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Test-driving The Test Kitchen

Luke Dale Roberts in his Test Kitchen domain, in sepia

History repeats itself. La Colombe had a brilliant chef who grew an international reputation for the Constantia restaurant and earned it a slew of awards. Then he left and started his own, more modest, eatery. La Colombe found a brilliant replacement, who clawed back its international reputation and earned it a slew of awards. But now he too has left and opened his own, more modest, restaurant.

Scot Kirton, who has replaced Luke Dale Roberts (who replaced Franck Dangereux) at La Colombe, surely must wonder about the expectations that must weigh on his shoulders. At least he can’t say he doesn’t know what La Colombe requires of him: Make us famous (again) and then (please!) make it third time lucky for us: stick around, dude.

In the meantime, while Dangereux makes superb nosh in his Foodbarn at Noordhoek – without winning slews of awards yet still running a fabulous restaurant (despite what the Dior-dusted Damsels of Posh Galore might think) – Dale Roberts has his own venture, The Test Kitchen by Luke Dale Roberts. But let’s get past that little bit of outrageous pretention and through the front door, where we find a small 34-seater eatery in a space dominated by a kitchen and a wall of wine, the upper reaches of which are reached by a long red ladder. How risky is a tiny restaurant in Woodstock? But Luke, as personable and apparently unpretentious (despite that name thing) as I remember him from La Colombe, just wants something small and maneagable.

Beetroot Tretchikoff - my name for it, not Luke's

You find The Test Kitchen at the Old Biscuit Mill precinct in Cape Town’s Woodstock, a suburb which is an eighth of the way from drab industrial hasbeen to prime trendy wannabe. If the weather isn’t as ear-bashingly windy as it was when we were there, you can sit in the courtyard, but otherwise prop yourself at the kitchen bar counter and watch Luke and his team conjure your delectable morsels, or choose a table.

If you know his food from La Colombe, there’ll be no surprises. His customised dinnerware graces your table, on which he will drape up to eight courses. Your choices are either his ‘gourmand menu’ or the regular dinner menu, which offers any three courses for R345, any five for R440/R600 (with wine pairing). The dinner menu offers a choice of three starters, five mains and five desserts. But we went the gourmand route, which offers eight courses for R550 or R750 (with wine pairing).

In one corner of the Test Kitchen is a small service bar which serves a ‘chef’s kitchen cocktail’ of the day. Today it was gin-infused watermelon with pastis and Jacques Bruére methode champenoise. Deliciously (and surprisingly) dry. We were given a chef’s favour before the first course – tempura shiitake mushroom with a miso dressing, a gentle start on what was about to be a busy palate.

Foie gras

I rated five courses five stars. I rated four stars to another two dishes, and three to another. Starting at the bottom, with course 2: Trout tartare, green apple, lime, crème fraiche, miso-cured aubergine, flat parsley, creamy miso dressing. Yes, there’s a lot going on, as there is on any Luke Dale Roberts plate, no matter how small. Did I say I didn’t like it? Far from it: I don’t think there’s any such thing as disappointing food from this Sussex-born chef. It’s just not quite as brilliant as the other dishes.

Next: beetroot mousse, slow-cooked baby beets, lemon and thyme purée, horseradish and mixed nut crumble, fennel confit, puff shards. The mousse was a lovely cloudy puff of pink. Loved the fennel confit. ‘Beetroot Tretchikoff’, I noted, for its striking looks.

Next: pan-seared lamb’s tongue and scallops, peanut and elephant garlic purée, pancetta, bourbon and American oak velouté, ginger and spring onions. Now we’re talking: the tongue was soft, almost paté-like. The velouté had a subtle hint of wood in the way that a lightly-wooded chardonnay has. Pancetta superbly crunchy and delicate. Beautifully balanced.

The ‘next’ on the list was obviously actually served last: an odd dessert, but utterly wonderful. Little ‘yoghurt snowballs’, sweetened tomatoes, gooseberries, stracciatella (ice-cream), with a  peppery vanilla syrup. Splendidly moreish.

Shiitake tempura

Midway through the meal (and listed as one of the eight courses) was a palate cleanser of apple sorbet with gin and tonic jelly and shiso cress. Seriously the best palate cleanser ever. And the only one I’ve ever thought of giving a star rating.

So, to the top three, counting down. In third place (envelope please): foie gras and Jerusalem artichoke ‘micuit’, duck confit salad with rosemary streusel and leaves. I couldn’t quite work out where the duck confit was in this, but Luke’s food is a bit like that – things hidden and submerged, things disguised, almost reinvented. But five stars nevertheless for that slim sandwich of micuit (partly cooked) foie gras.

Second: golden-brown joints of quail, plump langoustine, pertly al dente corn with a ginger and miso emulsion and lime gremolata. The liquorice jus was good enough to have you in confession, pleading for mercy – or seconds.

And the winner is: woodfired pork belly and pork loin with halva crust, and soy-roasted sweet potatoes. Despite having had several small courses before this it was so good that I could have polished off a full serving.

A wall of wine at The Test Kitchen

Wines along the way were perfectly matched, from the Kleine Zalze cellar selection sauvignon blanc and the same estate’s shiraz, mourvedre and viognier blend to the Klein Constantia riesling and the fascinating Quoin Rock vinedried sauvignon blanc that accompanied the ‘tomato’ dessert.

The restaurant busienss at the Cape is a fraught affair, and Dale Roberts has done a brave thing by opening such a small place in such an odd space. But he deserves much success, and I hope he gets it.

The Test Kitchen, The Old Biscuit Mill, 375 Albert Road, Woodstock, Cape Town 021 447 2337


First published in The Sunday Independent, January 2011

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