Eating and drinking in, and on the way out of, Johannesburg

These days I always feel very provincial, in awe of the traffic and bustle, when I visit my home city. But there are endearing pockets of innocence there, I find, even amongst the soft corruption of the wealthy suburbs. Such as some of the salads. Well, there were two of them I had that would qualify, in two modest establishments in a plush part of Bryanston, where the walls of the properties (a more suitable term than “gardens”, surely) rise about four metres, and each one uses about as much bricks and labour as would be necessary to build a dozen RDP houses.

Retro, would be the word – unwitting rather than witty retro – for these salads and they took me all the long way back to my youth: shredded iceberg lettuce, with chunks of tomato and slivers of cucumber, standing demurely in puddles of pungent dressing.

The fancier restaurant meal I was taken to was rather better, though also strangely old-fashioned (I’m not sure if they had Avocado Ritz and Crepes Suzettes on the menu, but one felt they should have done). This was the Coachman’s Inn, in Bryanston. Tasty food and a rather dismal wine-list, of the kind which made me pleased (I was instructed to choose) that Nederburg is so reliable – more than reliable – these days. We drank Edelrood 2007: much too young, but good, quite serious wine, and even with a hefty mark-up, reasonably priced. The appalling thing about the Coachman’s Inn is that, even for a regular customer like  my hostess, at a table of seven people eating three course dinners with wine, they charged for tap water. Sure, it was served with lots of lemon that I had to hastily remove from my glass, but R22 for each of two jugs was the sort of thing that makes one leave the restaurant with an unnecessarily nasty taste in the mouth. The sort of thing that, with the food not quite compelling enough to compensate, would make me choose to give the place a miss.

I know that my experiences in the big city were not definitive, but food and wine wise the biggest pleasure of my trip (apart from a dinner at a private home) was the train journey out of Johannesburg – and not just because it was heading towards the comparative civilisation of Cape Town some 25 hours distant. This was a treat for me, going on the Premier Classe (OK, Jean-Vincent, I know it should be “Première” but it’s not my fault the branders didn’t do their homework, or didnt care for grammatical correctness), which is the train inbetween the ordinary Shosholoza Meyl and the ultra-luxury Blue Train – somewhat closer to the former in terms of price.

I’d made this journey a year or two back and was a little apprehensive that standards might have slipped, but no. (And, incidentally, they seem to have risen at Johannesburg station, which was, on a Sunday afternoon, a model of clean tidiness, despite being filled with crowds of people – mostly, it seemed to me, waiting for buses to Harare.) A day on Premier Classe is a delight, if you’ve got a few good books to read, or you enjoy watching the Karoo flow endlessly past – and then the pleasure of the Cape mountains, and the first vineyards as you approach Wellington…

The food, the five courses of dinner and the three of lunch, is fairly simple but well conceived and prepared. Not a shred of iceberg lettuce to be seen. The service on the Premier Classe, including at mealtimes, is excellent: I wish whoever trains the staff to be courteous, helpful, friendly but self-effacing, would do the same job at most of Cape Town’s smart restaurants. As to wine, the situation is not too bad at all. The list is short, fairly heavily biased to the cheaper end, but intelligently chosen. A lot of half-bottles, which is clever, including Waterford Cabernet, which was the only really good current red. There are a few bubblies, including a champagne. The whites were more disappointing, rather too dominated by sauvignon blanc, with no equivalent of the Waterford. The prices are brilliant – the markup well under 100%. You can even BYO for R30, I noticed.

White was what I wanted, and I settled on a half-bottle of Vrede en Lust’s chenin blanc called Karien. For R40! It was delicious and interesting (though perhaps Platter is a bit excessive giving it four stars), and I confess I ordered a second half-bottle, most of which was kept for lunch the next day (and brought to my table then, unprompted).


The decline of Oz
On a totally different subject, let me refer you to an interesting article by Jancis Robinson in the last Financial Times, on “How Australia went down under”. Do you remember when nearly everyone of any importance was urging Australianism on South African wine, and only a few asked for some resistance? History has moved on, and Australia, after just a few decades as the world’s vinous hero, is slipping out of fashion – ironically, as Ms R points out, just as it is becoming clear how many more fine wines are now being made there that do not fit the caricatured, but often accurate, model.

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