Rust en Vrede vs The Test Kitchen

Cathy Marston visits arguably the top 2 restaurants in SA.

by: Cathy Marston | 25 Feb 2011

They say that ‘comparisons are odious’ but let’s face it, we all want to make them don’t we? David Higgs, of Rust en Vrede, is currently Eat Out chef of the year and nobody would deny it is a title well-deserved. Luke Dale-Roberts didn’t enter this year as his new venture, The Test Kitchen, hadn’t been open long enough to be judged, but with his track record at La Colombe, we expect sparks to fly later on this year when the 2012 Eat Out Top Twenty are revealed.

Last week I ate at Rust en Vrede on Thursday and then the next day, I lunched at The Test Kitchen– yes, my life does, indeed, suck. So here are my thoughts on arguably the two best restaurants in Africa.

Rust en Vrede
Everything about this operation shrieks ‘money is no object, quality is the only consideration.’  If Chef David cannot be there for whatever reason, owner Jean Engelbrecht would rather close the restaurant and take the financial hit, than risk sending his customers away disappointed. David does his marketing himself – every day – and a lengthy list at the back of the menu tells you of some of his favourite suppliers and what he sources from where. All the crockery is specially made and is immaculate with interesting textures, giving you a clue what to expect from the food. The staff are almost too perfect, which can be a little irritating and I must confess that I had thoughts of walking towards the loo, then suddenly diverting at the last minute, just to see them scramble to get to the door ahead of me and hold it open. Nasty aren’t I?

The food simply takes eating to another level. The portion sizes are small (perhaps others have complained about this because we were offered bread at every course?) but perfectly-formed and more than adequate for anyone with a normal appetite. Stand-out flavour combinations such as the orange with the Brussels’ sprouts and the lamb shoulder surprised and then melted into multi-layered mouthfuls of delight. The best dish in terms of flavour was an exquisite plate of cured Springbok with Avocado, Rooibos gel and a Shitake and Grape salad and the most beautiful cheese course I have ever seen anywhere was the soft shaved flowers of Tete de Moine and its perfectly-contrasting crunchy samoosa pastry.

The Test Kitchen
Luke’s new restaurant is a very different offering from David’s, set as it is in the industrial surrounds of the Biscuit Mill in Salt River. And Luke himself is a very different style of chef, arriving in his slops and shorts before tying on his apron and getting stuck in. I had been lucky enough to try a couple of the dishes before, but it was interesting to see that both had been slightly tweaked and altered – proof of the philosophy behind the venture which is to continually try new things and ‘test’ themselves to the  limit. The crockery, like that at R&V, is also individual and handmade, but with interesting shapes and using interesting colours, suggesting a more quirky approach to the food.

Which is exactly what you get. The Asian Beef tataki starter is highly-flavoured and packs a far creamier punch than other versions, but without being in the slightest bit cloying or sticky. The dramatic puddle of bright yellow carrot puree and kingklip are served with the prawn California roll as a starch - as with R&V, the plating is a thing of beauty and a joy, well, not quite forever as this is food to be savoured and enjoyed, not drooled over from afar. I will be brutally honest and say I have had better lemon tarts than the one served on the day – perhaps why Luke is advertising for a pastry chef – but this is nit-picking in the extreme and since I cleared my plate and licked it, I’m not really in a position to complain that much am I?

The verdict?
Is that these two are the best restaurants I have eaten at in South Africa, with the best chefs, using the best ingredients, to the same exacting standards, but in two very different ways. If you want to wallow in absolute perfection with class, good taste and elegance oozing out of every immaculate pore, then Rust en Vrede is the place for you.  And if you want a more laidback atmosphere with surprising, challenging, bold food flavours and an exciting overall eating experience then get yourself into the Test Kitchen and enjoy.

Cathy Marston writes and tweets about wine. Read her blog and follow her on twitter.


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