Despite the constant challenges facing the restaurant industry, our chefs have once again shown tremendous resilience, fired up the generators (and, in some cases, installed solar panels), and served up another exceptional year of dining. It was a year for the likes of amadumbe, kapokbos, soutslaai, and pigeon pea — all ingredients that may once have had diners scratching their heads.
Now they make appearances on many a menu as our chefs embrace the use of indigenous ingredients, heritage produce, and local inspiration. We’ve also seen a return to fine — in both food and service — with many restaurants working to elevate their guests’ experience with impressive front-of-house service, though refreshingly with all the warmth of African hospitality.
At the same time, there is an ongoing trend of cleaner, more restrained, and simpler (yet equally impressive) cooking. While Cape Town and surrounds remain the culinary capital, Joburg has found its niche with an appreciation for easier eating and ambience-driven experiences. At the same time, Durban is also making strides when it comes to taking its place at the local culinary table.
Though it’s a near impossible task, here are my five favourite dining experiences of the past year.
Constantia, Cape Town
The famed Constantia eatery reopened after its winter break with a wonderful renovation and a sterling new menu. It is perhaps chef James Gaag’s most impressive menu to date, refined and nuanced from start to finish, matched with top-notch service and an impeccable wine programme. From the playful bread and charcuterie service to the secret cellar course and the last bite of the complex Jerusalem-artichoke dessert, it is an incredible experience.
The Pot Luck Club
World-renowned chef Luke Dale Roberts’s small-plate, globally inspired tapas menu is proving a hit with its punchy flavours, easy eating and the option to create your own dining experience. There are all the familiar favourites — think Tacos 2.0, fish sliders and, of course, smoked fillet with café-au-lait sauce — along with new dishes designed with Joburg in mind, such as peri-peri chicken with ajo blanco and pork belly al pastor.
Salsify at the Roundhouse
Camps Bay, Cape Town
Within the storied walls of a heritage building, chef Ryan Cole and team are serving up a superb seasonally driven menu. Drawing from land and sea, the chef creates a beautifully refined, elegant, and utterly delectable dining experience. The multi-course tasting menu merges local and luxury with dishes such as west-coast abalone with toasted garlic and caviar and “Lamb — The Ugly Bits”, which pairs Karoo lamb and sweetbreads with heerenbone and elements of smoked tomato and aubergine. Sommelier Victor Okolo pours a host of exceptional local, small-batch wines to enjoy alongside each course.
The LivingRoom at Summerhill Guest Estate
Cowies Hill, Durban
Trailblazers when it comes to the use of hyper-endemic, hyper-local ingredients, chef Johannes Richter and team have developed a sensational multi-course menu that celebrates the diverse bounty of KwaZulu-Natal’s indigenous ingredients and exceptional small-scale local suppliers. It’s beautiful food that shines a light on often-overlooked and unheard-of ingredients, telling a wonderful story of the region. A dish of pigeon pea, cauliflower, and lime pays homage to a local farmer while “the ordinary carrot” is anything but, with the humble ingredient elevated to a sublime height. This is incredibly clever cooking paired with stellar South African wines and delivery by a front-of-house service that is up there with the best.
City Centre, Cape Town
Peter Tempelhof and team deliver a world-class dining experience that sees Japanese cuisine meet South African ingredients to magnificent effect. Taking diners on a cross-continental expedition of bold flavours with great precision and expert culinary execution, a meal at Fyn is a meal like no other. The food here is matched by the unrivalled service and drinks pairing overseen by beverage and service director Jennifer Hugé. This is a phenomenal experience that somehow manages to be so much more impressive than the sum of its parts, despite each of those parts being spectacular in their own right.
• From the November edition of Wanted, 2023.