It was probably the most extreme, but ultimately satisfactory, meal arrangement I’ve made. A few years ago I was planning a visit to Sicily, and suggested to my friend John (an American lawyer living in London with his South African wife) that, well – how about meeting me for dinner in Palermo? Sure I’ll meet you, he said. And did. In fact we squeezed in a few dinners and lunches, the best of which was a long afternoon in a trattoria in the heart of one of Palermo’s extraordinary markets. I can’t remember the modest local red we drank, but we got through two bottles so we must have enjoyed it. But I still remember happily the pasta with sea-urchins.
John (and Mpho and a couple of kids) recently moved to Cape Town via a few years in Johannesburg, and the food thing continues: we have an agreement that preferably twice a month – definitely at least once a month – we shall meet for lunch at Liam and Jan Tomlin’s sublime Chefs Warehouse and Canteen on Bree Street in Cape Town CBD. London restaurant critic (and husband of Jancis Robinson) Nick Lander recently wrote glowingly that he’d had there his “best-value meal for a very long time”, with the small platefuls of food being, really, not so much traditional tapas as dishes “the same size, and of as good a quality, as any first course served in a top restaurant in Europe or the US”. Jan tells me that customers still ask her if she’s seen the review.
Long may this agreement on frequent, regular visits to Chefs Warehouse continue. In four visits, I’ve not once finally put down my fork (or spoon – last Friday we finished with a perfectly delicious panna cotta scattered with red fruit and cubes of jelly) without regret, and without wistfully wishing I could start all over again.
So, being a notorious curmudgeon, I’m perversely pleased to make a small grumble. Certainly not about the food (we were short of enthusiastic about only one of our eight dishes, a rather sloppy risotto), nor about the bottle of Lothian Riesling 2012, dry, fresh and tasty, that’s clearly destined to become part of our projected tradition. The problem came when, to prolong the occasion just a bit, we asked about dessert wines (without looking at the short winelist) and the suggestions were a straw wine or Peter Bayly Vintage.
The latter seemed a good idea (it was a mild rather than hot afternoon). Soon, two tiny glass bottles arrived with the port decanted into them, and also two entirely unsuitable little glasses – stemless, thick, everted: perhaps OK for tossing back a tot of schnapps, but unattractive for any decent wine. Fortunately we still had our wine-glasses so we used those instead, at which point we realised what minuscule portions were contained in the little medicine bottles – something like half a standard tasting portion: I should think close to forty such servings could be extracted from a 750ml bottle! Oh well, it tasted good, so we weren’t too disappointed. But I was shocked when the bill arrived. I’m happy to agree with Nick Lander about the great value of the food – but those thimblefuls of “port” were charged at R50 each! Wow. I’d guess that’s something like 1000% markup.
Nonetheless, we were still feeling so benign about the whole experience that we stumbled away from this anomalously problematical conclusion to a great meal, still happy, looking forward to the next (but certainly portless) visit.