by Matthew Sterne
on December 6, 2010

The Horny Grazer ReviewFour Rhino Rating
“On the Continent people have good food; in England people have good table manners.”
George Mikes

Luke Dale-Roberts is English. And he single handedly disproves George Mike’s notion that the English can’t make good food.

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The Test Kitchen is his latest venture which follows a four-year tenure as the executive chef of La Colombe restaurant at the Constantia Uitsig wine estate culminating most recently in its winning 12th place in the San Pellegrino 50 Best Restaurants of the World Awards 2010 and gaining the title of Acqua Panna Best Restaurant in Africa and Middle East.

Dale-Roberts is an East Sussex lad whose first job after college was at the Baur Au Lac Hotel in Zurich, Switzerland – at the time recognised as one of the top five hotels in the world. Then it was back to the UK where he worked at a number of hot spots, most notably, The Sugar Club restaurants. “I worked under the hottest fusion chef around – and also met my wife, Sandalene, who is South African and was working there as a waitress.”

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His first position as executive chef was at The Loft, part of the Accor Hotel Group, which subsequently asked him to open its signature concept restaurant in Asia, The Square in Singapore. He ended up spending 5 years in Asia. “It was a really good experience but I was getting tired of the hotel scene, so when Sandalene fell pregnant, we decided to come to South Africa. We arrived in Cape Town with a 10-day-old baby, and I started at La Colombe the next day.”

The Horny Grazer was privileged to eat at The Test Kitchen on a Friday night and at La Colombe the very next evening. Fourteen courses with wine pairing in just over 24 hours. Not for the faint cholesteroled. And not ideal for my debut on the beaches of Clifton. I’ve been seeing a personal trainer for 4 months now, but it’s weekends like this that keep the Horny Grazer on the fringes of desirability.

I think it’s unfair to try and compare the two restaurants. They are so very different, but it was nevertheless interesting to experience the restaurant where Luke really made a name for himself – to see from whence it came so to speak.

From what little I’ve found out about Luke, it’s clear that he is an inventive soul. And while La Colombe was no doubt a great platform for him, it seems only right that he now has his own space in which to create sans frontiers. And what better setting than the artistic and bohemian hub of the Old Biscuit Mill in Woodstock. I live nearby the Mount Nelson in town. It took me the same amount of time to get to the Old Biscuit Mill as it would to get to the V&A Waterfront, so I don’t want to hear any complaints about the venue!

In the corner of the Old Biscuit Mill opposite the Espresso Lab, The Test Kitchen has a definite NYC loft apartment’ feel to it. It’s a small restaurant, dominated by the open plan kitchen and the towering, double-volume shelves crammed full of delicious wines accessed via an enormous red ladder. The dark brown tables and chairs are low set, creating a wonderful effect with the high ceilings. And watch out for quirky touches such as the egg box salt and pepper shakers.

It was only the third night when we waltzed in. There was a slightly nervous anticipation among the staff who were all eager to impress. The atmosphere soon warmed up as the kitchen got into full swing and the wine settled in. My dining companion had just handed in his resignation from the city to take a place at the SA Chef’s Academy. There could surely be no better way to celebrate than this gastronomic feast. 7 Courses will set you back R550 each plus an additional R200 if you go for the wine pairing, which I’d certainly recommend. The tasting menu is definitely the best showcase for Luke’s insane talent.

I cannot begin to explain the complexity of these dishes, nor the exquisite attention to presentation – it’s quite simply food as art. From the trout tartare with green apple, lime, crème fraiche, miso cured aubergine, flat parsly and creamy miso dressing to the quail in three ways, served with langoustine, liquorices jus, miso, corn and ginger emulsion and a lime gremolata. Each dish is an experience.

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Those two dishes, along with the pan seared duck breast, cashew nut and turnip puree, mineola and jasmine glacage, pan seared foie gras and confit duck sushi (paired with a delicious AA Badenhorst Red Blend) were my favourite of the 7 courses. As you might expect in a ‘Test’ kitchen, the invention did at times push the boundaries. There were quite a few rich meats in the 7 course menu which did get a bit heavy – foie gras, quail, lamb tongues, duck confit, sweetbreads and lamb fillets among them, but that’s partly down to my own ordering.

The only dish which I wasn’t wild about was the wood fired cauliflower, red roman, smoked bacon white mussel and clam dressing, white wine carrots and slow cooked leek. I found it a little overwhelmingly creamy and smokey. But one man’s meat is another man’s poison. In fact I’m quite certain my Dad would have enjoyed this dish.

The Asian influence is far more prominent here than at La Colombe – you’ll notice a lot of sushi inspired traits. Lots of miso and even a yuzu salsa as well as the Asian Style Beef Tataki were on the menu.

Pudding was the most inventive of all – Tomato and Mozzarella, with cape gooseberry, vanilla and pepper syrup, stracciatella and goat yoghurt snowballs. An extraordinary combination, but seriously delicious. The Buffalo Mozzarella was soft and creamy and the tomatoes sweet and tender.  Just try it – you’ll see.

I’d really like to go back in 6 months or so when The Test Kitchen has really found its feet and developed its character. There were a few nerves on show, but that’s to be expected. More confidence and perhaps a bit more banter and interaction from the kitchen wouldn’t go amiss. It’s a playful space and a great opportunity to pair fine, experimental cuisine with a relaxed and vibrant venue. The concept is fresh and exciting for the Cape Town restaurant scene. It’s a brave venture, which is set to become one of SA’s finest restaurants – the raw ingredients are there, none more so than the passion and genius of Luke himself.