Restaurant review: SŸN at 47, Cape Town
By Daisy Jones, 13 August 2019
There’s one very good reason for trying SŸN at 47, Cape Town’s new laboratory-inspired, pop-up restaurant. It’s called Holy Smoke.
Served as the bread course, what arrives at the table appears to be a fat cigar – complete with gold band and ashy end – balanced in a ceramic ashtray, on top of a ceramic cylinder.
The leather-aproned waiter lifts the ashtray and – voila! – curls of smoke that smell like the inside of a gentleman’s club escape from the base of the cylinder onto the tabletop. Inside the cylinder is what appears to be a dish of cigar ash. The ash consists of pale grey powdery bits, dark nuggety bits and even fiery red flecks.
You are invited to dip the cigar into the ashtray “and enjoy”. Your hand hesitates over the smooth, looky-likey skin of the cigar. It’s the same weight as a Cuban. You press it into the ash, twirl it and bite off the end.
It’s delicious. The cigar is “Viking” rye bread. The ash is made using squid ink, salt and dehydrated tomato and pepper skins, among other ingredients. The tastes vary from start to finish: bready, smokey, spicy, lemon and salt. It’s a thrilling eating experience: the mouth expected ash and the nose smell’s smoke. Eating this mouthful is an experience surprisingly like having a mouthful of cigar smoke. It’s a bit like a mouthful of wine too, with the flavours so potent and distinct. Your tastebuds have found themselves staring down the barrel of a slowly swirling kaleidoscope.
It’s the express intention of chefs Warwick King and Rikku Ó’Donnchü to “mess with heads” at SŸN at 47 – and with Holy Smoke, this is achieved.
Ó’Donnchü worked under Modernist Cuisine master Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck in England. Blumenthal has always been interested in how psychology and perception affect taste. He has said that his bacon ice cream tastes sweeter than it is not because of the saltiness of the bacon but because the brain anticipates sweetness.
Ó’Donnchü is heavily influenced by Blumenthal – and other Modernist masters like Thomas Keller of The French Laundry in California (where he also worked) and brothers Ferran and Albert Adrià, formerly of El Bulli, Spain. The leather aprons with tweezers tucked in the pocket – worn by all members of the SŸN at 47 staff – are the same as those worn by El Bulli’s kitchen staff.
SŸN at 47’s five-course lunch menu presents much of what you’d expect from a Modernist meal. Food is subjected to scientific process: there are foams, gels and powders. Theatricality is on the menu: Smoke is a feature of not just one but two courses. There are more looky-like moments; for instance, “soils” are a feature of two courses. And it’s interactive: One is invited to pick potato “chips” out of the floral arrangement to eat with the first course, to cook one’s own meat on a piece of heated volcanic rock and to use the rice paper menu as a sweet “taco” with the fifth course.
Holy Smoke was the most successful of the five lunchtime courses. Tsukuba Mountain was the least. The first item to arrive at the table was a full syringe, standing upright, circled by a plastic tube. The reference to druggie kit was very clear. But in case we hadn’t got it immediately, the plates were left on the table for a theatrical length of time.
A dark bowl containing a quail egg, various jewel-coloured pickles, an enoki mushroom and a slice of spring onion followed. Next there was a slim dark jug of dark liquid. And then the piece of hot, black volcanic rock. My friend cooked her cauliflower steak and I cooked my slice of pork belly on the rock, as instructed. Meanwhile, the waiter poured the stock into the bowl and syringed the contents of the plastic tube into the bowl. Instantly the liquid became a solid: voila, noodles! Between us, we had created a dish of ramen. The meat was good and the quail egg was perfectly cooked, with a firm edge and rich, liquid centre. Sadly, the stock was almost comically bad – it tasted like Bovril, hot water and soy sauce – and the noodle had no taste or texture, only shape.
It would be kind to say this dish was big on concept, small on taste. But the concept didn’t grab me. I found the syringe-tube concept as unsexy as SŸN’s recent promotional video, in which a dead fish’s skin is ripped from its body in one piece. I’m sorry to say Tsukuba Mountain didn’t mean much to me either. And cooking my own meat at the table reminded me of a Hot Rock at The Spur.
It has never been enough to simply employ recognizable Modernist techniques and ingredients – even though the techniques are difficult and the equipment is expensive. The point of Modernist cooking is to push food and cooking to the point where the diner is offered new taste experiences, both perceptually challenging and unsurpassed in luxury and deliciousness.
Ó’Donnchü and King (formerly of The Stack and Delaire Graff) worked together at Gåte at Quoin Rock, Stellenbosch, before opening in Bree Street last month.
King and Ó’Donnchü seem eager to play with food nostalgia, by serving posh versions of popular – even childish – foods. The first course, “Pots and Fossils”, consists of a little plant pot containing a base of lemon jelly, a filling of mascarpone, a topping of dehydrated olive “soil” and “plantings” of a mini pickled carrot and a baby broccoli floret. The pot is garnished with an apple blossom petal and a minty herb leaf. The “chips” – each consists of a piece of flat leaf parsley pressed tightly between a pair of almost transparently thin potato slices – are lightly flavoured with salt and vinegar. There’s something charming about the dish, but there’s a literality that reminds me too much of a school lunchbox with raw veg, a cream cheese dipper and a pack of salt and vinegar crisps.
Similarly, the porcini soil – the biggest part of the Porcini Garden dessert – tasted to me like Milo powder. The chocolate and banana macaron – part of the petits fours plate – reminded me of a sweet braai bread.
The masters of Modernist Cuisine use food nostalgia as a way of telling their stories. Blumenthal’s diners wear earphones and listen to sounds of the ocean. At Alinea in Chicago, Grant Achatz‘s diners eat off a pillow that leaks an aroma of warm nutmeg. At Tickets in Barcelona, Albert Adrià‘s diners are presented with a single red rose, inside which the dessert is contained. Evoking nostalgia is powerful: it deepens the diner’s experience of something new.
At SŸN at 47, a degree of nostalgia is evoked, but it isn’t met by the drama of the new. Drama is lacking, despite the number of tattoos and blades in the kitchen. It’s lacking despite the El Bulli leather aprons and the slashed boards hung as art. The rock music, the smoke, the rye cigar and syringes read as young-and-macho, not illusively disorientating.
A significant problem that King and Ó’Donnchü face is this: Modernist Cuisine is two decades old (the term “molecular gastronomy” was coined in 1988). What was avant-garde in the early 2000s is no longer new. We may have been curious to taste a forest floor dessert since we saw one on Masterchef Australia 2014 – but the element of surprise is long lost.
Also, for a concept to have its greatest impact, it should have maximum resonance with the diner. Here, the concepts feel imported. Take the porcini forest floor dessert: In South Africa, we have no experience of red and white toadstools, except in fairytales and Disney movies. We don’t crunch in dark forests in the winter picking dark berries, either. Our trees very rarely look like dark chocolate twigs.
We don’t have volcanoes. The third course, The Last Ice Cap, was oysters served on a piece of ice bigger than a brick. I’m aware of the problem of global warming, but in Cape Town we are more directly affected by drought than melting glaciers.
It could be that King and Ó’Donnchü have geared their menu to a tourist market. Certainly, the price of eating at SŸN at 47 is high. The 12-course dinner with wine pairing is R2990 per person before water, coffee or tip. The five course lunch menu is R790 per person. In partial defence of SŸN at 47’s pricing, both King and Ó’Donnchü are highly skilled, with impressive cooking credentials. Equipment for Modernist Cuisine is eye-wateringly expensive and requires a well-skilled and full kitchen. Still, it makes no sense to me for chefs to cook in the imagined context of their diners. A deeply creative chef surely can’t help but respond to their own lived environment.
King and Ó’Donnchü are energetic, ambitious, talented and highly skilled. But if they want to call themselves avant garde, they need to resist the temptation of being derivative and instead unlock their unique creativity.
If Modernist Cuisine has arrived in South Africa, let it tell a local story, in the now.
SŸN at 47: 47 Bree Street, 3rd Floor, Cape Town; synpopup.com
- 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.