The most amazing thing about South African restaurants is how few of them serve simple, honest South African fare. If it’s not a steakhouse, a pizza joint or an ethnic eaterie serving Greek, Italian, Spanish, Thai, Mexican, Ethiopian — anything but South African — it will be a fancy-shmancy place so far down its own gullet that you can see the Eiffel Tower at the other end.
It always delights me to find a restaurant that does everything wonderfully without any obvious pretentiousness and having the intelligence to have a menu that focuses on the best that we have to offer. And when you’re in any small South African town, you know you’re more likely to be disappointed than not. What experience has inured you to expect is the ubiquitous slab of meat with a steakhouse sauce that is bought in a big plastic bottle at Trademark or Makro.
(You thought they all made that sauce themselves? Riiiiight … that would be why it tastes the same the length and breadth of the country.)
Spending a few days in Mossel Bay last week, we asked around town for suggestions as to the best place to eat in town. Cattle Barron or Beef Baron, said one. Sea Gypsy, said another. Then a man in a lovely bric-a-brac shop called Fynbos suggested Jazzbury’s, which we had passed and liked the look of. It’s one of those restaurants-in-a-house where you are likely to find somebody doing something in an individual way. And that is exactly what it turned out to be.
Jazzburys is owned by Celeste Vaughn and managed by Riaan Jordaan, and specialises in robust, well-made local dishes like lamb shanks, bobotie, ostrich and Mossel Bay sole, but cooked with a good deal of flare and an exceptionally good palate for flavour.
Now I should feel grudging about this but I don’t: when we had our own Karoo restaurant a few years ago I was occasionally told (unsolicited I might add) that the lamb shank was the best they’d ever had. Hey, I put a lot of effort into that, and usually a lot of time. At least five hours of gentle cooking, most often. Sometimes more. And you really do relish those comiments if you’ve taken the trouble. But I don’t think I have ever cooked a lamb shank as delicious as the one that is a staple of the Jazzbury’s menu. It is slow-cooked with ginger shavings, fynbos herbs and red wine, and it is bloody sensational.
This was the Springbok flank of shanks. Meaty and moist and superbly browned and reeking of exotic flavours, and yes, Butch, it was a ginormous one too. A very manly shank, worthy of fitting the space between a Springbok rugby boot and a bruised knee.
I had felt, earlier, that I should have some or other ostrich dish, this being a house speciality at Jazzburys, so I started (even though a non-meaty dish might have seemed appropriate given the shank that was to follow) with ostrich carpaccio with biltong, and this too was a joy for a hungry man to have set before him. It is served with a gently sweet dressing, basil and tomato pesto and my portion was meltingly tender and a starter worthy of the finest Cape Town menu. I had also been tempted by the ostrich liver spiced with paprika and fried in butter. Fantastic – this is exactly what we should be seeing on local menus, not half-baked imported recipes.
As you’d expect, starters also include a mussel pot (steamed in white wine and cream with herbs and garlic), and there’s also homemade pickled fish, a trio of samoosas, (bobotie, snoek, vegetable), smoked snoek paté, ‘Huguenot’ style snails (blue cheese and garlic) and a chef’s soup. I seriously rate this small but impressive starter menu for having the balls to truly believe that local is bladdy lekker.
Other main courses (not that I advise you to choose anything else - you’d be a blithering idiot not to order the shank) are many and varied. There’s a beef and lamb menu, a chicken and pork menu, the requisite ostrich selection (200g or 400g fillet, chargrilled and served with oyster sauce, ginger, honey and chilli), fish and seafood, and a trio to offer vegetarians.
The meat menus include a Hollandse Biefstuk and other steaks, casserole of the day (a most delicious oxtail stew the night we were there), the shank, and lamb’s neck oven-roasted with rosemary and olive oil. Also eye-catching was smoked deboned pork neck with sweet chilli, caramelised pineapple and red pepper pesto.
Fishy choices included Mossel Bay sole in a lemon butter and herb sauce, Mozambique prawns, Plettenberg Bay calamari, and of course local mussels.
You choose your desserts from the blackboard menu. That day they included an Amarula créme brûlèe which was the evening’s only minor disappointment – too set, so that you could cut a slice, not at all runny – and a fabulous Cape brandy tart.
If you don’t end up at Jazzbury’s when you visit this well-maintained small coastal town, try Sea Gypsy for rustic bonhomie right on the quayside with seals bobbing below and large portions of calamari and locally-snagged fish, Kingfisher at the Point for a smarter version of the same, and pop in for an elegant lunch at Fynbos, then browse in this fascinating shop and also next door at Arabesque, both of which are ceiling-high with all manner of things worth taking home.
But don’t do lunch on the day that you’re going to Jazzbury’s for dinner. Just have some toast and Marmite for breakfast and then break your fast with that splendiferous shank.
Jazzbury’s, 11 Marsh Street, Mossel Bay, 044 691 1923
First published in The Sunday Independent March 2011