The time I was a food critic

Trawling through the malarkey I’ve churned out over the last couple of decades, I came across the first restaurant review I did for the Sunday Times. That was eleven years ago. Nobody has asked me for another review since.


Fish Hoek is not known as the food capital of the Western Cape. There are three or four restaurants, no bottle stores and two bars. So when one gets invited to the opening of a new restaurant in this slowed-up sliver of suburbia, one catches one’s breath at the excitement of it all.

The hour draws nearer. The terrible sound of bagpipes drifts across the valley. Has this something to do with the grand opening? Is it a Scottish restaurant? Is there even such a thing? I can’t be certain. What I will do, though, is take a concealed weapon. The Scots cannot be trusted at times like these. They are an excitable and unpredictable nation.

The Illicit Consort has misplaced the invitation and can’t remember what it said about dress code. “Never mind,” I say. “In Fish Hoek, smart casual means tracksuits.”

Some kind of circus ringmaster wearing a silver jacket and top hat welcomes us at the entrance. Spotting trays of champagne circulating within, I brush past him and bound inside. I am in mid-quaff when I hear a voice say, “Have you been invited?”

I ignore him and move swiftly in a crab-like fashion towards a quivering mound of oysters. He follows me. “I want to see your invitation,” he barks. I am instantly outraged that this character out of Deliverance is questioning my integrity. The Consort intervenes before things can turn ugly. Funny how the word ‘media’ turns fascists into fawners.

The Consort later said his attitude might have had something to do with the fact that I was wearing jeans, T-shirt, a black hoodie with splashes of red and a pair of slops three sizes too big that I found abandoned on Long Beach a couple of weeks earlier.

“Never mind that,” I snapped. “We are journalists and these people should be grateful that we’re wearing any clothes at all.”

Besides, the place is called The Bohemian Yard and I am dressed like a Bohemian. It takes several glasses of Pierre Jordaan before I am calm enough to look around the place. Despite management’s strong-arm tactics, I thought I’d give the place another chance.
Without the milling crowds, the Sartorial Police and four bottles of Pierre Jordaan inside me, the restaurant looks like a different place altogether. Elegant. Almost colonial.

As an accompaniment to the enormous tumblers of gin & tonic, the Consort orders dolmades with lemon (R12) from the mezze list. Other starters range from artichoke hearts (R18) to roasted pears wrapped in Italian ham (R30).

Safely ensconced with our backs to the wall, the Consort decides champagne is in order and asks what they have to offer. Moët & Chandon. That’s it. We laugh and wave the waiter away. Visiting the bathroom, I am so impressed with the warm ambience and creative décor that I could easily have my meal right there alongside the urinal.

On my return, I trip over something that hadn’t been there when I left. An ice bucket. And a bottle of Moët. The Illicit Consort bats her eyelashes. I restrain myself from batting the Consort.

Having no stand for the ice bucket is perhaps an indication that management never seriously expected anyone to order a R790 bottle of champagne.

The menu is a sheet of A4 paper covered in what appears to be Arabic. The Consort agrees that one would need the eyes of a sparrow hawk to read the small print, then rattled through the options without even squinting or holding it up to the candle.

Possessing the instincts of a carnivore, she orders grilled lamb cutlets with homemade chimichurri (R90) while I ask for the grilled linefish with parmesan cream and slow roasted tomatoes. Oddly, it’s listed as an SQ item. This is yellowtail, for god’s sake, not imported Maine lobster.

Each dish is accompanied by chips, salad or roasted pumpkin. The Consort has the chips, or, as the menu would have it, shoestring potatoes with lemon, garlic and parsley butter. I have the pumpkin with honey and sea salt.
I look for our drinks waiter and spot him settling in behind a piano. Then, from behind a curtain, Pearl emerges. The Diva. Built like divas should be built, Pearl is resplendent in a ballooning black silk dress and scarlet boa. I barely notice the Consort ordering a second bottle of Moët. Well, I noticed enough to say, “You’re paying”.

The diva hands the mic to another waiter who has the room spellbound with his version of Bette Midler’s The Rose. He moves like Bette. He even looks a bit like Bette. Then he plucks a white rose from one of the tables and hands it to the Consort, reducing her to jelly and me to jealousy.

The yellowtail tastes as yellowtail should while the Consort’s ample portion of chops, although done to perfection, are awash in a sauce that tastes more minty than chimichurri.

Dessert would have been pavlova with white chocolate yoghurt and fruit of the season (R35) but it wasn’t because the kitchen was closed. At 10.30pm? On a Saturday night? And we’ve just spent R1 600 on champagne alone? The waiter tries his best but the kitchen staff are standing firm. Must be one hell of a union they belong to.

We could, however, have Irish coffees. And we do. Repeatedly. Later, while the chairs are being put on top of the tables, one of the singing waiters brings me a dainty little handbag. “Courtesy of Madiba,” he says. I am thrilled. I tell the waiter to thank Madiba and ask for the bill. He gives me the lazy. “Not Madiba. The Diva.” The bill is inside the handbag. Without the ambrosia, it comes to R400.

The Diva thanks us profusely and personally escorts us to the door. I wee on the Dutch Reformed Church’s wall and we go home.


The Prodigal Son Returns

Hello, Durban. It’s good to be back.

No, I haven’t been in prison. I was living in Cape Town for a while. This is my hometown. I’m from the wrong side of the Umgeni. It’s where I grew up, lost my virginity and was arrested for the very first time. Good memories.

Life and death conspired to deposit me in Westbrook, a settlement tucked away in the bush between Ballito and Umdloti. I beg your pardon. eMdloti. Does it really matter if it’s an upper case U or a lower case e? A small m or a big M? If so, then I insist we call our city d’Urban.

It was, after all, named after Sir Benjamin d’Urban, an excellent soldier and a vile human being. When the darkies refused to be ground into submission, he called them “treacherous and irreclaimable savages” and had them killed in large numbers. As far as I know, Umdloti never harmed anyone.

Westbrook, I have to say, is a bit isolated for me. For a start, it doesn’t have a bottle store. Then again, I was previously living in Fish Hoek, a town not exactly known for its plethora of bottles stores.

The only shop within 10kms is a café called Seagull’s Roost. I am on far better terms with the monkeys than I am with my neighbours. And on Saturday nights the only entertainment is provided by Tongaat’s finest spoilt brats, spinning the wheels of their triple overhead cam-shafted daddy-bought cars in the parking lot there by the beach.

Speaking of the beach, Beach Bums is only a few hundred metres away from me, but I need a machete to get to the bar on weekends. I also have to shout to be heard above the rave music and I must take care not to jostle any of the heavily tattooed steroid junkies who lurch about in their baggies and tight, white wife-beaters clutching jam jars full of liquor.

One of the reasons I prefer d’Urban to Cape Town is that the ocean doesn’t actively try to kill you. I have surfed in icy seas infested with kelp and great white sharks and let me tell you, the Indian Ocean is better.

When the surf gets big, my home breaks are deadly. You ain’t in Muizenberg any more, I tell myself as I once again fail to get to my feet quickly enough to avoid being slammed into the Westbrook sandbank. The waves in town are more forgiving. Which is more than I can say for the local crew. I have surfed at New Pier and had children shouting at me for getting in their way.

What I hadn’t done was gone into the city, proper. It had been a while. I was a reporter on the Daily News when it still had offices in Field Street. That was before Field Street became Qonda ngqo khona-manjalo jikela ngakwesobunxele Street.

When I told my family I was going into town to have a look around, you’d think I had said I was off to Mexico to bag cocaine for the Tijuana cartel. My sister wept and clung to me. My father begged me not to go. My mother turned in her grave.

“At least wear a bullet-proof vest,” implored my father. My sister pressed a Swiss army knife into my hand. I put it in my pocket. On a mission this dangerous, I might well need to open some kind of medication to steady my nerves.

I parked outside Zack’s on North Beach. The building is so run-down it should be called Cracks. Joe Cool’s is not much better. The only two places offering sustenance and libations to weary beach-goers look as if they were designed by the North Koreans. If you were a tourist who happened to be looking for a research facility that conducts experiments on animals, you would be forgiven for thinking you had stumbled upon it. Their kitchen staff probably experiment on animals all the time. Why do you think your beef bourguignon tastes like shikken? Don’t complain. Hybrids are good for you.

Heading south, a sign put up by the Parks, Leisure and Cemeteries Department – they fit together so well – informed me that I couldn’t fish on the North Beach pier. You can’t do anything on the pier at the moment because they are preparing to stuff it with giant bags of sand. Good luck with that, comrades.

I parked outside the Beach Hotel, had a quick beer at Harpoon Harry’s, then hailed a rickshaw. I asked him to take me down West Street.                                                                                                                “Pixley kaSeme,” he said.                                                                                                                           I put my hand out. “Ben Trovato. Pleased to meet you.”                                                                              Oh. I see. It’s now Pixley kaSeme Street. Presumably because West was a bit of a bastard.

I sensed things had changed when I saw a surgery sharing a wall with Mzamo’s Fast Food. Handy if the burger lodges in your throat. Or if you wake up hungry with a pig’s heart in your chest.

I thought I’d have a beer at El Castilian for old time’s sake. I was the drummer for a band called the Slaves of Janet and we played there one night but the crowd turned on us and we had to run for our lives.

El Castilian is now either the Miss Des Miss Hair & Beauty Salon or Zulu Palace, which probably doesn’t form part of King Goodwill Zwelithini’s burgeoning empire.

I took a left down Point Road. It’s not called that any more, of course. Point was even more of a bastard than West. Now it’s known as Mahatma Gandhi Road. What a brilliant idea. Let’s take the filthiest, most degenerate, street in the country – one that is infested with whores and junkies – and name it after one of the most enlightened leaders the world has ever seen.

I turned back after being offered heroin, coke, ecstasy, weed, crack, acid and ketamine in one city block. Where did they think I was going to put it all? I told the dealers I’d be back with a bakkie and ambled on down Smith Street. Sorry. Anton Lembede Street. However, a sticker over the name said it was Sutcliffe Avenue. The work of a right-wing nut? I don’t think so. It’s an honour to have a street named after you. So who benefits by sticking Sutcliffe Avenue over all the street names? I’m just saying. It wouldn’t hurt for the cops to have a word with the former city manager. I bet you’d find a ladder in his garage.

I walked past the Downtown Holiday Lodge – offering upmarket luxury accommodation plus free adult movies – and rated my chances of survival if I nipped in for a beer at their pub. They weren’t good.

I passed a man selling feather dusters and catapults and a tsotsi carrying a pair of handcuffs. You want my wallet? Fine. Cuff me and take it. Better than being stabbed. Later, after the mugging, the police drive past and shoot you in the head because you look like an escaped prisoner.

Then I got lost and couldn’t tell my Florence Nzamas from my Monty Naickers. “Don’t get your Naickers in a knot,” I said aloud, laughing at my own pathetic joke.

I could get away with this kind of behaviour because the only other white people on the streets were vagrants and vagabonds who looked as if they had drifted down from the hinterland on a river of mayhem and misery. I saw one wearing Crocs and socks and wanted to give him money. That’s not true. I wanted to give him a smack.

Realising that the people all around me already thought I was just another mad, homeless mlungu, I began shouting at the taxis. “Stop fucking hooting!” It was pointless. Do the drivers think everyone on the street is mentally impaired and that only by repeatedly hooting will they make people realise they need a taxi?

I found a market selling good quality pirated goods and, even better, a quarter chicken and chips for R20. I bought a quarter mutton bunny instead and ate it on a bench in Farewell Square, right there in the unsmiling face of the City Hall.

I got a few strange looks, sure, but only because I wasn’t eating like a white man. I was up to my elbows in curry juice. Half my face was stained orange. What the hell. If the Royal Hotel could let itself go, then so could I.

Anyway. My family’s worst fears never came close to being realised. Nobody was doing their laundry in the Medwood Gardens fountain. No one was slaughtering a goat at the foot of the Cenotaph. There was no stick fighting on the steps of the Post Office. No boys having their foreskins chopped off. No girls having their virginity tested.

I have been relentlessly hassled and hustled in Maputo, Lusaka, Harare, Accra, Gaborone, Maseru, Mombasa, Nairobi, Dakar and Banjul. But not in Durban. Not once.

If anything, it felt as if I was being allowed back in. As if I were some kind of alpha male monkey who had been expelled from the troop for bad behavior and was now being given a second chance.

On my way out, I wanted to stop at the Butterworth Hotel for a beer. For old time’s sake. Back then, it was the only hotel within walking distance of the Daily News that allowed black people to drink in the bar. I looked for parking but there was none. Probably for the best. Time hasn’t been kind to the old rebel.

* This column first appeared in the Sunday Tribune on July 8th, 2013.