Port Elizabeth is known as the ‘Friendly City’. With the exception of the staff at the hotel reception (who accorded me the kind of welcome Helen Zille might expect at an ANC rally) the folks here are affable enough. The city, or ‘the Bay’ as locals refer to it, is of course, South Africa’s equivalent of Plymouth Rock, the spot where courageous but naive settlers came ashore only to realise that milk and honey were in short supply in the promised land.
In the Eastern Cape, plague, pestilence and the amaPondo, as we know from our school history lessons, prompted the intrepid and entrepreneurial settlers to make their way back to town to set up shop. The English are after all, as Napoleon observed, a nation of shopkeepers.
The settlers’ descendants still run shops (or small businesses), serving what I overheard an American tourist describe as ‘an industrial city by the sea’. You can see them all over town – architectural ironmongers, brake and clutch repairers, motor component manufacturers and the like. But they seem to have lost their Englishness – the accents are more Mondeor than Melrose and for reasons that are not entirely clear to me, they apparently refer to one another as ‘boet’ and ‘swaer’.
But there are also signs of more recent entrepreneurial activity in the Bay. The fully BEE-compliant sidewalk sweet and cigarette outlets aside, I was particularly struck by “God’s Time Car Wash”, so named, no doubt, because the crew need six days to wash your car, with a rest day on the seventh.
None of the original settlers, as far as I am aware, had qualified at the 19th century equivalent of Le Cordon Bleu. So what of the local eateries? Has PE been able to move beyond the spirit of 1820? I can report that the settler tradition is alive and well – lots of steak and other hunks of meat prepared 20 different ways, usually involving combinations of cheese, peppercorns, and seafood. Basic, life-reduced-to-its-essence stuff.
Fusion rather than frontier
But a new generation, influenced by fusion rather than frontier, has sprung up in the last 18 months or so in Richmond Hill, on and around Stanley Ave (no relation to 44). Richmond Hill is what Melville was in the early 1980’s- Polyfilla villas, a clutch of innovative restaurants with a bustling evening vibe, all offering a welcome alternative to the establishment.
I decided to do both the traditional and the contemporary. Wicker Woods looked both traditional and promising, holding itself out as the ‘home of fine cuisine’. That it isn’t. Set in the suburbs in an old house, Wicker Woods has the ambience of a family dining room, complete with antiques (all for sale). In short, a country house/B&B ambience, geared it seems for the Bay’s few expense account diners.
The menu is mainly Italian, with specials that veer to the more traditional. To start, I had the tomato soup (piping hot, chunky, drizzled with pesto and topped with a square of gorgonzola), perfect for a winter’s night. The lamb shank came highly recommended – it was, as promised, fall-off-the bone tender.
As a lamb shank it was fine, but what disappointed was the leek and garlic mash (floury, unseasoned, with little sign of the garlic) and the promised redcurrant and mint reduction. The latter was more jus than reduction; both the redcurrant and mint were elusive. For dessert, the Lindt balls (twisted in pastry and deep fried), were recommended. It had all the markings of an upmarket version of that Scottish classic, the diabetes-on-a-plate deep-fried Mars bar.
I decided to opt for something more conventional. The crème brûlée was overcooked, no ‘just-set’ middle, all solid custard with a caramelised topping that would have been better deployed on a toffee apple. None of this was cheap (lamb shank at R110, dessert at R45) – dinner with a sparkling water and a glass of Meinert Merlot, excluding a tip, came to R275. These are Jo’burg prices, for food that is not worth the detour. All of which no doubt explains the opening of Mangiamo, the new and clearly more popular pizza and pasta option on the same premises.
So much for the old guard. Flava (on Bain, off Stanley) was my random sample of the new. The decor is Gwen Lane or Parkmore (semi-industrial, pink walls, mirrors, open kitchen, chalked-up menus). Mains include BBQ pork fillet, sole bonne femme, prosciutto-wrapped line fish with lemon butter and saffron aioli, and what is described as ‘petit poisson – baby chicken’. (Note to owner: you mean ‘poussin’ –the thought of being complicit in an episode of infanticide involving a baby fish has limited appeal.)
I tried the Kassler chops with the sweet mustard sauce (R87), served with veg (a mix of mange-tout, sliced baby sweetcorn, zucchini and patty pans) and a salad. Herb and parmesan potato wedges and cous-cous are on offer as alternatives to the salad. The chops were generous, pleasantly smoky and well-cooked.
The salad was similarly bountiful and included a variety of leaves with baby tomato, poached baby pears, feta and a sprinkling of pecans. The dessert menu included a chocolate chip cookie tower, tiramisu cheesecake and a caramel ice cream with peanut brittle (all R35). I opted for a special, the amarula and peanut butter panna cotta. The panna cotta arrived in a ramekin, presented like a crème brûlée. But a panna cotta I suppose it technically was (no eggs), which despite its unconventional presentation, was a pleasing blend of amarula and peanut butter flavours.
A number of Flava’s neighbours were recommended. I’m told that Fushin has the best sushi in town, and that Pescadiya’s seafood is unsurpassed.
Travel tip: If you’re after a good meal in PE, avoid the beachfront and the malls. Go check out Richmond Hill, boet. Or is that swaer?
Wicker Woods and Flava were reviewed by Like Father Like Son.