As the organic truffle dust settles on another edition of the Eat Out Mercedes-Benz Restaurant Awards and the last of the heads clear from the event’s legendary after-party, there are still murmurings of debate around the list, as there’ll always be when ranking something as subjective as food. The Cape-heavy nature of the list has caused consternation amongst the culinary cognoscenti of Johannesburg, and the broader question of what makes a great restaurant simmers on. But the most earnestly discussed outcome was the number one ranking, with La Colombe preventing a return of Luke Dale Roberts to the top of the pile.
Having slipped down to second last year after a lengthy run atop the rankings, I’d expected The Test Kitchen to be back at number one in 2019, which is no slight on La Colombe; rather, I’d eaten at The Test Kitchen a week before the awards, and despite arriving with industrial expectations, was still been blown away.
From the welcome of the Dark Room – and a selection of exotic snacks from corners of the world detailed on an accompanying map – to the splendour of the Light Room, and some of the finest food I’ve had anywhere, The Test Kitchen remains a definitive South African eating experience. Greek salad reinvented with swordfish, Luke’s take on pap and vleis, and beef tartare as a work of art (with aesthetic and flavour fighting for top billing) – the menu is exceptional.
But for the purposes of a column on wine, I’ll focus on a support act that lifts the whole experience even further. The Test Kitchen menu comes with two pairing options: gourmand or iconic. Either way, you’re looking at some standout South African wine chosen by a celebrated sommelier.
Zimbabwe has had some famous exports over the years, from Beast Mtawarira and Oliver Mutukudzi to Mazoe orange juice and assorted cricketers. Tinashe Nyamudoka sits high on that list, a man who crossed the Limpopo to establish a reputation as a brilliant sommelier with astute selections.
There’s also a fabulous wine list, however, and at the urging of my companions for the evening, I climbed happily into the selection that the restaurant offers. And what a selection it is – from established rock stars to unexpected delights and several wines that have developed cult followings, it’s a carefully curated tribute to the local industry. The challenge is deciding what to choose from a list that’s not excessive but does have you wanting just about every bottle.
So what did we complement Luke’s food with? Chris Alheit’s Magnetic North chenin (see the cult reference above), a limited release wine that will complete the chenin conversion of any non-believer. Wine alchemist Eben Sadie’s Skerpioen, another chenin, but with the unusual addition of palomino for a white combination that delighted in the duet it played with a couple of Luke’s dishes. (I’m not a fan of the term ‘food wine’, but this is wine made for dining.) The wonderful Samantha O’Keefe’s viognier, a polished, elegant calling card of her groundbreaking Lismore estate. The Seven Flags pinot noir from Paul Cluver, arguably Elgin’s finest red wine. And as a nod to one of the diners, The Megan – Hartenberg’s acclaimed shiraz supplemented with grenache and mouvèdre for a regal Rhône blend.
On wine offering alone then, The Test Kitchen has a claim on top honours – combined with the genius of Luke Dale Roberts, it’s my finest dining experience in South Africa this year. But it’s been some time since I was last at La Colombe, the new number one spot – and now there’s an added reason to get there soon. For not only is La Colombe home to terrific food, it also has a resident Zimbabwean sommelier – and Joseph Dhafana received this year’s Eat Out Wine Service Award at the Eat Out Mercedes-Benz Restaurant Awards. Better than The Test Kitchen? Watch this space.
WHAT I’VE BEEN DRINKING THIS WEEK: In and amongst the wave of exotic varietals and unusual blends sweeping through the local wine scene, a noble grape is making a steady comeback, and very happily so. More and more single variety cabernet franc is emerging, and the best of the offerings are superb. Cue the 2013 Anthonij Rupert: rich, voluptuous wine with that trademark hint of cabernet franc green that sits amongst a beautifully balanced wine. It’s a grape we’re able to make particularly well, and this is as good as any I’ve had recently.
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Want to see what else Dan Nicholl has been drinking? Watch his latest episode of Dan Really Likes Wine!