5 Joburg restaurant gems
Food24’s Johannesburg restaurant reviewers, Like Father Like Son, round up 5 very special places to eat in Jozi.
A brief to unearth Joburg’s Gems suggested a few self-evident criteria. Of course, exceptional food was a given. The challenge was to winkle out those eateries that might be ‘hidden’ – unassuming, preferably independent establishments that quietly ply their trade with minimal publicity to a regular clientele.
Gems are more often than not off the beaten track and most important, they offer some inherent value to their patrons in terms of history, ambience and the like – that which sets them apart from the often soulless franchised outlets that dominate the culinary landscape. Gems are not icons – they don’t seek to portray anything of greater significance, they are content to be and speak for themselves.
Joburg is just so bloody huge, there simply has to be a multitude of amazing little food holes tucked away in her greasy crevices, just begging to be pillaged. So, Father and I went on a little mission to discover a few of these restaurants of myth and legend. Those spots where price belies quality and ambience is king.
Because we’re lank international and accepting of all cultures and that, we’ve focussed our voyage of discovery on culturally relevant eateries, places that represent, in our mind, one or another group of replanted migrants. And we’re grateful that they’re here. So in the true spirit of ‘ubuntu’, anti-xenophobia and being nice to aliens, we bring to you, five Joburg Gems.
To narrow the list to 5 was difficult, but here’s how we called it. In no particular order:
1. FISHERMAN’S PLATE
An unassuming hole in the wall in Joburg’s Cyrildene Chinatown, The Fisherman’s Plate is a classic example of not judging a book by its cover. With décor that was once described by the Boss as “quite similar to a Baragwanath medical ward”, Fisherman’s Plate doesn’t put much emphasis on looking pretty. But like most ugly girls, she tries really hard where it counts.
And in this case, it’s in the kitchen. Bring your posse, sit around a Lazy Susan and order a whole bunch of stuff to share. As the name suggests, seafood is the order of the day AND NO MATTER WHAT HAPPENS you HAVE to order the curried crab. Get messy as you crack open crabby legs to yank out the tender meat inside, all of which is smothered in a coconut milk-based curry. Effing delicious.
The garlic prawns, black pepper crab, sticky spare ribs and calamari are all worth eating as well so don’t hold back. Bring your own booze, spin the Lazy Susan and enjoy a social night out at this laid-back secret seafood hideaway.
You’ll rike this if you rike Razy Susans, chopsticks and orient-eering.
Where: 18 Derrick Avenue, Cyrildene
Tel: (011) 622 0480
Thava, on The Avenue, Norwood, is not your local curry den. It’s one of the few Jo’burg Indian restaurants to offer South Indian fare, and perhaps the only with roots in Kerala. Also unique is the concept of Indian ‘tapas’, an opportunity to share smaller portions of the vegetarian, lamb, chicken and seafood curries on offer.
South Indian specialties include dosa, a crepe made with rice batter and black lentils, offered plain, with masala or chicken, all served with sambar and coconut chutney. The more familiar khorma, tandoori, tikka masala and rogan josh curries are all available, as are a selection of Malabar-style biryanis. We shared a masala dosa (R50) – the crepe was light and crisp on the outside, the spicy potato interior delicious, and the whole a perfect start to the meal. The Kerala chicken curry (R80) was a fragrant and complex combination of garam masala, tomato, spices and yogurt.
Let’s be honest, most of Asia doesn’t do dessert. But native to Kerala (and on the menu) is payasam (R30), a warm and pleasant enough preparation of vermicelli, cream, raisins and cashew nuts. The interior of the restaurant is about as far from the gold-ceilinged, silver-walled and brightly-lit curry palaces of Fordsburg as it can be.
The place is spacious, with lots of wood and the ‘tapas bar’ looking onto the open-view tandoor oven. The service was informed, friendly and efficient. Thava offers the blend of flavours and fragrances that is a synthesis of the diverse races, cultures and religions of Kerala. It’s a gem.
You’ll like this if you enjoy an authentic curry, made with first class, fresh ingredients. You won’t like this if you are looking for a bunny chow or if your idea of a good curry is one prepared with a no-name brand Durban Curry sauce in a bag.
Where: Cnr The Avenue and Plantation St, Norwood
Tel: (011) 728 2826
I’ve written about this little Italian gem on the edge of Orange Grove before and rest assured, not much has changed since my last article. This is what I said then: “Authentic Italian grub served up by that granny they pulled out of the cupboard in the Fattis & Monis commercial. You’re surrounded by real Italians, in Brilcreme, aviator sunglasses and velour tracksuits; and have to consciously avoid eavesdropping on nearby conversations in case you catch wind of a ‘hit’ or a ‘whack’ or ‘making offers you can’t refuse”.
The food is Italian. Pura e semplice. And like real Italian. From Italy. My zarm of choice is the ciabatta with melanzane, artichoke, salami and mozzerella. Finish it off with a take-away cappuccino and tutto bene.” Sconto is a weekly fixture for an in-the-go lunch and I have learned a few key things since writing the above. Firstly, the “Italians” I spoke about, are actually old, Jewish men in velour and aviators, posing as Italian mafiosos. So less “mama mia” and more “bobba meise”, but eh, if I don’t listen properly, I can still pretend we’re in the old country.
Secondly, my new favourite lunchtime treat, is the panini with melanzane, artichoke, parma and rabiola. Variations of this are recommended. I also should mention that the pasta of the day has been freshly made and delicious every time I’ve decided to branch out and order it. The only time I’ve been disappointed was the fateful day I was engaged in a scientific testing phase of the popular ‘no carb but you can eat loads of protein and fat diet’ after reading Prof. Noakes’ new book. I therefore was restricted to the special which was ominously called a ‘meatroll’. Needless to say, it was a bit poof.
The joy of Super Sconto is that you can shop too! Get everything Italian from litres of tomato puree to real Italian dishwashing liquid. The deli is amazing and well priced, the produce is freshly imported and worth checking out next time you’re on Louis Botha and need to escape the incessant taxi hooting.
You’ll like this if you like The Godfather, gesticulation and good prices.
Where: 169 Louis Botha Avenue, corner Fifth Street, Orange Grove
Tel: (011) 728 7561
Colloquially known as the Pink Flamingo, this is a true gem – a treasure in the seam of the urban decay that comprises the city immediately south of Ellis Park. It’s been around for years, serving some of the best Portuguese/ Mozambican food around in unpretentious surroundings (walk through the bar, into in what looks and feels like a large, tiled enclosed patio, complete with wrought iron furniture and paper table coverings).
Daily specials (check the website to match dishes and days) include fried sardines (R69), feijoada (pork and bean stew, R69) 1kg queen prawns and a bottle of Gazella Vinho Verde (R199). The signature grilled baby chicken (R74) is the best in town. A generous serving of grilled calamari, with chips, peri-peri sauce, a Portuguese roll and a cold beer will leave you with enough change from a R100.00 note to provide the car guard with a generous tip.
Although often frequented by the Ellis Park fans for pre- and post- match drinks and comestibles, the Pink Flamingo is much more than a suburban sports bar. It also attracts the literary, intellectual and business sets with the occasional book launch and regular Friday jazz evening, and is a refreshingly different venue for corporate lunches and functions.
And yes, there are pink flamingoes to be seen, in all their plastic glory.
You’ll like this if you enjoy really good Portuguese food in an unpretentious, friendly environment. You won’t like this if you tend toward the paranoid and think that The South starts in Rosebank. If you fall into this category, stick to Nando’s.
Where: 25 Bezuidenhout Street, Troyeville
Tel: (011) 402 7709
5. MZITHO’S KITCHEN
You have to get in early or you’ll join the epic queue of Braamfontein regulars in the know. With the motto “Feeding the nation”, Mzitho’s is known for proudly South African cuisine fresh off of the grill. And what a grill it is: two smouldering metres of meat, teasing your eyes and nostrils.
The mixed grill is a favourite and includes a generous portion of beef, lamb and chicken, seasoned in Mzitho’s secret spice mix (with definite hints of Aromat), served with a man-sized portion of pap and relish, lightly garnished with a smattering of chilli and fresh tomato and onion. Classic pap and vleis finished off with a quart of Stony and you’re good to go. Remember to bring some extra napkins because you will be expected to eat this tasty Mzanzi feast with your fingers, which you’ll be licking clean for the rest of the day.
You’ll like this if you like simple, delicious, value-for-money pap and vleis, unpretentious, uncomplicated, un-vegetarian chow with big flavour and friendly hospitality.
Where: 8 Reserve Street (between De Korte & Jorissen), Braamfontein
Tel: (011) 339 4370
Remember, Jozi is a gold rush town founded on the principals of claiming a piece of treasure yielding ground and punishing it for all it’s worth. So go my fellow prospectors, find those gems and take what you can, before everyone else does.