I’d never experienced dining at a chef’s table before, and always wanted to, so when I was invited to the Fig Tree restaurant at Simbithi for this occasion I accepted with barely restrained levels of unprofessional squee.
A chef’s table is where diners are served in the kitchen of the restaurant and taken through a multiple-course menu presented by the head chef. It’s what I like to think of as “dinner and a show”, diners are allowed a unique view into the workings of the kitchen and seeing what it takes to prepare and plate their meal. The kitchen still continues to serve the tables on the restaurant floor, as well as the guests at the chef’s table, so it is interesting to see how the staff perform under such pressure. To me, this experience is a bit like the difference between a prerecorded TV show and live theatre. Plates are prepared and assembled directly under the curious gaze (and unrelenting disco-ball glitter of camera phones flashing) of the kitchen guests and the room for error is far more limited than if it were behind closed kitchen doors. When I saw the seemingly-infinite array of cutlery and glassware that greeted me at the table, I was a little overwhelmed but remembered Kathy Bates’ character’s advice in the film, Titanic: work outside in. Then we were presented with a beautiful starter of langoustine ravioli with peas, butternut and lemon foam nestled in a sauce Américaine. In a bowl. I was perplexed and decided to bide my time snapping pics while I waited to see what cutlery my fellow diners would select (spoon? fork? Spoon and fork?). They opted for a fork and therefore so did I.
The ravioli was delicious, with the sweetness of the langoustine flesh enhanced by the butternut. The sauce was delicate, with a complexity of flavours that was surprising because it was so light and smooth. The lemon foam cut through the sweetness and balanced it out. It was a worthy introduction to Chef Gerard’s style, communicating his European influences and what can be recognised throughout his dishes as a sweet, savoury and sour signature theme.
In between meals I seemed to get as underfoot as possible. This was tolerated with impressive patience, as I coupled my interference with a barrage of questions. I immensely enjoyed observing the plating process and they had to work around my ever-intrusive camera lens, which they did with aplomb.
The second course, the entrée, was a chicken and mediterranean vegetable phyllo parcel with a tomato vinaigrette and barley succotash (a corn and bean mix, usually). Again, the sauce was the winner for me as the most seemingly incongruous item on the plate yielded the most depth and flavour. It married the rest together.
The phyllo was delicate without being too thick or over baked, as is often the case, and its filling was soft and flavourful. I like how what appear to be mundane ingredients were elevated with just a bit of clever flavouring and packaging.
Next up was the main course of slow roast pork belly with jalapeño salsa and apple tarte tatin.
The pork was slow-roasted for 24 hours and was so soft that it could have easily been eaten with a spoon. I even tried. The sweet, savoury and sour theme continued with the sweetness of the apples and pork, the savoury creamed mash and the sharpness of the sauce. I was most impressed with Chef Gerard’s ability to do a one-handed rocher, which is a technique for rolling soft food, like the mash, and spooning it onto the plate in a cylindrical shape with the ends tapered. It’s also known as a quenelle and usually takes two spoons to get right. I made him show me over and over. Poor guy!
After the main course was polished off and glasses drained, we were encouraged to go outside and take a breather, which was welcomed. It amused me as this was my first time having to take a pause during a meal. It enhanced the theatrical feel for me, like a break during the first and last acts.
This was to prepare us for the denouement, or the chef’s culinary show’s final act. Chef Gerard explained that it would be an “impact” dessert, which I cannot argue with.
It was called a Chocolat Grenoblois. I Googled “Grenoblois” because I didn’t know what that meant, but all it yielded was something about an olive and burned butter sauce that goes with fish. That didn’t sound right, so I employed my very pedestrian French and used Google France and ta da! It’s a confection made with chocolate, coffee and nuts and maybe un petit peu (a little bit of) de cognac. The French cousin of the plain ole brownie. Dearest reader, this was no plain brownie.
We were presented with a chocolate sphere, berry caviar and caramelised hazelnuts garnished with lemon rind and perched on some berry leather. Then hot caramel was poured on the orb and it melted away to reveal it’s soft brownie centre. A chocolate planet, decimated by caramel lava, exposes it’s gooey core to gastronomic delight. My thighs expanded in direct proportion to the grin on my face as I devoured the lot. Even the hazelnuts, which I am not usually a fan of, were flung ungraciously down my gullet without pause.
Like a Glomail infomercial, my internal narrator shouted, “But that’s not all! Wait, there’s more!” when the the encore was served. A ball of deep-fried brie with kataifi (Greek-style shredded phyllo pastry) in a wild berry coulis and honeyed nuts. I didn’t think I had the space. And I didn’t. But I persevered! I managed half of it. The cheese was so creamy and the coulis was so sweet, it would have been criminal not to have given it a go.
At the start of the meal, chef Gerard explained that Durban palates have come a long way in over a decade. We’ve gone from sending anything other than well done (thus horribly overcooked) steak and salmon back, to appreciating sophisticated cuisine. And I completely agree, it’s why I started this website in the first place – to prove to the rest of the country that not only is that true, but that we now have establishments like Fig Tree and their executive chef who prepare such food.
The performance we enjoyed at Fig Tree, helmed by the talented executive chef Gerard van Staden and his team, was worthy of a standing ovation, if only we could have summoned the energy to dislodge ourselves from our seats, being barely able to move from the incredible feast we were fed.
It’s a testament to the gastronomic landscape of Durban that we have chefs like this who put out continental quality food that is challenging our national culinary status quo.
The chef’s table is hosted for private parties and can be arranged on request. The restaurant also hosts them and releases a notice for bookings to residents of Simbithi. But it might be worth giving regular food there a try too, as the Fig Tree menu offers declious grub for the discerning foodie.
Queries, requests and bookings can be made at: 032 946 5402/3/4 email@example.com