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Spitbraais in the winelands and a theatre bistro

Shoulder of lamb at Side Dish Bistro, Theatre on the Bay, Camps Bay

IF our national flower is the protea, our national vegetable is you-know-who and our national sport is soccer … I mean rugby (hey, you guys can fight it out, I prefer boules), our national meat has to be lamb.

Whether it’s cooked on the braai, on the spit or in a potjie, roasted in the oven, turned into sosaties, into a Durban curry or a Cape Malay breyani, it’s the one meat that unites our dark carnivorous hearts. Yet lamb is a thousand potential dishes. You can cook it slowly and thoroughly or quickly and rare. Either way, the South African appetite generally demands a decent portion of it. Lamb was on the menu at two launches I attended recently. One was a new theatre restaurant, the other a regular summer spitbraai on a wine farm. Both were in rather posh if very different surroundings.

Lamb was on the menu at two launches I attended recently. One was a new theatre restaurant, the other a regular summer spitbraai on a wine farm. Both were in rather posh if very different surroundings.

The spitbraai happens every Sunday from 11.30am till sunset at Allée Bleue, at the intersection of the R45 and R310 en route to Franschhoek. There’s live music, tables with umbrellas set out on the lawns in front of the farm’s manor house, and an interior where a large table is laid out with beautifully arranged plates of starters and salads and, later on, a dessert buffet.

The duck starter at Side DishThe beast is cooked in a stainless steel coffin which is the modern version of the old-fashioned spit suspended over coals out in the open for people to watch while the animal slowly turned, with regular basting. Now it happens out of sight, but I’ve been to such spitbraais and been fascinated to see how well it all turns out. Often the potatoes are cooked beneath the meat, benefiting from the dripping juices and fat so that the whole meal, while far from being ideal for the diet-conscious, has you drooling with anticipation.

At the stylish if somewhat sterile affair at Allee Bleue, everything is very sophisticated and precise. This is the well-shod, highbrow incarnation of the spitbraai, and there is clearly a market for it. Personally, I’d prefer something a tad more rustic – certainly I’d prefer to see the slaughtered beast turning over coals.

The starter spread was lovely. Compact terrines of salmon or cheeses, crisp and well-made salads. The desserts were lovely – lots of fresh fruit, individual chocolate mousses, miniature pavlovas and tiramisu.

There were good vegetable accompaniments to the meat, although the portions when the meat was served – you file past chefs who serve for you – were minuscule. One chef told me they had been expecting about 40 people that day so had cooked only half a lamb. Hey, they’re only lambs. Two legs, two shoulders, a couple of shanks and a few ribs and they’re all but gone. But they tasted great and there were other meats. I noticed that some loins of lamb had been cooked too. Maybe they were playing catch-up.

Tiramisu dressed with strawberries at Allee Bleue

Having said that, give Allee Bleue’s spitbraais a try. The price is pretty reasonable, I think – R175 a head for a whole day out including a three-course meal and live entertainment.

On to the Theatre on the Bay in Camps Bay where Andrea and Oscar Foulkes of Dish Food & Social have taken over the little upstairs restaurant, now renamed Side Dish and serving a well-considered small menu of dishes that are good and manageable, given that everyone who dines there is going to a show not long after sitting down to dinner.

It’s perfectly clear as you sit down that the staff know that time is key and that they need to get your orders on the go without wasting any time. That this happens while also serving you lovely grub, beautifully presented and with a great choice of accompanying wines (also speedily served) makes for a perfect dining experience within these precise parameters.

What you don’t need in a theatre restaurant is lots of choice. Side Dish offers you just three starters, three mains and three desserts, with one extra optional side salad which, given the name, is obviously de rigueur. There are also specials of the day.

The starters on the night we were there were grilled prawns with parsley, garlic and chilli, tossed with linguine and lemon buter; Shanghai duck salad with watercress, mango, mint and green apple dressing, and caramelised pear and gorgonzola salad with peppery leaves, croutons and a pomegranate dressing. We ordered the last two, both of which were beautifully fresh and light for a quick starter.

Chocolate mousse at Allee Bleue

The mains were shoulder of lamb with caramelised garlic mashed potato, green beans, baby corn and a rich red wine jus; truffle-scented sauteed gnocchi with grilled mushrooms, beetroot confit and fine beans, with almond cream, and grilled linefish with potato croquettes, carrot and ginger puree, mangetout and gremolata dressing.

The slow-cooked lamb dish was deeply flavourful and moreish. The gnocchi tasted good and were in a pleasant sauce but the gnocchi themselves did not hold their shape.

Desserts were vanilla crème brulee with pistachio biscotti, dark chocolate tart with hazelnut ice-cream and berry compote, and black cherry cheesecake with chocolate ganache. This being a launch, they served miniature versions of these in the new top-floor VIP room at interval. The brulees were stupendously good, the chocolate tarts as chocolatey as you could hope for. The little cheesecakes were never going to compete with a brulee and anything containing lots of chocolate.

A perfect way to set yourself up for the ridiculous amount of laughing you’ll be doing if you’re going to see the wildly funny Fascinating Aida. An entire lamb on the spit would scarcely be enough to fortify you for this trio’s relentless wit.

First published in The Sunday Independent February 2011

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