In my search for the top restaurant in KwaZulu-Natal, Katie Friedman, Lisa Woodhouse, and I had dinner at 9th Avenue Bistro, one of Durban’s best-known fine-dining restaurants, and a regular on the Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant list six years and longer ago. Despite the warnings one had read about the restaurant’s unfortunate location in a shopping centre car park, it was the interior decor and poor service initially that was the biggest surprise. Co-owner Gina Nielson and Chef Charlie Lakin worked hard at repairing our impressions of the restaurant, once they had worked out who I was.
The entrance area is unlit, and one cannot see much of the branding above the entrance in the evening. The first section as one enters feels like it was an add-on, previously a terrace, with tables arranged randomly, and is badly lit. There is more light in the main section of the restaurant, and again there is no clear table arrangement system. From the jam-packed restaurant it was clear that 9th Avenue Bistro is well-known and popular, amongst visitors to Durban too, and a large noisy table in our seating section in the entrance area was filled with advertising industry support staff attending the Loerie 2015 Awards, held in Durban for the first time, after a number of years in Cape Town.
The entrance room is painted in a dark and depressing grey, and has brown wooden shutters which are closed. Tables have table cloths, and uncomfortable metal chairs. There are material serviettes, an unlit candle, and cheap-looking salt and pepper pots, without any grinders. The main restaurant section has a long grey wall covered with cheap-looking posters of random flowers, and a short wall painted a burgundy red, not reflecting the location of the restaurant in a marine city. Ceiling fans with wooden vanes add a colonial touch. I was told that the restaurant had received a makeover after Gina and Graham bought the restaurant, but its decor still seems desperately out of date.
Our waiter brought two menus and a wine list, and it took forever to receive our beverage order of water, coffee, and a glass of wine. He tried to up-sell my request for tap water with ice and lemon to bottled water! We were told that their regular barman was on leave for the week, and that they had brought in a barman from their newish sister-restaurant The Boiler Room Café, who was much slower, and who could not cope with the volume of cocktails ordered due to the busy restaurant evening. A lady waitress also interacted with our table and she had to check information to answer questions we asked about Chef Charlie, only having worked at the restaurant for a week. She brought water glasses to the table, one of which had just been washed and brought to the table undried!
We were very underwhelmed with all aspects of the restaurant until Gina came to our table, some of the restaurant patrons having left by now, and it was Katie’s introduction of ourselves by first name that alerted Gina to who I was. The service level improved dramatically thereafter, and she subsequently handled most of the interaction with our table, taking our order, and checking on us very regularly. She was informative, printed all menus for me to take along, as well as a list they offer out-of-town visitors with recommendations for bars, dancing venues, coffee shops, Indian restaurants, and upmarket and casual restaurants, a nice touch.
Ciabatta with rosemary was brought to the table, and Gina poured a mix of olive oil and balsamic vinegar into a plate, not reflecting anything special for a restaurant of such a calibre in respect of the bread offering, and the very old-fashioned mix of oil and vinegar. Gina obliged when I asked for butter. We commented that the restaurant prices in Durban are far more reasonable than in Cape Town, even as far as wines go. Gina told us that she can identify the origin of her guests, as Durbanites are early eaters, while Capetonians book tables for 20h00 or later!
With every visit by Gina to our table, we learnt more about the restaurant, its past, and its current owners. Gina has a German father, and wishes she had learnt more of the language, trying to get her daughter to learn it too. She studied at a hotel school in the UK, whereafter she became an air hostess. Her father wanted her to have a ‘proper qualification’, so she obtained a teaching degree. She met her husband Graham, who has a degree in Philosophy, while she waitressed at 9th Avenue Bistro. Graham loves cooking, so studied at the Christina Martin School of Cooking (I did not know that this school has been taken over by Three Cities as a hotel school), moved to London to work in kitchens there, and they traveled in the USA , Bermuda, and in South America too. Almost six years ago the previous owners decided to move to Australia, and offered the restaurant to Gina and Graham to buy, on an installment payment system, having such trust in each other. It sounds as if they discovered a lot of problems after the sale, which meant money had to be spent to replace and improve infrastructure in the kitchen in the main.
Chef Charlie arrived a year ago, with a heavy Yorkshire accent, and a wife who he met in London but who was from Middelburg initially. Chef Charlie appeared on Great British Menu in 2012 and 2013, and whilst at The Marquis at Alkham the restaurant won numerous awards, including a Michelin Rising Star, indicating potential to progress to a Michelin star. He is a passionate forager, and has connected with Franschhoek Foliage Chef Chris Erasmus, sharing this passion. Gina said that their food cost is at its lowest, as Chef Charlie is a head to tail chef, using every bit of his produce, including the tongue of kabeljou for his ceviche dish, and rabbit tongue too. He sources rabbit, quail, and chicken from a farm in the Midlands, and vegetables and herbs from Herbs on the Hill.
It was interesting seeing two heavyweight chefs in the kitchen, but I was assured that it all runs smoothly, and that ultimately Gina is the boss!
We had the choice of a specials list of three options per course, and a scrappy-looking a la carte menu, with a black plastic cover and menu pages slotted into plastic pockets but that had got folded and bent inside the folder, looking unprofessional. The content of the menu pages was exciting, however. We were not brought the Tasting Menus, of which there is a six-course option at R 330 per person (R430 paired with wines), and a ten-course one at R500 per person (with R150 extra for the wine pairings), but has to be booked two days in advance.
Katie ordered an interesting sounding starter of mustard leaf panna cotta from the Specials Menu (R69), thinking it was wasabi initially due to its green color, but Chef Charlie explained that it was made with mustard leaf, and served with golden beetroot, acorn crumbs, and Gorgonzola cheese. Katie Googled the acorns, and read that they can be bitter, but felt that the panna cotta balanced the acorn taste well. Chef Charlie assured her that humans eat more acorns than wheat. Chef Charlie sources the acorns from Underberg.
I loved the creamy and generous slice of duck liver parfait on the à la carte menu, served with preserved apple slices, tiny bits of duck crackling, and very nice toasted nut and raisin bread (R79). Lisa
ordered confit of pork belly, which came with goat’s cheese, mango ketchup, and ginger Parkin, being a Yorkshire gingerbread cake (R85).
Other starters (modestly priced between R69 – R79) include roasted butternut squash ravioli, crispy fried calamari, Caesar salad, a salad of Gorgonzola, pear, and candied pecan nuts, warm rillette of rabbit leg, squid heads, and soup of the day. Katie and I both ordered a creamy shellfish Orzo (rice-shaped Italian pasta), consisting of crayfish kebab, baby langoustine tails, an unexplained foam, lemongrass, and flat bread from the Starter list too (R105).
Lisa ordered slow-braised lamb shoulder (R165) from the main course section, served with roast carrot, mash, spiced lentils, and red cabbage, it being far too much for her to finish. Other main course choices are pork ribeye, Norwegian salmon, prawn tail pasta, free-range duck, tomato and fennel Tarte Tatin, linefish (kob on Saturday), sirloin and fillet steak, neck fillet of lamb, as well as grilled queen prawns. Main course prices do not exceed R175, very reasonable pricing from a Cape perspective!
None of us had dessert, having had a late lunch. Desserts are very reasonable, at around R55 on average, and include baked Pavlova, blueberry cheesecake ice cream, a mixed fruit bread pudding, crème brûlée, trio of chocolate mousse, Apple crumble soufflé, Belgium dark chocolate torte, as well as sorbets. A selection of Swissland cheeses from the Midlands costs R75.
Katie had a look at the wine list, and remarked that the wines were surprisingly inexpensive and that the list included international wines. Each variety is explained in the wine list, and four or so options are offered per variety. Unusual is that the name of the winemaker is mentioned per wine, with its Wine of Origin region, vintage, and variety description.
Lisa had been to the restaurant a week prior, and could not believe that the service was so poor on Saturday evening, but did add that the restaurant was not as full as it was when we are there.
I ordered a dry cappuccino, made with Douw Egberts coffee and served in their branded cup. A little bag with three pieces of very sweet and sticky fudge with a card and thank you note on it was brought to the table with the bill, an unnecessary touch, as it did not add to the value of the dining experience, and left us leaving with sticky fingers!
Since eating at 9th Avenue Bistro I have been wondering why the restaurant has not upgraded its interior design, and has not appointed more staff, given that it is KwaZulu-Natal’s only hope for an Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant shortlist inclusion, and why they invested the money in opening a second (casual) restaurant The Boiler Room Café, rather than improving the interior of 9th Avenue Bistro. Eat Out editor Abigail Donnelly has visited twice this year, and it will be interesting to see how she and her team of judges will evaluate the restaurant. Sadly what we saw and experienced at 9th Avenue Bistro should not make the shortlist, despite the excellent food, the talent of the two chefs Graham and Charlie, and Gina’s friendliness.
POSTSCRIPT 26/8: Gina Neilson informed me on Facebook today that the posters in the restaurant of ‘indigenous plant artwork‘ are by local photographer Clinton Friedman.
9th Avenue Bistro, 2 Avonmore Centre, 9th Avenue, Morningside, Durban. Tel (031) 312-9134. www.9thavenuebistro.co.za Twitter: @9thAvenueBistro Lunch Tuesday to Friday, Dinner Monday to Saturday.