The Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant Awards event is a highlight on the restaurant calendar, held for the 17th year, and at Thunder City for the first time last night. The results surprised, with one heavyweight chef sliding right off the Top 10 list, while a new restaurant made Top 10. Two restaurants which did not make the Top 20 Restaurant shortlist in 2013 flew back into Top 10 last night. Stellenbosch remains the Gourmet Capital of South Africa (4 Top 10 restaurants), followed by 3 in Johannesburg, and 1 each in Cape Town, Franschhoek, and Hermanus. While the award recipients were acceptable, the food was a disaster.
Thunder City is not an ideal venue for a function of this magnitude (800 guests, but advertised as 1000 initially), being difficult to find – the petrol station one block away from the turn-off had no clue where Thunder City is, and there were no signs off Borcherds Quarry Road, other than some posters held by men, only visible in the last minute. I followed a taxi, there being no further signage to Thunder City. We were collected from the VIP parking by a Mercedes-Benz shuttle van, and I arrived just as the event started, Chef Pete Goffe-Wood doing a tribute to Chef Bruce Robertson, who passed away two weeks ago. The lighting was poor for food photography in particular, giving everything a pink/purple hue. We were so far from the central stage that we were reliant on the massive screens. We could not hear what was said most of the time, and no names of winners were shown on the screen at all. It being a very cold weekend, most of us at our table froze, but it was the cold coming in from outside, there being no air-conditioning. One of the organisers found a blanket for me. The food preparation was done in an open-plan style kitchen, at the back of the hall. We were seated at modern-looking tables of ten, with a central LED light, and each table number was shown on a balloon above the table, which blocked the screens for photography. The 3G connection was poor, and one struggled to Tweet, until I was given the wifi password, which made a huge difference.
The biggest surprise and highlight of the evening was Chef Reuben Riffel coming up to me soon after I had arrived, and asked if we could put all issues behind us! He was smartly dressed with a polka dot tie, and I photographed him with Pete Goffe-Wood, his MasterChef SA fellow judge. Chef Pete told me that a Season 4 is on the cards for MasterChef SA. Elana Afrika-Bredenkamp was the very competent and bubbly MC, well prepared, and never stumbling over her words (as we experienced the night before with MC Jeannie D at the Diners Club Winemaker of the Year Awards). Eat Out Editor Abigail Donnelly looked stylish, and appeared to have lost a lot of weight, wearing black and silver, silver being the dominant colour for the decor of the evening. She speaks well, and uses clever wordplay when she talks about food.
The food was a huge disappointment, with long faces at our table, and the conversation generally being about the poor food. A shared loaf of bread arrived at the table, with good farm butter, most of it devoured before the charcuterie Starter platters created by Neil Jewell of Bread & Wine arrived at the table. When we wanted more bread to have with the platter content, we were told that it had run out. There was only one disposable knife for each of us, but there was no fork to eat the pickles with. Each chef introduced his/her dish, but it was almost impossible to hear what they had to say. We didn’t see the elements of each of the dishes described in a massive ring-bound book, which contained the order of events. The charcuterie elements consisted of Walter ham, sauccison sec, rillettes, Spanish salami, and pickled cucumber cauliflower, with breads by De Oude Bank Bakkerij, all paired with Grolsch. Chef David Higgs introduced his first course which he called ‘Urban Garden’, which arrived in a box, and inside that was a holder with four sections, with a broadbean, a coconut and rose geranium ‘milkshake’, mushroom soil, and a beetroot and candied nut trifle, paired with La Motte Chardonnay 2012. In the video introduction he emphasised that he ‘is obsessed’ with Johannesburg, and that his starter is a tribute to his new home city. We did not really get the dish, most not eating it at our table.
Jordan Restaurant Chef George Jardine’s second course was odd too, called ‘Jelly Fish‘, and was a bowl with a cold lightly jellified mix of fish, cut green beans, and asparagus, almost like brawn that had not set enough, topped with Melba toast and pea shoot with little dots of cauliflower purée. We were given a spoon to eat it. The dish was paired with Jordan Chenin Blanc 2013. Chefs PJ Vadas of The Hog House and Bertus Basson of Overture cooked the main course, described as ‘street-style food‘, being pulled free-range pork with organic corn tacos (these were dreadful and tasteless), buffalo fromage blanc, kimchi-style pickled greens and avocado; barbeque short ribs with pickled slaw and smoked hot sauce; buffalo butter, delicious whole roasted cauliflower, sultanas, capers, and nutmeg, and mustard-dressed bitter greens, radish and pickled onion. For most guests this was the closest to real food we ate last night, but it was not perfect. Luckily we were able to eat this course with a knife and fork. Nederburg The Beautiful Lady Gewürztraminer 2012 was paired with the pork, and Nederburg Motorcycle Marvel 2011 was paired with the beef.
Chef Vanessa Marx from Dear Me, and a Top 20 Finalist, made an odd dessert, being a Caciotta (a soft Tuscan cheese) pannacotta, for which we had to hammer honeycomb into small pieces, served with roasted pumpkin seeds, and honey, and seek the freeze-dried raspberries from the kitchen, which did not reach our table.
During the course of the evening a number of speakers came to the stage, luckily most being short and sweet. Eat Out General Manager Aileen Lamb said that they had worked on the event for the past year. She thanked their new sponsor Mercedes-Benz, thanked their MD Bridget McCarney, describing her as a ‘rockstar‘, and saluted directors Irna van Zyl and John Psillos (with Naomi Herselman originally, but no longer a New Media Publishing director) for creating Eat Out 17 years ago. She announced the relaunch of Stop Hunger Now SA, and promised a full meal for a disadvantaged child for each restaurant review which is posted on the Eat Out website. Mercedes-Benz Marketing Manager Claudia Walters likened the preparation of a dish to the design and finish of a luxury car, both being created as ‘masterpieces‘, she said.
Abigail introduced the five judges, four of whom we had identified a few months ago, being Andy Fenner (co-owner of Frankie Fenner Meat Merchants, supplier to a number of Top 20 restaurants, a conflict of interest), Arnold Tanzer (MasterChef SA Production Director), and Reuben Riffel. The other two mystery judges were Caro de Waal (for the ‘Best Of’ awards) and Kate Wilson, editor of Women’s Health. Odd is that Garth Stroebel, a 2013 judge, was seen at all the Top 20 restaurants at the time of judging this year, but was not acknowledged as a judge! Abigail shared her impressions in eating around the country, saying that she was ‘dazzled by the food‘ she and her judges ate, in its daring, simplicity, and being ‘glocal‘. She made each of the Top 20 chefs feel good, by highlighting one element of a dish she had experienced. ‘Pig is still big‘, she said, but chicken is popular too. Food is still being smoked and pickled, foraging is still on-trend, and ‘sea saltiness is growing‘. The bulk of the restaurant evaluation (70%) is based on food, including the menu composition, seasonality and sustainability of ingredients, food presentation, taste, price and value for money, and wine choice; while service counts for 20% and ambience 10%.
I sat next to MasterChef SA Season 2 winner Kamini Pather, and she told me about her nine week journey to 10 countries, for a food travel show ‘Girl Eat World’ she worked on with Lucky Bean Media, and they are looking for a TV channel on which to broadcast it. She connected with bloggers in cities such as Berlin, Philadelphia, Bangkok, Sydney, Copenhagen, Milan, Dubai, and Johannesburg, finding top bloggers in those cities, and being shown around by them, and cooking with some of them.
It was time for the awards, and these were awarded in-between the courses, and are summarised below:
* Boschendal Style Award – Equus at Cavalli (they did not attend the function, so did not collect the award!)
* The ‘Best of‘ category judging was done by Caro de Waal, and it was refreshing to see the winners in the categories, Giorgio Nava not winning any award (not Best Italian, nor Best Steakhouse), and therefore not present at the event. He has won in either of the two ‘Best Of’ categories every year since they were introduced!
+ Best Steakhouse: The Local Grill in Parktown North
+ Best Italian Restaurant – La Sosta in Swellendam
+ Best Country-Style Restaurant – Café Bloom
+ Best Asian Restaurant – Kyoto Garden Sushi
* Lannice Snyman Lifetime Achievement Award – Eduan Naudé and the late Brian Shalkoff, who jointly owned Gramadoelas in Johannesburg for 50 years.
* Woolworths Taste Eat Out Bursary winner – Thozamile Mgumane
* Nederburg Rising Star Award – Kobus van der Merwe of Oep ve Koep
* Top 10 Restaurants:
Number 1. The Test Kitchen (Chef Luke Dale-Roberts), at the top slot the third year in a row
2. five hundred at The Saxon (Chef David Higgs)
3. The Tasting Room at Le Quartier Français (Chef Margot Janse) plus Grolsch Service Excellence Award
4. Restaurant Mosaic at The Orient (Chef Chantel Dartnall) plus Chef of the Year
5. Jordan Restaurant (Chef George Jardine)
6. Overture (Chef Bertus Basson)
7. Rust en Vrede (Chef John Shuttleworth)
8. DW Eleven – 13 (Chef Marthinus Ferreira, who used the most f*** words in an acceptance speech!), and Tsogo Sun Wine Service Award went to sommelier Mandla Patson Mathonsi.
9. The Restaurant at Newton Johnson (Chef Eric Bulpitt)
10. Terroir (Chef Michael Broughton)
The biggest surprise was seeing Chef Peter Tempelhoff falling of the Top 10 list, and he did not attend the awards evening, having urgent business to attend to in Paris. Even bigger was the surprise that Terroir and Restaurant Mosaic at The Orient did so well this year, when both restaurants did not even make the Top 20 shortlist in 2013! The other 2014 Top 20 restaurant finalists were Tokara, The Kitchen at Maison, The Greenhouse, La Mouette, The Restaurant at Waterkloof, Bread & Wine, The Pot Luck Club, Makaron, Planet Restaurant, and The White Room.
To end off the evening, a Mercedes-Benz which had been parked inside the venue, was driven onto the stage to Pitbull’s ‘Fireball‘, with a shower of gold and silver paper raining down from the ceiling. Chef Luke Dale-Roberts appeared not to believe that he and his team will be driving the car for the next year, being part of the restaurant’s prize!
Abigail praised the chefs who did not hesitate to agree to create the food for the 800 guests. It was a shame that the event was expanded to such a large size, in that none of the chefs could give the attendees a taste of what they serve in their restaurants, never cooking for such large numbers. Sadly the Eat Out Awards Gala Dinner never is a reflection of what the chefs are capable of in their own restaurant kitchens, but at R1850 per person this was a let-down for the paying guests. The Gala Dinner was a lovely way of reconnecting with so many food and restaurant lovers, and to salute our country’s top restaurants, with their chefs and teams.
Disclosure: I was invited to attend the Eat Out Awards. Every guest received a bag with a bottle of Boschendal Brut Rosé and the new Eat Out 2015 magazine.
POSTSCRIPT 19/11: Most impressive is the very detailed questionnaire we were sent to evaluate the Eat Out Awards. The dreadful food is already emerging as the major negative about the event.
POSTSCRIPT 21/11: At a function today the wife of one of the award-winning chefs told us that the blast freezer did not work properly at the event, which explains why Chef George Jardine’s ‘Jelly Fish’ dish was a flop.
POSTSCRIPT 22/11: I have attended numerous events this week, and the Eat Out Awards have been the talking point. The poor food, poor sound, and swearing on the stage by Chef Marthinus Ferreira when he made his acceptance speech were the low lights, there being talk that DW Eleven-13 will never make Top 20 again, and that restaurant lovers will ban his restaurant.
Eat Out 2015, New Media Publishing, Cape Town. www.eatout.co.za Twitter: @Eat_Out R49,90