The Grazing Room at DW eleven-13 – Restaurant Review – 20th September 2012

“Your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park.  Enjoy the ride” – Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential – Adventures in the culinary underbelly.

Johannesburg has a chequered history when it comes to tapas.  Something essentially so simple in theory has not always been successful in practice.  They have come and gone, but mostly gone.  Until now.  Hearing that highly accomplished chef Marthinus Ferreira was opening The Grazing Room, an upmarket tapas bar adjacent to DW eleven-13, was music to our ears.  A few weeks ago we found the perfect occasion to go and try it out.

The Grazing Room

You enter The Grazing Room through the main restaurant.  Immediately striking is the difference between the spaces, and it’s a bit disconcerting – The Grazing Room might really benefit from its own entrance.  It is much simpler.  Long, hardwood tables run down each wall, with three smaller tables in the middle.  This is all about bringing people together – you could have all your friends for a big party, or you might find yourself sharing a table with complete strangers, street food style.  No fussing about with starched tablecloths and napkins, but a deft hand is quite evident in the decor.  I especially like the gravity-defying water feature.  The kitchen is tiny, just big enough for the two chefs and only slightly obscured by a glass panel – it is meticulously clean and fascinating to watch them at work.  The only aspect of our entrance which didn’t endear the place to me was the smell of the deep-fat fryer – though you get used to it after a while.

Chefs at work

Right from the off we felt at home, everyone was friendly and this only heightened our anticipation of the flavour-rollercoaster which was to follow.  As it was a celebration, we decided to have a bottle of Marguet Brut Rosé Champagne.  This also gave us the opportunity to catch up with wine steward Patson (mentioned in the DW eleven-13 review) – as interesting and charming as ever.  The wine list at the Grazing Room is the same as that at the main restaurant: a wide selection of really good local and international offerings.

We savoured the haloumi and olive bread, served with a rich olive oil and balsamic vinegar whilst deciding what to order.  The menu at The Grazing Room is brief but diverse and very creative.  This was great for us, because we got to try almost everything on offer.  The tapas are tasting size and meant to be shared.  We decided to split four dishes as a starter and then have four as a main.

We started off with the risotto balls, accompanied by sundried tomato and olive tapenade.  Thick, velvety risotto is moulded into large marbles and deep fried.  The flavours were fantastic.  Next we really enjoyed the white gazpacho – a Spanish summer soup, served cold, it is wonderfully refreshing.  White gazpacho is a Southern Spanish variety, and it doesn’t contain the tomatoes and peppers which most of us are more familiar with.  It is typically made with a garlic base, added to which are dried fruits and almonds.  This was cool, creamy but not at all rich and cloying.  Quite superb.  My favourite dish was the bruschetta with tomato, spring onion and goats cheese salsa.  This is a fairy-tale combination, I can hardly describe how good it was.  Really fresh, tasty tomato and spring onion on warm, crunchy-outside-soft-inside bruschetta with a perfect balance of delicious, tart goat’s cheese.  Perfection, says I.

Bruschetta with tomato, spring onion and goats cheese salsa

Amongst my favourite mains were the Italian spring rolls with smoked mozzarella, parma ham, rocket and white wine cream sauce.  These are a real pleasure.  Crispy crispy pastry with a scrumptious filling of melty, smokey mozzarella and the salty parma ham.  Cue a final with a zing from the sauce – masterful.  We also had the springbok tartare.  Finely chopped, smoked springbok in a delicious mayo dressing served with crisp toasts.  I really enjoyed this one, but my fellow diner found it relentlessly smokey and couldn’t finish his half – so I ate it.  We both loved the chourico salad.  Warm spicy chourico on a bed of flavoursome smoked beans, chick peas and roasted peppers.  This dish was typically tapas, and the combination of simple ingredients really evoked the flavours of Spain.

For pudding I had ‘cookies and cream’ ice-cream.  Absolutely delicious vanilla and chocolate-cookie-crumble ice-cream which takes the term “creamy” to a whole new level of foodie ecstasy.  Such a simple dessert, yet such a sweet triumph.  We also tried the peanut butter parfait with cherry sorbet, warm cherry sauce and red wine poached cherries.  Although it was executed with obvious technical brilliance, I am not a huge fan of peanut butter.  My fellow diner, however, adores the stuff and thought this dessert was really enjoyable.

Peanut butter parfait with cherry sorbet, warm cherry sauce and red wine poached cherries

The service at the Grazing Room was absolutely right for the vibe and concept.  All the waiters and waitresses were very friendly, and we felt neither rushed, nor lacking attention.  The dishes all come out at different times, and in no specific order.  This is the whole idea – that you “graze” away throughout rather than eating a set meal.  Most of the necessary attention to detail was in evidence, but once or twice we had to wait quite a while before our Champagne glasses were refilled.

Chef Marthinus also came over for a chat.  Fortunate for us, because this man is truly inspired and passionate about food.  Maybe most importantly, he has a vision for the Johannesburg dining scene – direction it really seems to need.  He is ambitious, highly motivated, and stands a really good chance of convincing us that Cape Town is not necessarily the place to be.  This kind of hard work and dedication takes some guts, and deserves vigorous applause.

Sometimes one needs to step back from the food itself, and look at the bigger picture.  What makes a really great meal?  Of course the food is important, but other essentials include good company, great wine and an atmosphere conducive to bringing all these elements together.  The Grazing Room is wholly successful in this regard – whilst the food takes centre stage (deservedly so) all of the other boxes are ticked at the same time.  For people who love food, love eating out, love their friends and celebrating the sheer joy of life, the Grazing Room should be at the top of your list.

10 tapas plates, 2 espressos and 1 bottle Champagne came to R 1350.00 including tip.  And a quick word to the wise, you need to book this one in advance, it’s tiny, and very popular.

The review was sent to the restaurant on 11th October 2012.

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DW eleven-13 – Tasting Menu and Restaurant Review – 25th August 2012

An “up-DoWn” evening, but good overall…..

When writing about restaurants, one should always compare ‘fondants’ with ‘fondants’ – so to speak.  Fine-dining establishment DW eleven-13 currently enjoys 7th place on Eat Out’s ‘Top 10 Restaurants in South Africa.’  So, DW will be appraised relative to the standards of other Top 10 restaurants where I have eaten (all but two).

We went to DW for the seventh time so that visiting friends could try a food and wine pairing.  Chef Marthinus Ferreira has introduced a 6 course tasting menu, so this seemed a good option.

DW has cleverly made its rather unfortunate location (on the lower level of the unsightly Dunkeld West Shopping Centre) work to its favour.  A classy façade distinguishes it from its neighbours.  The space itself is modernistic; gorgeously decorated with contrasting African urns and artefacts, sophisticated wallpaper and classic white table settings.  The lighting is soft and the ambiance serene.

We had informed DW in advance that we would all order the tasting menu with wine pairing.  For some reason, this was interpreted as negating the need to see a wine list.  When it was eventually brought to us we followed the recommendation of our wine steward and ordered a bottle of Genevieve MCC Blanc de Blanc 2009 to toast our friend on her birthday.

We were given two copies of the tasting menu printed on flimsy bond paper.  One of our party, allergic to shellfish, could not eat the first course of prawn ragu.  We had been cautioned in advance that:

“Chef Marthinus would like for you to experience the tasting menu the way he prepared it therefore unfortunately we do not allow any alterations to the dishes.”

We were informed, very matter-of-factly, that nothing could be done.  No substitution.  No concession.  Our friend would “just have to skip the first course.”

Why do I feel so indignant about this when we knew what we were in for?  Because every other Top 10 restaurant where we have eaten has happily accommodated this shellfish allergy.  The request doesn’t seem unreasonable, does it?  Shellfish can be lethal to those who are allergic.   While restaurants can’t be expected to cater for everyone’s foibles, it’s not as if we asked for a carb-free, low fat meal!  I am left wondering what makes DW so self-important that allowances for diners with legitimate (medical) dietary requirements cannot be made.  It affects such a small portion of the menu.  Too much to substitute one dish for another?  Our friend would have been happy with an extra plate of conciliatory amuse bouches.  Instead, we all sat there eating our prawns – he hungrily watched us.  This did not make for a happy start to the meal.  To add insult to injury, he still had to pay full price for the menu!  The message seems to be:  ‘Like it or lump it, if you can’t eat something on the tasting menu then order a la carte and spare us the trouble.’  Not the most winsome of attitudes.

So, the un-pleasantries out of the way, the prawn ragu was actually rather tasty.  Three juicy, perfectly cooked prawns, served on a delicate tomato compote, drizzled with lemon butter.  These subtle flavours worked well and were complimented nicely by the Champagne, Marguet Brut Rose.  The second course of springbok tataki and springbok tartare was a favourite at our table.  Tataki, meaning ‘pounded’ or ‘hit into pieces’ is a Japanese dish.  A thin slice of meat or fish is seared, seasoned with vinegar and rubbed with a paste – pounded from a variety of spices.  The DW tataki was lightly smoked (something the restaurant has truly mastered) and the tartare was wonderfully rich and flavoursome.  Several inspired accompaniments brought these components together: nori (thin, dried seaweed), beetroot gel and parmesan spheres to mention but a few.  The wine choice of Rainbows End Cab Franc 2010 originally struck me as odd – a red right at the beginning of the meal.  However, it worked like a charm.  The Loch Duart Scottish salmon with butternut puree was lovely.  Salmon soft and luscious, the butternut added smokiness and gentle sweetness, and pink grapefruit a dash of acid.  The whole dish was topped off with super-crisp fried salmon skin – brilliance in terms of texture.  Served with Hermanuspietersfontein Bloos Rose, another cleverly selected wine pairing.

Loch Duart Scottish salmon with butternut puree

An unremarkable palette cleanser of orange and Pimms slush followed.  The main course was my absolute favourite, a succulent fillet that melted in the mouth.  It was topped with tantalizing rounds of rich, scrumptious bone-marrow.  Accompanied by red wine and garlic crumbs, carrot, courgette, onions and rich, deep beef jus, the dish was a triumph.  This was served with a complex, fruity Capaia Red Blend 2009.  Not a well-known wine, but do try it if you get the chance, it is quite wonderful.

Fillet with red wine and garlic crumbs, carrot, courgette, onions and beef jus

The cheese course was an epicurean revelation.  A round of white, creamy goats cheese layered over with a delicate peppered-pink guava jelly.  Shallot vinegar caviar – still fabulous (you can read more about it in my review of Cube) – completed the dish.  Bursting with flavour, we were all surprised and cheered by the cheese course and the lip-smacking Surin ‘Burlesque’ Straw Wine 2011 which attended it.

Goats cheese and peppered guava jelly with shallot vinegar caviar

A pudding of dense Valrohna chocolate tart with chocolate sorbet, chocolate soil and honeycomb helped to end the meal on a high.  This was served with a Catherine Marshall Myriad Dessert Wine, 2007.

Special attention to detail was evident in the wine pairing.  Highest compliments to Patson, who used to be a waiter at DW and is now the wine steward.  He explained each pairing to us in detail, was immensely personable and clearly deeply passionate about food and wine.  The wines were very well chosen to compliment the dishes.  Evidently DW is committed to the development of its staff, and it was heartening to see that there is such opportunity at the restaurant.

The service was variable.  Some staff were really warm and kind, others seemed irritated or disinterested.  Food was served before the wine on one occasion and we eventually asked for the wine ourselves as nobody had noticed this rookie error.

Small things matter.  Always.  But much more so at one of the best restaurants in the country.   The little irritations of our meal were certainly a pity.  I firmly believe that eating out is as much about the joie de vivre as it is about the food.    Endeavouring to keep diners happy should be a prioritiy for a Top 10 restaurant.  I do like DW eleven-13 and the food was excellent.  I recommend the tasting menu, but those who have dietary requirements should proceed with caution.

5 tasting menus, 1 bottle of MCC and 5 other beverages cost R 4800.00 including tip.

The review was sent to the restaurant on 1st September 2012