It’s a beautiful, sunny winter’s day in Cape Town and I am making my way to The Old Biscuit Mill, a space perhaps most renowned for being home to The Test Kitchen — Africa's number one restaurant as judged by The World’s 50 Best Restaurant awards.
Usually, when one arrives at The Test Kitchen it’s dark and somewhat mysterious, as the restaurant is only open at night when it offers an outstanding, immersive, multisensory dining experience. However, in the light of day, something else is at play. August 21 marked the first sitting of Ye Olde Test Kitchen.
Walking up to the entrance, the first thing I notice is a sign hanging above the door, similar to those found outside pubs around Britain. This one features a coat of arms of blue, red and gold, which includes two dragons and a shield with three crossed axes. From the moment I set eyes on it, I know I’m about to have an awful lot of fun. Stepping inside, the playful theme is set out in full force – flag bunting featuring the same mythical crest is draped from corner to corner and above the pass hang two large chalkboards displaying today’s menu and wine list. Underneath the flags stands chef Luke Dale-Roberts, who is clearly thrilled with the daytime transformation of his famous light room into an old-school British eatery.
The idea, which has taken a long time to become a reality, was inspired by nostalgia for the British pub culture from his youth growing up in the Punnett’s Town, in East Sussex. When he noticed a growing demand for accessible daytime eating in Cape Town, he decided it was time to make this vision a reality. Driven by the simple question, “Is it tasty?” he went on to create a traditional pub lunch with a modern twist. “We are offering the same degree of skill and attention to detail [as The Test Kitchen] to good old-fashioned, honest food,” says Dale-Roberts of the pop-up.
Sitting down at the tables, laid with brown paper in place of the usual crisp white table cloths, my guest and I are presented with the menu. Printed on plain paper, with subtle but quirky design elements once again teasing the traditional pub theme, it is simple: four starter options, five for mains and three for dessert. When ordering à la carte, this is my favourite type of menu, usually an indicator of a well thought-out and balanced offering. Needless to say, Ye Olde does not disappoint.
I start with the pressed terrine of the day. It’s a duck and date combination, with crunchy pistachios layered with a creamy chicken liver parfait, all to be scooped up and lathered atop thick, crunchy slices of sourdough. It’s a great dish that perfectly embodies the ethos of the pop-up: deceptively clever cooking, where something as seemingly simple as a terrine is presented and served packed with wonderfully contrasting textures and full of flavour.
Next up, the rabbit and ham suet – a pastry so closely associated with British cooking – made with a rich, fat-based casing. The texture of the crust is gorgeous; think of the crumbliest, melt-in-your-mouth, buttery pastry you’ve had and then some.
However, it was the meal of my companion – fish and chips – that stole the show. The humble British staple was elevated by the lightest, most delicate, crispy (but not too crispy) golden-brown batter encasing succulent pieces of fish, served alongside mushy peas and a glorious rendition of tartare sauce, with thick-cut, crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside chips.
Recovered from the thrill of what quite possibly was the best fish and chips I’ve ever had, it was time for dessert. I can’t resist going for the classic sticky toffee pud, interested to see Dale-Roberts’s interpretation. It ticks all the boxes: wonderfully moist, coated with a sticky, shiny toffee sauce and served with a side of freshly churned vanilla-bean ice cream. There’s not much to say about it other than that it was bloody fantastic.
Of course, no good pub lunch would be complete without a drink of sorts. The Test Kitchen’s sommelier Tinashe Nyamudoka has compiled a thing of beauty in the form of the lunchtime wine list, featuring special vintages, bin ends and some of his favourite South African wines.
The interesting and noteworthy wines on offer included Nyamudoka’s own wine Kumusha 2018 Sauvignon Blanc; back vintages from the likes of Alheit, Mullineux and Hamilton Russell, as well as a seriously stunning selection of select vintages from Sadie Family Wines. A 2014 bottle of Sadie’s Die Ouwingerdreeks chenin and palomino blend, Skerpioen, was a treat that couldn’t be passed up and made for the perfect lunchtime libation. Those looking for a more typical pub experience can choose from a small offering of craft beers, all available by the bottle.
While the waiters might be dressed down in white T-shirts and jeans, the service is nothing short of exceptional. It’s the finesse and ease of the evening service paired with the more casual tableside demeanour befitting a pub lunch.
While it’s by no means the point, anyone who has been to The Test Kitchen will naturally draw comparisons. However, in a way, I think that’s where Ye Olde Test Kitchen’s appeal might lie. It’s a refreshing and different take on “fine dining”. It is simple food, made well; it’s not intimidating but rather fun and playful. It’s not to be, and shouldn’t be, taken seriously. It’s there to indulge, somewhat tongue-in-cheekishly, in a time gone by. A lesson in nostalgia, if you will, and few chefs are skilled enough to transport diners to “yonder” years with something as simple as fish, chips and crested bunting.
• Ye Olde Test Kitchen is open for lunch Wednesday to Friday until October 25 2019. Bookings for the light room can be made online. There is limited seating for walk-in guests in the dark room.