Beetroot cured trout sashimi (trout from Midrand).
Beetroot cured trout sashimi (trout from Midrand).
Image: Andrea Burgener

150 kilometres. That’s as far as most ingredients for Urbanologi’s menu are allowed to travel, for the next 150 days (and then hopefully for the longer term). This is the challenge – named Project 150 - that head chef Jack Coetzee and team have given themselves.

The website blurb for this hip downtown restaurant went a little far, claiming that all except the spices are within this radius, whereas it’s actually all except the dry store (flour, sugar etc). Not that this is a criticism of the actual project, but just that whoever writes the blurbs needs to match words to reality. It is, of course, hardly surprising that these items aren’t that closely sourced, given the tiny radius they’ve given themselves to work with.

Locavore thinking in restaurants is all too often a lip-service trend, but Coetzee – who comes from a farming family in Zimbabwe, and therefore understands food well beyond the plate – appears to have a sincere passion around both the local issue and, what is nowadays called, ‘nose to tail’ (but should perhaps rather be called ‘stop-wasting’).

Coetzee is a talented and thinking-sort of chef, and has – as hordes of regular Joburg Urbanologi fans know – the technical vocabulary gathered from training at Silwood and years in top restaurants. This very background might also be what’s making his life harder right now... When you earn your stripes in the Test Kitchen, using high-end and exotic ingredients is a habit that’s hard to shake.

A dish of shimeji mushrooms cooked tempura style was delicious, but Coetzee had to use tunnel-grown, harder to procure mushrooms, rather than using a more pedestrian vegetable or fungus (possibly more naturally grown). A sweet potato or bean would have worked just as well; the dish was really all about the very good batter and sauce.   

The reasons for eating local are often a little muddy. Many studies show that in most cases, production methods are a far greater issue in terms of carbon emissions than how far a food has travelled. For example, I would much rather eat grass-fed and finished beef from 300km away, than the part-grass, part-feedlot beef which Coetzee must settle with given his distance restrictions. Having said that, there are other good reasons to eat local, and they aren’t the emissions ones.

Citrus roasted carrot.
Citrus roasted carrot.
Image: Andrea Burgener
Lamb on duck fat roti (lamb from Bapsfontein).
Lamb on duck fat roti (lamb from Bapsfontein).
Image: Andrea Burgener

Chief among them are that local purchasing usually means giving agency to smaller businesses, and that getting food from around the corner – as Coetzee points out – tends to give you a fresher, more delicious product. I like the no-waste part of what they’re doing most. It results in some truly great surprises.

Three such delights on this particular menu are the brioche made with surplus duck fat instead of butter, and on the dessert menu, the glorious tuile made from coffee-grounds plus a delicious limoncello made from lemon rinds, concocted by gifted pastry chef Thari Moagi.

In a city of restaurants who mostly couldn’t care, Urbanologi is a very good tonic. And, I’d much rather eat lunch opposite old Chinatown and Joburg central prison than in the ‘burbs. Urbanologi is at 1 Fox precinct, Ferreirasdorp.        

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