It’s five minutes to eight and we’re sitting in the car on a Durban Beach parking lot and staring at our phones. We’ve just completed an early morning swim, but bookings are about to open for The Test Kitchen and we are determined to get onto the list.
“I’m refreshing every five seconds!”
“It’s almost eight.”
“You go for the 7:30pm slot, I’ll go for 7pm.”
“Ok it’s available, quickly book! book!“
Both of us are mashing at keyboards, entering names, times and date – we’re aiming for dinner reservations for my birthday. The Test Kitchen only opens for dinner, and seats just 40 lucky people.
“Oh no, 7:30pm is fully booked already!”
“I’ve got 7pm!“
Seconds after opening, all of the available reservations for the upcoming three months are snapped up, as gourmands around the world grab at the chance to eat at the best restaurant in Africa, and – according to a recent list, the 44th best restaurant in the world. Two of the seats at the bar are ours.
The day is finally here and I’m having an amazing birthday in Cape Town. We’ve been for an early morning ocean kayak, met my parents for a light lunch at Marrow on Loop Street, and we are now in an Uber heading to the Old Biscuit Mill in Woodstock.
We’ve previously eaten at the Pot Luck Club and loved it, but other than that experience with chef Luke Dale-Roberts’ food, I have no idea what to expect at The Test Kitchen. I’ve been avoiding reading reviews as I want to experience it for myself, without being influenced by others opinions. All I know is that it’s a set menu with a wine pairing.
We’re met at the door to the restaurant and ushered into a world removed. It’s like discovering a hidden speakeasy – we’re sitting at a low table in a dark room, where background music plays gently and people speak in low, almost reverential tones. We are offered drinks (I opt for a fantastically smoky old-fashioned) and told that we are about to go around the world in seven bites. A scrolled map is pushed in front of us, with Scotland, Korea, the USA, England, Ethiopia, Mauritius and India highlighted.
Over the course of probably only half an hour, dishes inspired by this world tour are brought to us and we devour it. ‘Billionaires shortbread’ has gold leaf and is more savoury than sweet with duck, chocolate and chili. There is a plate of simple baby vegetables, each one perfectly formed, served with an umami Korean ssamjang dip. The pork scratchings from England are served with a milk stout foam in a pewter tankard and the Mauritian coconut langoustines arrive on a tabletop ceramic grill holding a single glowing coal. As the last dish disappears, we are directed on a strict schedule to a heavy wooden door with a shut brass porthole.
“Are you ready for the light room?“
I start to hum the Sunrise theme from 2001 A Space Odyssey – you know the bit: ‘dun…dun….dun…..dadaaaaaa’! The waiters are amused and insist that I do it again, louder, before they fling the porthole open, spilling light into the dark room.
Having gained a glimpse of the light room, we are ushered into it. Blinking like moles emerging from their hole, we take in the thick, white tablecloths; beautifully upholstered chairs, and a profusion of crystal glasses. At the heart of the room is a glistening kitchen – all stainless steel and bright overhead lights. The kitchen hosts probably ten chefs that are conducting a mostly silent dance, sliding past one another as they chop, stir and plate with fierce concentration.
We are seated at a long wooden bar that wraps around two edges of the kitchen and is separated from the action by only a small divider. We’ve got front row seats tonight. I’m excited to see that chef Luke Dale-Roberts himself is in the kitchen, leaning over his chefs, watching their preparations and making occasional suggestions. I take a surreptitious photo of him and WhatsApp it to a friend who has a bit of a rockstar crush on him.
The night’s menu is printed on heavy card and closed with the Test Kitchen’s seal. Eight courses, paired with ‘gourmand’ or ‘iconic’ wines. We decide to splurge on the iconic wine option (older, rarer wines) at R3500 per person. One of the courses was an either/or option, so we pick one of each to ensure that we get to taste everything.
Our waiter, Dawood is diminutive, fast talking, and hands-down the best server I’ve ever met, rattling off the details of 20-ingredient dishes without ever pausing or stumbling.
At regular intervals, the dishes arrive, each with some final ingredient or flourish added at the table, heightening the sense of theater. First-up is a swordfish belly ‘Greek salad’ dusted with olive dust. Next, a lobster salad with coconut and Thai aromatics – the coconut (liquid nitrogen frozen) sprinkled on at the last minute from a half shell. A single tiny cucumber, attached to its bright yellow flower tops the salad. Between courses, a tiny bread – the size of a finger. The butterfish bibimbap is a Korean bowl in miniature: fluffy rice topped with a single morsel of fish, sprinkled with sesame, pickled vegetables, a purple pansy flower and a dollop of caviar.
Before the ‘Sunday Roast’ (beef tartare, celery leaf, horseradish, Yorkshire tuiles) is brought out, just the beef is presented to us in a ceramic sphere where it is being smoked. We are encouraged to inhale its rich aromas to whet our appetite while we sip on another glass of beautiful red wine. Many of the wines are limited releases and in one case we are finishing the last bottle that exists. The Sunday Roast is a lighthearted take on the classic – instead of Yorkshire pudding, a crisp layer of batter honeycombed with holes and sprinkled with microgreens is served up alongside the finely chopped smoked meat and a horseradish foam.
Next comes the choice section of the menu – we get one plate of butter poached kingklip and one of ‘pap en vleis’. I forget the exact make-up of the pap en vleis (I think it involved venison of some sort), but like every course so far it is rich and densely flavoured, with carefully layered textures and tastes brought together into a single cohesive whole.
The most complex dish is the final one before dessert – ‘rabbit and ham in two servings’ involving over 20 ingredients and served with a barrel selected 2010 Bouchard Finlayson Galpin Peak Pinot Noir. A rich sauce is added to the dish at the table, along with a topping of freshly grated frozen foie gras. By now we are approaching complete sensorial overload as each course blends with the one before, dishes arriving and leaving at a rate at odds with my thoughts, which are gently slowing, elegantly wrapped in dark wines and moody aromas.
As we move to dessert, a sweet Klein Constantia Vin de Constance helps bring me back from the edge of a food induced coma with its bright and flowery finish. A rhubarb trifle and a pear creation drizzled with a moss green pine infusion seem to be the last two courses, but it’s a false alarm, as two bonus desserts (a tiny gold foiled doughnut and a sweet millionaires shortbread) follow shortly behind. That’s 17 dishes in total – if I’m not mistaken.
As we are escorted out of the restaurant to our waiting Uber (the Test Kitchen service really is all out) I’m already wondering when we will be able to eat here again – and when I’ll need to be online to make the next booking.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO:
A deposit of R1150 per guest is required to secure your reservation, payable within 24 hours of making the provisional booking. Please be aware that non-payment constitutes a cancellation of the provisional booking.
The Test Kitchen is now taking bookings for January, February and March 2020. Bookings for April, May, and June will be open from 1 March 2020 at 8am South African time.