The Bell was apparently an institution of old-fashioned fine dining in Port Elizabeth for decades. I undoubtedly walked past the restaurant as a child on holiday in the windy city in the Sixties, right there in the lee of the old Beach Hotel, across from the sea and Shark Rock Pier.
We almost checked in to the Beach recently, having arrived in the city with an open mind and a pot-luck attitude as to where to stay for two nights, but the receptionist was so surly that I turned on heel and we checked in elsewhere. But we liked the look of the hotel’s restaurant,Ginger, and everything else in the neighbourhood being pretty dire – the most exciting was the local branch of John Dory’s, essentially a poor man’s Ocean Basket – that we decided to give Ginger a shot.
Good decision. You could pick up Ginger and plonk it down at Cape Town’s Waterfront or in some sunny beach-side spot in Camps Bay or Kalk Bay and it would give many other local eateries a run for their money.
It has something that a lot of Cape restaurants don’t quite manage. It’s your popular beachfront eatery serving food that’s high-class, with impeccable service credentials, use of fine ingredients and a whole whack of style, yet it achieves all this without that other thing you get at the Cape – the see-me, trendoid flavour-of-the-month thing. Maybe it’s just that Port Elizabeth just isn’t like that. If so, may it keep that refreshing lack of pretentiousness.
From the gleaming wooden floors to comfortable upholstered chairs, crisp table settings and sleek bar, it’s a good-looking interior with looks that frankly would fit in on the Camps Bay strip, but all of that would be meaningless if the food were so-so. Yet the greater reason why I’d love it if this place were on my own doorstep is the menu and the standard of the cuisine. It takes it cue, the menu tells us, from the traditions of the old Bell which apparently spans some 60 years, but have updated the selection with a modern interpretation.
Obviously I did not know the old menu, but it must have been the likes of Avocado Ritz, carpaccio, escargot, posh grills, fancy seafood and some traditional desserts. Peruse the starters at Ginger, then, and there they are. But the promise of an “update” is clear all the way through. The “Ritz” is a pleasingly updated one, made with crayfish and including a lemon puree, and the carpaccio is either venison with soy, sesame seeds and wasabi, or a trio with soy caramel, sesame seeds (again) and wasabi mayonnaise. There’s crispy prawns with garlic aioli, a glorious duck liver pate with apple and vanilla chutney and toasted brioche. They do steak tartare with sourdough croutons, horseradish and potato mousse, and their twice baked cheese soufflé with ginger and caramel walnuts and “marbles of fresh pear” is a dream.
There’s a handful of salads, a trio of vegetarian options including “vegetable Wellington”, a pasta selection and then the poultry choice, headed by my selection of a signature dish of duck with orange and ginger, which comprised roasted breast and confit leg, with honey roasted carrots, fondant potato and orange sauce.
Chicken with bread sauce and a sherry and tarragon jus was greatly tempting, while other meatier mains included roast saddle of Karoo lamb, lamb shank, Chateaubriand, a selection of prime beef cuts, pork belly, and roast loin of venison.
But the proximity of the sea also calls you towards the seafood selection, which offers kingklip Nicoise, sole either Meuniere or “a la Ginger” (topped with seafood, sherry sauce and gratinated cheese, which sounds like a wonderful way to ensure you sleep very soundly that night), one- or -two-person platters, and a whole page devoted to shellfish, from prawns to lobster.
You choose your side dishes separately, and as well as desserts there’s a luxury cheese board and port menu. They do either Crepes Suzette or a cherry flambee, at your table, a classic crème brulee, rather than follow the fad to flavour it, home-made “spice route” ice cream, and crispy Lindt chocolate – deep-fried, which I wish I had tried.
All of which spells classy old traditions updated without destroying the charms of what the chefs of an earlier generation did so well, and passed on to us.
We really, really could do with something like this in Cape Town, instead of having thrown the baby out with the bathwater in the mad rush to change, change, change. Change is a wonderful thing, but once everything has been changed, none of the old is left. And that’s a pity. Ginger shows how change can be achieved while yet preserving the best of what was. I like that.
Ginger, Marine Drive, Port Elizabeth 041 583 1229