“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.