Umhlanga in Durban is heaving. It’s packed, to the marbled and gilted brim, with restaurants. Most of them cater to an ever-expanding tourist and moneyed local trade (there are more millionaires per square meter in Umhlanga than anywhere else in the province), whilst a few are pushing through the franchise fray to plate up tasty food not served in takeaway boxes, or adventurous and delicious food that appeals to locals and foreigners alike. There’s been, up until recently, a lamentable focus on mostly mass-produced convenience food. There’s an emerging dichotomy of dish offerings on the Village strip of Chartwell drive, as eateries mushroom up offering either fast food or fancy food. The Chefs Table is the latest, much-hyped, anticipated restaurant that fortunately caters to the latter, and with an intriguing twist.
At the helm is an industry protegée, head chef Kayla Osborn. Locally trained at 1000 Hills Chef School, and first blipping the public food radar in 2015 with her nomination for Junior Chef of the Year while she was head chef of PMB fine dining establishment, Traffords. She’s no stranger to running a kitchen and her talent and mettle is going to be pushed here, as this is no ordinary restaurant kitchen.
The concept is a unique one to KZN, and seems inspired by the avant-garde dining styles of New York and other similar food trend capitals. The focus and core of the restaurant is the expansive, completely open-plan kitchen. It allows diners to penetrate the pass with a front-row seat to the cooking experience. An unheard of large complement of 13 chefs, with 7 present in the kitchen at all times, man their designated sections and benches, each responsible for the prep and plating of their specific dishes.
“I want you to come and sit in my kitchen,” Osborn explains in a video promoting the venue. “It’s a terrifying concept, but I really do believe it’s the way forward in food.”
Personally, I’m inclined to agree. I’s a risk, inasmuch as Durban has started evolving and progressing with food, the market is fickle, wary of the unusual and sometimes slow to adopt. But someone has to to get the momentum going. And after investigating the venue and being invited to an early tasting, the prospects of the Chefs’ Table succeeding and inspiring diners to welcome more adventurous food, is a scenario that is very promising. Durban needs this. It needs more of this. And diners need to embrace and enjoy the results of such initiatives.
The food is an extension of Kayla’s farm-to-fork, nose-to-tail and other familiar and altruistic foodie catchphrase ethoses. Thanks to the efforts of local markets that have created a platform for consumers and farmers in the province to connect, there’s been a stronger drive at restaurants to supply local, sustainable, home-grown. Its a start, and as more restaurants adopt this and the public gets further educated, it will hopefully continue and grow. And here the offering is whatever is available from the farmers on the day or week. The menu at Chefs Table is ever-changing, mostly offering what is fresh and seasonally available from provincial producers. Some of the dishes are named after the farmers who supply the ingredients. I love that, it’s a further point of introduction to the people who grow our food.
The food itself is sublime. Beautifully plated on glazed earthenware, the crockery gives it another tactile element that removes the dining experience from the starched white aesthetic more familiar to the fine dining scene.
A starter of beetroot-cured trout with beetroot chips and dust, kisses of coriander emulsion and pearls of orange caviar and tart pickled apple cubes, are a fitting introduction to the creative energy demonstrated by the team in the kitchen. The microherbs and the beetroot soil on the plate remind me of foraging, something that I believe Kayla enjoys when it comes to finding new ingredients.
The sourdough bread, pillow with a crunchy crust is fantastic. Truly. It bears great testament that what is normally an afterthought receives as much care and consideration as any other dish served.
I recognise the bone marrow and beef tongue dish from Osborne’s Trafford days and I recently had the same dish there. It’s rich and buttery, and proved to be a favourite by majority of the diners there.
More recognisable to me were a few other chefs at their stations. Familiar faces from well-known restaurants around the KZN Midlands. It seems that a pool of talent has been assembled around the province. Durban, and Umhlanga, do you realise how lucky you are?
The honey-glazed bacon “biltong” with butternut tortelli in a bacon-infused cream, with bacon dust, is a dish worthy of last meals. A porcine paradise in a bowl. And I’d like more, please, sir.
Kayla wants to be generous in the cooking style. Generous to producers, to her team, and to her diners with portions and seasoning. The flavours are robust, there’s nothing delicate or subdued on the plate, but if South African wines are anything to go by, us Saffas love a powerful flavour punch. And it’s no flavour holds barred for the main dishes, either. The chicken ballotine is endearingly named after its farmer. Moores-Pitt free range chicken, with mushroom farce (stuffing), fried and roasted tarragon gnocchi, and a glossy mushroom jus. No poetic words from me here, yum is the best summation. YUM.
The blue cheese course isn’t. An added reward for the diner is that its an unpredictable delivery of kumquat sorbet with a blue cheese mousse, biscotti and a citrussy jelly. Not the cheese plate you expect, and exactly how it should be in a culinary creative space.
Pastry chef Leon de Kock is having fun. You can see it in the playfully named “Trip to the Movies”. A chocolate sphere with popcorn-infused cream mousse, revealed when drenched in a hot caramel sauce.
Other than the kitchen and food, the decor can’t go unmentioned. Pockets of richly textured and eclectic seating invites diners to relax and be comfortable in an unpretentious space, as they enjoy the theatrics in the kitchen and on the plate. This is a serious passion project by owners Sean Gray and Soti Sonitis. From the custom-built furniture to the hand made crockery, its evident no expense or detail was spared. And I look forward to this becoming a trailblazer that inspires locals to support a dining experience of such quality.
Find the Chefs’ Table at 23 & 24 First Floor, Protea Mall, Lighthouse Road, Umhlanga Rocks. www.chefstable.co.za
Find Cuizine online here: