.
“We should have a salad,” one of us said.
“Oh yes, a salad. Uh, let’s just get a simple one; this ‘rocket and Pecorino’?”
I’m not a fan of salad. I’m more than happy for other people to have it – yes, I’ve heard about the health benefits – but at a restaurant, especially, where you’re paying for someone to cook for you, why have something raw? Unless it’s to spare yourself the tedium of making a salad at home – a motive I understand. At home, salad is essentially a human nose bag that will require a full half hour to eat, with oily watercress stems refusing to fit in your mouth and adhering to your cheek.
Imagine our surprise when our favourite of Ball’s five delicious small plates the salad.
It must have been a pretty good salad.
It was. And simple too: wild rocket, avo, pecorino and a lemony dressing. There were three types of seeds: sunflower, pumpkin and black sesame.
What made it so special? The dressing, for a start. The vinaigrette was the merest gloss of extra virgin olive oil, acid and seasoning. There was no stinging puddle of dressing at the bottom of the bowl.
The wild rocket tasted like it had just been picked. It was at its grassiest, pepperiest best, with no bitterness to the stems. The seeds were not the slightest bit stale – nor were there too many of them: a few pinches, not a handful – and the avocado was perfectly ripe: creamy, not buttery.
Adding very mature cheese to a salad is not a new idea. Pecorino, like its cousin Parmesan, is famous for the depth of its umami flavour. In Ball’s salad, it added a touch of luxury too. The aged, crystal-studded cheese balanced the bright freshness of the other ingredients.
Ball is a big fan of local cheese. If I’d had room I would have ordered the cheese plate with house pickles and house relish. One of my favourite things about the décor at “TBK” is the mantlepieces crowded with pickle jars. The interior designer would never have approved it: the mantles over the grand Victorian fireplaces are high, grand affairs. On them, Ball has crammed giant Consol jars full of onions, carrots and cauliflower florets.
His heart, it seems, is in seasonal ingredients. The tagline of The Blockhouse Kitchen is “Social. Seasonal. Simple.” It’s not unusual for chefs to go “back to basics” after decades of crowd-pleasing. Jürgen Schneider held a Michelin star for 18 years in Germany. Now, at Springfontein Eats in Stanford, the heroes of his dishes are ingredients from the farm like carrots, eggs and pears.
If you scratch the surface, there’s a tension between Ball’s current artistic direction and the very real imperatives suggested by a casual destination restaurant with four separate dining spaces and a whopping 250 seats.
Since he opened in May last year, Ball’s comfort foods have drawn by far the most attention: that dirty cheeseburger, that benedict, the TBK pork sausages, the steaks, the “soda & spice battered hake” and the baked cheesecake.
During the day, Ball’s target market is Constantia ladies-who-lunch, Westlake office execs, and young parents with little children. In the evening, TBK is an excellent mid-week date night venue for locals from the many luxury estates nearby.
It’s a crowd that values quality but not necessarily innovation. They might enjoy – as we did – the dressed bokchoi and broccoli served alongside proteins, but there’s no sense from the menu that vegans and vegetarians are regular visitors. My guess is that the Botriver beef burger is ordered ten times more often than the steak tartare (with house walnut pesto, cured egg yolk, extra virgin olive oil and lavash, an Armenian flatbread).
The dessert menu is a yawn: ice cream, brownie, Crème brûlée, baked cheesecake and lemon tart. It’s like Ball pushed the envelope and had his way with the in-house smoked trout and the BHK kimchi, then caved to popular taste when it came to pudding.
We drank Constantia Uitsig’s Natura Vista with our lunch. A blend of Sauvignon and Semillon, it was an appropriately crisp accompaniment to a sunny lunch. There are four Constantia Uitsig whites on the menu, and one red. All are available by “the glass”, an enormous portion of wine served in both a large wine glass and a carafe, for top-ups. There is also a Constantia Uitsig MCC and a muscat dessert wine. The wine list has 30 entries in all. Naturally it favours the Constantia Valley – the oldest wine-producing region in the Southern Hemisphere, mind you.
The cocktail menu reminded me how many British ex-pats there are in Constantia, with its “proper Prosecco” and “dirty Pimms”.
The Blockhouse Kitchen is open pretty much all the time: seven days a week, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It is “child-friendly”, with a play area on site and a bike track nearby.
Ball told me he is delighted to be back at Constantia Uitsig. It’s a site that holds deep meaning for him, he said. It’s been many years since Ball made his name in this very building, as chef of The River Café. If his Constantia neighbours lend their support to his current passion for simple, seasonal tastes, the gastronomic rewards will be greater than comfort.
The Blockhouse Kitchen: 021 794 301 , Constantia Uitsig, Spaanschemat Road, Constantia; blockhousekitchen.co.za
- Daisy Jones has been writing reviews of Cape Town restaurants for ten years. She won The Sunday Times Cookbook of the Year for Starfish in 2014. She was shortlisted for the same prize in 2015 for Real Food, Healthy, Happy Children. Daisy has been a professional writer since 1995, when she started work at The Star newspaper as a court reporter. She is currently completing a novel.
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