It’s not every day that you get to eat at the best restaurant in Africa. So when a business contact suggested we “do lunch” at The Test Kitchen, I began an eight-day smile.
British-born restaurateur Luke Dale-Roberts opened The Test Kitchen in November 2010. He wanted his own place so that he’d have complete freedom in expressing his culinary flair. And though it was meant to function as an open-plan laboratory (hence the name), the dishes proved so popular that people flocked and awards flowed.
“I am thrilled, as we have been working hard at The Test Kitchen over the past year, experimenting with new techniques, focusing on getting everything near perfect while still keeping our playful edge,” he said after the restaurant was voted 28th at the World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards earlier this year.
Yet a casual glance from the outside doesn’t make it clear what magic is brewing within. That’s the first thing that struck me as I waited in the courtyard before they opened for lunch at 12:30, soaking up “the vibe” as every other South African loves to say.
All around me were The Old Biscuit Mill’s art galleries, fabric shops, design studios, and other quirky boutiques selling the kind of bespoke things everyone is crazy about these days. Who knew there was more to this Woodstock hangout than a Saturday morning market that stopped being fun when the hipsters took over many moons ago?
“The space is unique,” Dale-Roberts says. “Whether you’re from here or from abroad, people are surprised by it.” Indeed, with fuzzy Chinese lanterns hanging from the ceiling and striking Japanese art staring down from the walls, I suspect that some of the inspiration for the décor came from his five-year stint launching several restaurants across Asia.
But what makes this a different dining experience? “In terms of food flavour and the dishes on the menu, we try to make it delicious for everyone, which is not always easy,” he says. “But if something is obviously delicious, and immediately delicious, someone will like it.”
As expected, I had no idea where to begin. But the business contact I met had been there too many times to count, which is why I followed his lead. For our starters we had Pickled Fish (paired with ‘The Green Man’, Silverthorn’s 2011 Chardonnay Cap Classique, which arrived on a ‘champagne trolley’ with a bicycle bell). For our mains, we had Confit Duck Leg (paired with Rainbow’s End 2012 Merlot). And for dessert, I had Carob Mousse: roast banana butter, meringue, rum foam, coffee and tanariva creméux.
As Dale-Roberts says, The Test Kitchen is about discovering new flavour combinations and surprising people with things you wouldn’t expect to work together. More than that, the impeccable presentation made me reluctant to eat such works of art. Of course, the minute I took the first bite, all hesitation ceased and the plates went back clean.
Three courses were more than enough for me. How on earth do people manage the five-course lunch (and Dinner Discovery), let alone the eleven-course Dinner Gourmand? “They stick to tasting portions,” my business contact said, sipping his cappuccino. “That way, you don’t come away feeling stuffed.”
Of course, it probably helps to come hungry so that you can make a meal of it the way I unabashedly did. It also helps to book early. Yes, securing a spot for lunch is easier. But if you want a dinner reservation, expect to book months in advance! It seems that the best things in life are worth the wait.