GIORGIO Nava stands out among chefs at the Cape, not only for his distinctly gentlemanly Milanese style and exquisite Italian accent and suave air but for the astonishing level of his visibility when you’re in his restaurant. He’s all over the place, which makes you think that either he doesn’t have his eye on the ball (the ball in the kitchen, that is) or he has his team so expertly trained that he can afford the time to get to know his guests.
But taste his food and there is only one conclusion, because everything, without exception, is excellent, which is something that can be said of few restaurants anywhere. In fact, only the finest restaurants offer such fluent consistency, which is why I would recommend either of Nava’s two main Cape restaurants – 95Keerom and its very meaty twin across the road, Carne SA – as among the best in the Mother City.
Nava also, in fact, has three smaller restaurants in the City Bowl – Mozzarella Bar and Café Milano, both in Kloof Street, and Down South food bar in Long Street. But this column is all about 95 Keerom, his original, where everything is Italian other than the crisp contemporary décor.
It was astonishing to realise that Senator Park, the city’s most notoriously crime-ridden block of flats, is diagonally across the road from 95 Keerom, which proves again that a good restaurant will out, regardless of position, the ultimate example of this in the Mother City being Bukhara, the Indian restaurant which is still going strong after many years of operating on a nondescript corner if the inner city.
And anyway, Senator Park has been shut, its former occupants have gone, pending redevelopment, so it seems this area – with the courts and sundry legal chambers just down the road – is due for a deserved upgrade.
As well as his four eateries, Nava also has two farms, deep in the Karoo near Graaff Reinet and Nieu Bethesda, where he farms cattle and sheep. So whether you’re at Carne SA with its huge emphasis on meat or here, with its Italian theme, meaty choices are a good way to go.
Having said that, we started with gli asparagi alla 95 – that’s tuna and salmon tartare to you and me, as Dave Lamb might say if we were on Come Dine With Me. In fact, before the starters came, out came a miniature portion of the caprese – burrata mozzarella, with fresh tomato, basil and chopped capers, fresh as a Karoo farm dawn – as a kind of Italian amuse bouche. The crisp asparagus had very generous shavings of Parmigiana Reggiano, while my starter of separate mounds of hand-chopped salmon and tuna mixed with capers, tomato, parsley, onion and olive oil was wonderful in its perky, fresh simplicity.
But it had been tough choosing these starters. He also offers a traditional steak tartare, for one thing, which you don’t find often these days. Then there’s a choice of five carpacci (three ways with beef, or Norwegian salmon, or linefish), and then another section of four ‘I carpacci ‘Scottati’, which is thinly-sliced fish or beef that has been lightly seared, as opposed to the previous selection, which is entirely raw.
Then follows a sextet of pasta dishes, including spaghetti with fresh mussels and tomato, butternut or spinach ravioli (which Di ordered and found excellent), gnocchi with Gorgonzola and walnuts (hugely tempting – I’ll have that next time) and the highly recommended linguine all’ aragosta – crayfish and tomato sauce.
There are as many fish choices, including New York-style seared tuna, steamed mussels in white wine and herbs, grilled Norwegian salmon, and two crayfish grilled with olive oil and lemon. There’s also a fish platter that includes crayfish, tuna, linefish, Norwegian salmon and Saldanha mussels – and that, for R400, sounds much classier than the ubiquitous kreef, prawns, mussels and linefish found elsewhere.
And so, to Giorgio Nava’s speciality: top-range meats from his own farms, cooked the Italian way. It starts off with that Italian meat classic, La Fiorentina: a 1.2kg T-bone, grilled and sliced, that feeds two. And if ever you’ve wanted to rethink the now madly ubiquitous South African habit of smothering a steak in “steakhouse sauce” and wondering why you can barely taste the meat, try it the Italian way.
There’s grilled ostrich fillet with marsala sauce, cotoletta (the Italian-style veal cutlet) with sage and butter, osso buco, a springbok casserole, black wildebeest, kudu and springbok grilled rare or medium rare with olive oil and rosemary, and my choice of grilled Karoo lamb chops, also with olive oil and rosemary. Now lamb is my speciality. I even had a restaurant specialising in Karoo lamb. But this man’s lamb chops were so good that I was quite envious.
I just have to sneak into that kitchen and check those temperatures and cooking times.
95 Keerom, 95 Keerom Street, Cape Town
021 422 0765
First published in The Sunday Independent