The Art of Duplicity, the speakeasy stowed away behind a Victoria warehouse in the Cape Town city centre has always been known for its eccentricities; be it the challenge to get in, the fit-out of the bar itself, the retro-inspired versions of modern pop which plays long into the evening or the monkey nut shells which cover the floor.
This is without of course mentioning their exceptional cocktail selection, with names like White Dragon, Death Becomes Her, or the somewhat more extreme F*** You, Castro. The cocktails are truly things of beauty. The libations, some twisted versions of classics, others completely new concoctions, are all well balanced, interesting and clever in their conceptualisation.
On my way to the menu launch I think about the idea of food and cocktails, especially at a place like this. Knowing the impressive capabilities of the bar, I wonder why they would further complicate what is already a complicated yet exceptional experience with a layer of a complicated food offering.
Much like neat whisky, or any other hard tack for that matter, I never particularly enjoy cocktail and food pairings. The pairings more often than not are overwrought and overthought, with the intensity of the alcohol making matching cocktails with most food near impossible.
Cocktails, in my opinion, are generally best enjoyed with uncomplicated bites that generally have a bit of salt, greasy fat or carbohydrates to them — preferably all three. The former two often cutting through any acid and sweetness while the latter assists with lining the stomach. Think something cheesy, maybe some anchovies or olives, salty French fries, even a burger if you must.
Though if you are one for cocktails with fancy-frilled food, then the bar’s interesting and eccentric new menu led by recently appointed ‘sovereign of flavour’, chef Serushia 'Sush' Naidoo, is worth checking out.
It’s all the over-the-top, eccentricity you’d expect from ‘Art’. Think fire and ice oysters that play between spice and sweet, hot and cold. A course of the cucumber strips, aioli and togarashi, plays on the components of sushi — though it could use a bit of salt and texture for added oomph.
The highlights of the night are no doubt the Caviar and Cauli- it’s all that fried, salty and carb-forward goodness I was looking for, packaged in an elegant bite, and the deconstructed bouillabaisse — if for no other reason than for that deeply flavourful bisque (though I’m still not sure how I feel about drinking fish stew from an espresso cup).
This unfortunately can’t be said for their much-touted lobster roll, which arrived sandwiched between two layers of flat, dense choux, or the savoury macaron, which perhaps just overshoots the mark with its chunky tuna filling and squid ink shells. I like the idea but think there could be a bit of reigning in on the concept here.
The same is true for the beetroot and brioche and the ‘not a cheeseboard’ cheeseboard — which features cheese as a “cappuccino”, braaibroodjie and ice cream. I get the concept and how it plays into the bar’s quirky vibe, but it’s the execution which needs refinement.
It’s a menu of hits and misses, though I’m sure one which will find its feet once the chef settles into her role within the group. Though I still can’t help but feel the food, as it currently is, is a distraction from the experience rather than an addition.
Perhaps as a self-confessed purist — if I’m visiting a renowned cocktail bar, it should be first and foremost for the cocktails. So, for now, you’ll find me at the bar sampling their phenomenal drinks and munching my way through a handful or two of the aforementioned peanuts. Shells on the floor, and all.