There is something about the way a head chef walks into a kitchen that charges it with tension. The cooks stand straighter, prickling with expectation, their prep lined up before them ready for praise or condemnation. With a mixture of pride and fear, they stand like soldiers in a quiet army, preparing to charge.
Except these soldiers are already under fire. Something has been labelled incorrectly in the walk-in fridge, and the head Chef lets them know about it in no uncertain terms.
Dario Di Angeli has been fighting on this corner of Parktown north for almost a decade. He has shied away from capitalizing on the trend of celebrity chefs, preferring the anonymity of facing the stove. A task to which he is well-suited. Small and compact, he looks like he is built for bashing pans. He has the juxtaposing combination of features that mark hard-working chefs -- muscular forearms and scrubbed clean, hard-working hands that belay a gentleness of touch. The industry term is ‘fairy fingers,’ used to describe those who have the necessary dexterity required for artistic plating.
Born in Zimbabwe, Dario moved to Johannesburg in his early teens. A self-taught chef, he put in the hard yards, working at the 'Milk and Honey in Hillbrow' and the Mellows Pizzeria in Waverly before a stint as a relief chef at the Riviera Hotel. "Back then," he laughs, “'haute cuisine’ used to be epitomized by mushrooms in a cream sauce with parmesan cheese.” But the experience of doing things like prepping 100kg of chicken livers at a time and 100s of litres of stock paid off. “Menial repetition is where chefs learn to walk the line between precision and speed, there is no shortcut to experience,” he says.
In preparation for his next job, as head chef of Lalampara, he purchased 10 classic recipe books and worked his way through them, making everything from demi-glace to court bouillon. What followed, in 1999, was his first restaurant, the Greenside eatery, Yum. And then, a year later, the first Cube.
Now, after an extensive refurbishment, it's back but not quite how it began. First, it now has a liquor license — a fact which Di Angeli has very strong opinions. "I started Cube to be about the food, it was never about anything else. The fact that I now have a liquor license does not mean an additional income stream for me.” The new space offers two different wine paring options, the standard and the premium. “My philosophy is that I mark up the wines 50%, in order to cover the cost of ice and breakages. Otherwise, I would mark up the wines 35%, the same as a bottle store.” Remarkably, every wine from the wine cellar is available by the glass.
Some of the flavour combinations will be classic, but it is still Cube, so mostly, they will be wacky
The new space is still based on multiple course tastings, but there are fundamental shifts. Firstly, it is no longer called Cube, but rather Est Est Alea, which translates as, “It is still Cube.” Of the menu, Di Angeli is adamant, “I’m sticking to my guns, I am not an a la carte restaurant, I do tasting menus.” His goal is to create an experience that helps to offset the stress of living in Johannesburg, “Provide people with the best of everything, let them leave their problems at the door, and most importantly make them feel cared for.”
The menu itself has progressed with current trends. His food has always been heavily influenced by molecular gastronomy, but he is moving away from that. “I’ve gone back to real classic cooking, prime ingredients at the intersection between sustainability and quality. Of the flavours, the flamboyance remains, “some of the flavor combinations will be classic, but it is still Cube, so mostly, they will be wacky.”
The meal at Est Est Alea seems, therefore, to be a battle weighed in Di Angeli’s favour. He has the pedigree, access to ingredients, and the location upon which to stage his attack. The meal starts off with a reintroduction to nachos and margarita’s. The drink element comes on a spoon in sphere form, while the nacho is a cracker of smoked duck and bean salad, topped with avocado and sorrel. It’s a remarkably tasty little slip of a thing. So too is what follows… a Tom Yum jelly with squid ink and dehydrated slap chips. A pool of curry sauce comes next, topped with perfectly picked and seasoned crab, although when told that the crab is Alaskan king carb, the provenience and sustainability comes into question. The highlight, however, is a springbok tartare with soy poached tomato cheeks and a tian of aubergine, which perfectly marries ingredient, technique and personal style. It's effortless and perfectly executed.
The hot dishes follow, which are varyingly successful. Playing with chillies across the hot offerings, there are a few condiments which are warm, and some which are blistering. A dish of smoked duck and butternut is enhanced with fiery chimichurri, while a plate of perfectly braised pork knuckle is wiped out by a thermogenic harissa. An impeccably cooked ostrich steak with fruit leather and blackberries and a luxurious fillet with freshly shaved white winter truffles are both without fault. But with 10 courses behind us, it has started to feel like an exercise in tantric eating.
And perhaps this is partially why the desserts feel unfocused. The odd thyme-flavored ‘easter egg’ and a plated custard with Turkish delight and halva both seem forgettable, and lack the enthusiasm and playfulness of the earlier courses.
In Est Est Alea, Chef Dario Di Angeli has created a cubic problem of his own. A puzzle in which, to the uninitiated eye, the systematic applications of complex patterns look like magic. But, in approaching order, it is in this aesthetic also necessary to create chaos. All in all, the meal is reflective of the tension between chaos and order and the magic that lies between those two states.