Lunching at Cape Town’s finest

How much expertise one should have before venturing public comment can be a tricky question – a more difficult (and maybe urgent) one in the age of blogs, where opinion is cheap, and often worthless except to one’s mother and most loyal friends. Technical expertise is not the only criterion, of course – I’ve tasted wines with one or two people much more able than I am to extensively analyse a wine, but yet whose value judgements are not ones that I much respect.

I thought of my qualifications when I contemplated comparing what surely few would disagree are two of Cape Town’s – and the country’s ­– finest eating establishments: the Test Kitchen, and Chefs Warehouse. I (and you) would rather read expert observations on the subject, but, faute de mieux, here am I. Though I shall keep studiedly away from detailed comments on the food. (Is the tosazu jelly that’s part of Luke Dale-Roberts’s Pickled Fish up to international standards? I don’t even know what it is, apart from delicious, and have never knowingly had it before, so how can I presume to judge?)

Lunch at Test Kitchen on a recent Saturday was of five courses – and we also shared a final selection of excellent local cheeses. Service was beautifully paced, unhurried; we four were there well over three hours and, I confess, the last to go. The place is apparently casual (open kitchen, no starched white tablecloths and elaborate napkins, etc), yet impeccably disposed and a touch formal, though easily pleasant to be in.

When it comes to enjoying food in leisurely fashion, the space and service make Test Kitchen the undoubted winner, if there’s a competition with Chefs Warehouse. There it’s undoubtedly casual: one sits where one can find space at canteen-like communal tables (no booking possible; at Test Kitchen there is – but be prepared to wait months). The thing to eat at Warehouse is “Tapas for two”: eight  marvellous starter-size dishes that the two diners must share as fairly and amicably as possible. Two of them arrive first, and then another six, all together.

That experience has its own delight. Test Kitchen and it’s first-rate waiting staff wouldn’t easily relinquish so much control to the diner, but the problem with the freedom to choose a serving order amongst a whole trayful of dishes is that one tends to move through them rather quickly. More importantly, at least some of the warm dishes are cold by the time one gets to them. Sigh. But I haven’t complained yet, and Liam Tomlin’s food – even cooled down and possibly not showing at its best – has never failed to have me purring. And the restaurant is managed with friendliness and expertise by Jan Tomlin.

Test Kitchen’s five course lunch costs R470 per person; the shared eight tapas at Chef’s Warehouse costs R380, which is quite a difference – reflecting, apart from anything else, size of kitchen and serving staff complements as well as the on-the-whole costlier (I suspect) ingredients at TK. And perhaps costlier processing, in terms of time and gadgets: there’s more micro (even molecular) manipulation there, and the presentation on plates is more painstakingly elaborate.

Perhaps that’s another clue to a fundamental difference, and also to my sneaking occasional suspicion that I wasn’t really worthy of eating Luke D-R’s food: Was I actually paying enough attention to the detail? Was I even capable of doing so? (Should I have been on my knees?) That fragment of colour in the corner of the plate, that swirl of bubbles … that mention on the menu of something I hadn’t registered (too busy chatting at that point perhaps) and was now desperately regretting….

Whereas, although Liam Tomlin’s dishes are exquisitely detailed, there seems to me something less intellectually strenuous about them, something more simply joyous. But again, that’s part of the whole experience of Chefs Warehouse: the cheerful, informal but excellent service, the city bustle of Bree Street; knowing that the dishes change every day depending on what’s available adds not only to the enormous respect one has for the brilliance of the chef and the expertise of his kitchen staff but also to the feeling of spontaneity about it all. I can even (in my culinary innocence) imagine the chef making some last minute adjustments as he cooks and sniffs and tastes.

Versus the marvellous and elaborate precision of Test Kitchen (poised on the cusp of the city and the suburbs in shabby-chic Woodstock) where everything is so perfectly placed. None of that perfection could be left to chance – or allowed to cool down in untimely fashion!

As I write this, I’m convincing myself that there’s not all that much point comparing the two restaurants – they offer different, but always delicious, experiences of enjoying superbly conceived and executed cooking. I give up.

• I look at some of the wines we drank at these two restaurants in a blog on winemag.co.za, which should appear shortly. 

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