THE rise of the north Indian eatery in the Mother City in the Nineties moved attention away from your average old-style South African curry house. Restaurants such as the perenially excellent Bukhara claimed deserved adulation, but I have long missed the presence in the central city of a good old-fashioned ‘South African’ Indian restaurant.
They do exist. But at the one in my neighbourhood for which I’d had high hopes, Maharajah, I had a superb lamb off the bone curry on one visit, then when I returned a fortnight later and ordered the very same thing, it was awful. And hit-and-miss is not inspiring.
I missed the sort of place where you’re guaranteed a topnotch ‘Durban curry’ and a bunny chow, that street staple that once was served to indentured labourers as it was both filling and the half loaf of bread served as a kind of “bowl” which you would eat as you went along, presumably with one hand on the plough or harvesting sugar cane.
Enter Robin and Anushia Moodliar, veterans of the former Talk of the Town restaurant where in the Nineties they were well-known to the media as their hosts at the “Press Club pub”, as Talk of the Town was known to us. Ironically, perhaps, Anushia’s dad Chan Moodliar (her husband and her own family share the same name) eventually sold the Talk of the Town premises and it ultimately ended up in the hands of Sabi Sabharwal, owner of Bukhara just round the corner, and is today his excellent Haiku Asian tapas restaurant.
Now Robin and Anushia have resurfaced with a restaurant in their own right, Nush, in Plein Street opposite the old Sars premises. Nush is an abbreviation of Anushia’s name, but also sounds a bit like ‘nosh’ and vaguely munchy, and somehow it makes an appealing name for a restaurant.
Nush is not at all obviously “Indian”. It’s not all plush red or gold-braided, not does it have the kind of heavily ornate bronze statuary that Talk of the Town had. Rather, Robin, who is chiefly behind the venture though it takes his wife’s name, decided the place should have a contemporary look, sleek and chic, and it looks fabulous in its understated way, thanks not least to the very striking placing of a gorgeous portrait of Anushia’s mother, Devi, as a young woman. The portrait, against a stark black backdrop, is riveting and you find it hard to take your eye from it. For the rest, the venue is rather unusually sited, but if you consider that Parliament is just around the corner, Robin’s thinking in choosing the location becomes clear. It is mostly open for breakfast and lunch, and is a good spot for a quick bite or cake (they make their own) and tea, and is only open at night on Fridays and Saturdays. For purposes of this review, that is when I would recommend a visit to try their pukkah south Indian fare of the kind that South Africa’s old-fashioned Indian eateries used to serve.
It’s not all Indian, but Indian choices predominate. It’s a small, contained menu, always a good sign. Just six starters – braised chicken livers with onion, garlic, chilli and tomato; phyllo parcels filled with chickpea and lentils braised in jeera and coriander; calamari with chilli and garlic, fish roe with tamarind sauce, dhal with garlic croutons, and puri and patha.
The last was a regular on devi Moodliar’s menu at Talk of the Town, and its presence on the new menu must be the reason for the smile on her lips as she gazes down from the portait at Nush. This is a wonderful dish, a light and utterly delicious starter of spiced yam leaves served inside a puri, the light-as-air fried bread, almost like a whimsical veggie hamburger. I’d go back again and again just for the puri and patha.
Worth mentioning too are the prices – all of the above range from just R22 to R35 (the puri and patha’s R25).
There are four salads for R50-R60, but more interesting are the mains, which oddly include a pizza topped with the ‘veg curry of the day”. On the night we were there, the two such curries offered were butterbean or cauliflower. And, more oddly, a pasta dish with prawns tossed in their signature tomato chutney with basil, coriander and coconut milk. Other dishes are fried fish cakes, grilled sirloin (rubbed with dhania and jeera seeds and served with mash braised with onion, chilli and mustard seeds), lamb chops in masala, masala-fried fish, and a trio of bunny chows. These are served with mutton, chicken and vegetable curries, but they told us that you can order just one kind of curry if you prefer.
But we had come for proper Durban curry, and these are offered in ther own section, “Curries that made Durban famous”. Priced from just R40 (yellow dhal) to R75 (fish curry), they include mutton and potato, chicken and pea, or beef mince curries, served with rice, roti or pap. Off menu, though, are proper Durban bunny chows in the half loaf, so do ask for this if that’s what you hanker for.
We both had the mutton curry, hers just as it comes, mine in bunny chow form, and it was a delight to feel free to climb right in, hands and all, the way it should be, tearing off pieces of bread and dunking up the excellently spiced and supremely tender mutton curry made by chef Nasen Moodley, who came from Durban to run the Nush kitchen.
The vermicilli lagan, subtly flavoured with elachi (cardamom), tasted as great as it looked.
Nush – their tag line is ‘Differently Indian” – gives the Mother City a hot (and strangely cool) new Indian alternative for very affordable meals, given that the only course that costs more than R90 is the lamb chops at R120. So this is surely one worth many a repeat trip.
Nush, 69 Plein Street, Cape Town 021 461 2524
First published in the Sunday Independent