Overnight lamb.
Overnight lamb.
Image: Supplied

It’s a Wednesday night and I ascend the steps to The Chefs’ Table, just off Umhlanga’s bustling Chartwell Drive. It’s been a few years, a global pandemic and change in head chef since my last visit, so I’m naturally curious as to what lies ahead.

In this time between visits, chef Mathew Armbruster has taken the reins of the popular eatery — where he once worked as sous chef, before a stint as head chef at the Midland’s institution, Hartford House. I’d followed his journey then and was constantly impressed by the growth from visit to visit, but cooking à la carte for 140 guests is a different beast relative to the task of a set tasting menu for a hotel restaurant.

The Chef's Table, Umhlanga.
The Chef's Table, Umhlanga.
Image: Supplied
The Chef's Table, Umhlanga.
The Chef's Table, Umhlanga.
Image: Supplied

The first thing I notice when walking in is that the restaurant is heaving with energy. It’s bustlingly busy and has the sense of conviviality that one tends to assign to a time pre-pandemic.

The Chef's Table, Umhlanga.
The Chef's Table, Umhlanga.
Image: Supplied

I’m seated at the kitchen counter, the full view of the open-plan kitchen in front of me. It is a hive of activity, humming with the energy of the brigade of chefs as they slice, sauce, cook and plate dish after dish. It isn’t done with panic or nerve, but rather with an almost rehearsed ease and precision. Armbruster, running the pass, is sending out a seemingly endless array of dishes. The pork belly seems popular, as do the prawns, with the beef fillet perhaps a close second.

These dishes are big, hearty portions, bistro-esque if you will, and all ordered off the à la carte menu. Which is all well enough, but I’m here to experience the chef’s tasting menu, and am hesitant as to how they’re going to get out a seven-course tasting menu while juggling this barrage of orders from the constantly churning docket printer.

And how are these generous platefuls going to make way for the smaller, delicate tasting menu dishes?  

The first course is a yellowtail tartare, the delicately cubed raw fish plated atop a warm turmeric potato base and accompanied by lemon atchar, emulsified curry leaf and tiger’s milk, finished with a shard of tempura spinach it’s already a departure from the à la carte plates on offer. It’s an interesting dish, the chef merging international inspiration with local fare.

Yellowtail tartare with tumeric potato.
Yellowtail tartare with tumeric potato.
Image: Supplied

On flavour, it ticks all the boxes, there’s freshness from the fish, acidity, spice, saltiness and a touch of sweetness from the host of accoutrements. On texture, it is perhaps less successful; the potato, somewhere between hot and cold, is neither an exciting contrast nor a texturally thrilling vessel to transport the vibrant flavours of the sauce below it. No less, it’s a respectable start, and in any event the next courses more than makes up for it.

The miso glazed cauliflower with poached octopus is a clever little dish encompassing textures of sago, cashew butter, pineapple and yellow pepper, together with an umami-rich grana Padano rind custard and foam. Its delicately plated without being fussy, though a few elements still feel like they’re there for aesthetics more so than what they add to the dish, it’s still a stellar course.

Miso glazed cauliflower with poached octopus.
Miso glazed cauliflower with poached octopus.
Image: Supplied

A duck roti is up next, once again an exploration and adaptation of local regional cooking, the tender piece of curried duck is served with homemade raita, date purée, pickled red onion and radish finished with a sprinkle of peanut. The delicious morsel to be devoured together with its miniature roti base, brimming with flavour, it’s dynamite in a small package.

Duck roti.
Duck roti.
Image: Supplied

Next the overnight lamb arrives, the first of two main courses, the beautifully cooked, fall-off-the-bone, melt-in-your-mouth lamb is served with a sugar bean curry, spiced granola, rhubarb — both pickled and as a gel, together with garden greens and pickled radish. My only complaint here is that there isn’t more of it — though, as I still have three courses to go, one could surmise that I’m just being gluttonous.

Overnight lamb.
Overnight lamb.
Image: Supplied

A touch of theatrics is thrown in for good measure with a passion fruit palate cleanser, the cocoa butter bonbon arrives surrounded by leaves and billowing dry ice, but it’s unnecessary as the machinations of the kitchen are far more exciting for those of us with a view of it.

Passion fruit palate cleanser.
Passion fruit palate cleanser.
Image: Supplied

The final savoury course is the blesbok, sourced from the Midland’s Zulu Waters Game Reserve. The loin and shin are presented with cabbage, samp, poached pear and peppadew romesco. One of the lesser complicated dishes of the evening, it’s also one of the strongest. The dish is beautifully cooked game, with a concise selection of well-considered additions.

Blesbok loin and shin.
Blesbok loin and shin.
Image: Supplied

Lastly, dessert arrives, but it’s unfortunately the most underwhelming course of the menu so far. It’s not so much that it’s bad, but rather it just lacks the finesse and restraint of the stronger courses. It takes shape in an overly set citrus panna cotta with a lemon and poppy seed mantecada, beetroot dust, grapefruit sable and elements of grapefruit, kumquat and lemon. The concept is there, and certain elements are tasty, it just calls for a touch of refinement.

Dessert.
Dessert.
Image: Supplied

A special mention must go to sommelier Amani Niyomukiza who delivered a fantastic, informative and interesting wine service through the tasting menu.

I finish the meal with a small petit four selection and a double espresso. I cannot help but marvel at what chef Mathew and team are pulling off in this often overlooked part of SA. Yes, there may be tweaks to be made and some adjustments here and there but all said and done, it’s been a wonderful evening.

Chef Mathew Armbruster (middle) and team.
Chef Mathew Armbruster (middle) and team.
Image: Supplied

Overall, the team having presented a solid tasting menu experience, while juggling the demands of a fast-paced and (by the look and sounds of things), a pretty top-notch à la carte service, too. Colour me impressed.

The Chefs’ Table

Protea Mall 1 Chartwell Drive 23-24 First Floor, Umhlanga, 4023.

For bookings visit their website here.

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