Enduring quality in a time of trends
January 14, 2010
By Tony Jackman
The longer you cover the restaurant business in the Cape, the more jaundiced you become as you see yet another supposedly brilliant flavour-of-the-month restaurant bite the dust while others somehow manage to survive without the glare of the media on them and the foodie glossy posse preening and purring over their every morsel.
Funny, that. Peruse the annual awards lists of the last 10 years and you'll find many examples of restaurants that were once just the place to get to, dahlings, their chefs' names thrown about as if the Gods had come down to save our palates.
Then they slip down the lists until, in a year or two, they drop out of the top 10 and are often never heard of again.
In some cases, their fame will be replaced by good old-fashioned hard work and solid business and marketing practices, and they'll continue with respectable careers and happy patrons. In others, the promise will evaporate like a saucepan of jus left on the heat too long, and months later you'll wonder, "Whatever happened to... ?"
There was a time when Savoy Cabbage, a lovely restaurant almost hidden in an inner city side street, was one of the dahlings of the gushy glossy set. It's delightful to see that years later, the place is absolutely on form.
No longer in the awards lists - and nor does it need to be - this is a business that has always been run as just that: a damn fine restaurant where all the boxes are ticked, and ticked every night. That means the management pays attention to all the details that need to be thought of, from maintaining the décor to keeping an eye on every table no matter how good your paid staff are.
Most of all, it means that what the menu promises is delivered to the plate and to your palate. And when you're paying prices like these - where starter prices are what main course prices were not too long ago (Savoy Cabbage does not, shall we say, have a reticent pricing policy) - you have every right to expect a meal that would have a glossy missy clutching for superlatives, with service to match.
That's the price a restaurant pays for having the courage to set the price bar high - if the nosh was not up to scratch, well-shod feet would walk out and pad to a better option down the road.
Chef Peter Pankhurst has spent most of a decade at the coalface of this spacious double-decker venue where peeled redbrick walls are offset by glass and concrete with cute savoy cabbage touches in elemental designs. (Have I been reading too many foodie mags, or what?)
But when all is said and sighed about, it's what's on the plate that really counts, no matter how high or low the price or how often or not the chef is mentioned in the pages of Posh Galore. Pankhurst's menu is a considered affair, brilliantly executed, in a way that suggests he really ought still to be on those awards lists.
I adored my starter of white grape and almond gazpacho with tomato gazpacho sorbet, from the texture to the icy thrill on the palate to sweetish, hottish flavours that washed over one another in a maddeningly moreish way - the only reservation being that the sorbet was too recent from the freezer, and consequently too solid.
Di swooned over her terrine of Norwegian salmon with asparagus and dill salad.
It had been hard to choose, with starter alternatives including chicken liver parfait with port-smoked figs, West Coast oyster custard with fried oysters, braised leeks and a beetroot and ginger emulsion (okay, they almost lost me there; I am no fan of most of these froths, foams and emulsions, though I have encountered very occasional delights) and a range of house-cured charcuterie which I'll try on a future visit.
Serious gourmands may want to try the main course of veal sweetbreads with mushrooms, lemon and chives, and I was sorely tempted, but I was in a really meaty mood so chose the "lamb three ways", being roasted rack, braised shoulder and merguez sausage, served with a conical garlic flan (like a very delicate savoury pannacotta) and gratinated dauphinoise potatoes.
It was good, though I would have liked the rack a teensy bit less rare, and I loved the red wine sauce so much that I asked for more. The rare chalmar beef fillet with boozy onions (nice), mushrooms and red wine sauce was no less of a great marriage.
The dessert menu is one of those where you're scared to choose one in case the others are even better - fresh figs roasted with honey, chocolate marquise with coffee sauce, butterscotch pannacotta with berry compote - and also includes tempting cheesy options such as gorgonzola with almonds and port-soaked figs.
Great venue, lovely food, wonderful vibe, and all without being pandered to by the foodie floozies. What fun.