The hottest seat in the house, literally, figuratively, is always the Chef’s Table. If you get a chance to dine at one, grab it. It means sitting in the restaurant kitchen, in amongst the organised chaos of prep and service, watching dishes fly past (depending on the kitchen, sometimes also literally), and being hosted by a busy kitchen.
It gives you a full appreciation of the sweat and effort involved in putting your meal together. I’ve written about a Chef’s Table experience before (here) and it is fantastic to see this trend catching on in Durban.
The Oyster Box has now joined the trend and opened up its kitchen for private Chef’s Table dining. It’s given an opportunity to the team behind the pass, helmed by executive chef Kevin Joseph, head chef Luke Nair, and senior sous chef Larushkan Ramadhin (Chef Larry), to experiment with more adventurous dishes and exotic ingredients that conservative diners might be hesitant to try in the regular restaurant environment. That’s another win for Chef’s Tables – the chef gets to play and is not limited to a standard prescribed à la carte menu.
Inspiration for the menu was sensory play. An ambitious theme and one that was introduced with an imaginative amuse bouche platter: disguised as dessert, a wooden tray was presented dotted and scattered with macaroons, edible soil and profiteroles. Which were, in fact, all savoury. Salmon and smoked trout macaroons sandwiching terrine creams, black truffle and sour cream profiteroles, duck liver paté profiteroles, and tomato and caramelised red onion mini pastries. The truffle profiteroles were sensational. The coveted fungus was suitably honoured in this element and certainly set the bar exceedingly high for the meal to follow.
The first course was an homage to the nouvelle cuisine made (un)fashionable in the 90s, using minimal everything, by presenting a single basil leaf on a leaf-shaped plate. Or, rather, that’s what we joked about when it was presented. But in fact it was the green (leaf) light to commence the meal and the sensory experience. It involved popping our designated unassuming little basil leaf into our mouths, with noses blocked, and giving it a determined chew. This was to demonstrate that with the smell cut off, you don’t get the taste. And when you release the nostrils, you unleash the basil bomb flavour. Gottit. An amusing ice breaker, espsecially when seeing GM Wayne Coetzer’s nose-squashing expression, and a throwback to the olfactory nerve lessons in school, and pulling faces. Any pretentiousness is immediately dispensed with when you hold your noise and snort.
The real first course was an imaginative “ocean tea”. An unclarified consommé poured over rolled up little seafood pieces that looked like blossoms at the bottom of a tea cup. Im a woman of the broth. Give me a flavourful, savoury bowl of hot liquid any day. Especially if it’s this good. The soft fish and prawn meat – seared tuna and cucumber, fish roe, salmon sashimi, prawn wrapped in seaweed ribbon – unfurled like the flowers would in a delicate Japanese tea.
The entrée that came next had a lot to live up to. An orange, scooped of its flesh, filled with citrus-infused baked linefish and prawns, topped with gooey, gratinéed cheese, crowned with calamari and surrounded by a cream bisque, drizzled with caviar oil and dotted with salmon roe. Apparently the orange needed to be cut and have its contents spilled and mixed with the bisque, but I failed miserably at this. The stubborn bugger would not give and was in danger of being airborne. Ive seen that show, and I wasn’t prepared to perform a rerun. Laps do not pair well with food, no matter how good. I viciously scraped out the contents with my fork, like the sophisticated gal I am, and managed to get an unpleasant wodge of pith in my mouth which made it Kardashian-denied-attention levels of bitter. A pity about the pithy-ness. Aside from that, the bisque was delicious, and, despite the battle with the orange, its innards were too.
A palate cleanser followed. Declarations of #SorbetMustFall! announced the arrival of a gin, cucumber and mint jelly wedge. It’s a French thing, this palate cleanser palava. It’s purpose is to, well, cleanse the palate of the previous course’s flavours, so as to have no taste conflict with the following dishes in the meal. It’s also used as a form of digestif during heavy multiple course meals. It should be tart (not necessarily sweet), and refreshing, something that rinses the mouth and settles the stomach. I can appreciate that sorbets are so a throwback to decades past, but to be honest, I wasn’t a huge fan of the strawberry jelly in an orange wedge. When the bar was elevated so much by the creative dishes preceding it, it seemed a bit pedestrian in comparison. Even with the gin spritz. And Im happy to take gin with anything.
Fortunately the main course made up for it. A rack of lamb with a tender venison fillet, parsley-crusted and dressed with truffle shavings. Real, nutty, garlicky, tastes-nothing-like-garden-mushroom white truffle. Squee! But even without the truffle, that lamb was the best I’ve ever had. No unpleasant gamy aftertaste, mouth-meltingly soft, just enough salty fat, and that béarnaise sauce was the bee’s knees. At this point, in the throes of noshing, I reached for my wine glass and threw back a glug and had the sommelier discreetly but pointedly whisper in my ear, “Ma’am, can I pour some more into your glass?” as he poured more wine into…the glass on my right, not the one in my hand. Because ma’am was, in fact, imbibing from the GM’s glass like a tart. Doh.
Let’s talk dessert. We’re still in Durban, and although curry made no appearance on this menu, the chef was determined to bring a bit of local into an otherwise globally-inspired meal. The bombay crush is a refreshing, summery, milk-based drink of Indian origins and is served in curry dens throughout the city. It’s traditionally made with milk and ice cream whisked together, along with a rose and cardamom cordial, and mixed into it are soaked gelatinous basil seeds called subja or falooda seeds. The dessert served here was a deconstructed version of this. A scoop of home made honeycomb ice cream, rosewater syrup jelly cubes, and garnished with the subja seeds. Yes, please. My taste buds approved.
The parting gift to the meal was a second dessert (oh, lawdy!). A kind of retro ile flottante white chocolate signature lighthouse, surrounded by ocean jelly, sitting on an amaretto custard island, with pistachio and chocolate rocks. An extension of the light-heartedness (with lighthouse) that the event started off with. This was paired with much more grown-up 15 and 25-year old Chivas whiskies.
The Oyster Box Chef’s Table is an exclusive experience for up to ten people. It includes a 5-course dinner, plus canapés and a palate cleanser, all paired with wines. There is a choice of three menus. It’s R950 per person. To book, call 031 514 5000 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for further info.
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