“RIP kak vibez” reads the spray-painted tombstone in the stairwell leading up and away from Cape Town's Shortmarket Street. Skullboy, the South African-born US-based street artist, certainly isn’t wrong in his scribbles. There’s nothing not to like about The Commissary, the latest foodie outing from chef Wesley Randles and restaurateur Simon Widdison, the duo behind The Shortmarket Club next door.
While a commissary is, according to the Oxford Dictionary, the canteen of a prison, military base, or institution, here the name suggests a paring back: trimming away frills and getting back to basics with a menu that is unapologetically bold. “This is the kind of food I want to eat on my days off,” Randles says.
Which is just as well, as The Shortmarket Club’s kitchen brigade has come in on their Sunday off to fine-tune the final menu for The Commissary. Not that anyone’s complaining. With beers on ice and music blasting, assorted friends, partners, and Shortmarket crew create an enthusiastic tasting panel.
One look at the ingredients piled up on the pass hints at the globetrotting menu in store. Packets of panko crumbs — or perhaps “crumbz”, if Skullboy had his way? — are piled atop atchar masala. Tamarind paste jostles for space with tom yum noodles. Pani puri balls wait their turn for the deep fryer, while a jar of chilli paste has even the hardy palates of the kitchen crew on fire.
The Korean fried chicken is especially good: a hit of garlic and spice tamed by a Thai-style condiment of fish sauce, chilli, and lime. The hazelnut beef tartare is also impressive; inspired by meals eaten in Paris, it is fine-textured and topped with toasted nuts, burrata, and a hazelnut dressing. Also look out for the collaboration with baker Jason Lilley, a sourdough “pizza” revved up with burnt aubergine.
“Nothing about the menu is subtle — it’s all fucking in your face,” smiles Randles, necking a plump West Coast oyster with Asian dressing.
That’s about as fancy as it gets at The Commissary. Few dishes cost more than R60 a plate, but if you do want to push the boat out, there’ll be lobster rolls on the cards.
PLAYING IT COOL
“We want people to be able to come in here, grab a quick bite, have a great glass of wine, and head out again. And it’s cheap,” Randles says. “Or you can come in, have all 10 dishes, order a great bottle of wine and blow it up for the evening. It’s up to you.”
The presentation fits that no-frills approach: sliders on cardboard trays, and chicken wings in paper-lined baskets. “And everything is biodegradable,” adds Widdison. “We take that stuff seriously.”
With the sunken kitchen and bar stretched along one wall, four communal tables fill the loft-style space of The Commissary. Expect to knock elbows with your neighbours and raise your voice to be heard above the music. No reservations; no pretensions.
“This one is for the locals. We want this in our city, but no one provides it. So we’re doing it. It’s great not to have any rules. No expectations,” Randles says.
Well, none except that every dish will be delicious. Randles is, after all, one of the most respected chefs in Cape Town, and anything less than a knock-out flavour-punch, casual or not, is going to disappoint.
But, you won’t be let down. By the end of the afternoon my notebook is stained with splashes of fish sauce, oil, chilli, and batter. I couldn’t be happier. Definitely no kak vibez at The Commissary.
The Commissary, 88 Shortmarket Street, Cape Town, 021-422-2902.
- From the December edition of Wanted.