Johannesburg is not a city for the faint hearted. We were warned about it from many people, mostly locals, perhaps fearing that as Australians, we were too casual in our approach to personal safety. Arriving in Johannesburg or as everyone calls it, Joburg, we are whisked away straight to our hotel, 54 on Bath which is about 30 minutes from the city.
Joburg is a city that is full of bustle and it is also a city where you have to keep your wits about you. We've driven past houses and apartments with elaborate security systems, razor wire topped walls, high fences - there were no uncertain warnings. "Do not wander around by yourself" they said. Indeed, when Sam Perry and I wanted to go to the shops and suggested getting a taxi, there was a sharp intake of breath and the hotel nixed the idea instantly and had us driven in their car.
Formerly the Grace Hotel, at the time of our stay, 54 on Bath was open for just three weeks. I usually try not to stay in brand new hotels, like restaurants, the four week opening period is where they iron out little cracks and it's best not to base a review on this time.
We are greeted with pineapple juice and warm, wet towels and soon after, we make our way to our room. Mine is 908, the top floor being the 10th floor in this 70 room hotel. The rooms are a decent size and have a chic Parisian style silver grey interior which is a soothing colour scheme albeit a little minimalist. There is a king sized bed and a desk as well as two chairs and a coffee table and a large flat screen television. Sweet morsels like a devilishly rich and moist cherry chocolate cake, a gooey ganache tart and fresh made truffles await on a tiered stand. On another stand are orange jelly beans, mixed roasted nuts and dried fruit squares rolled in sugar.
The bathroom has a separate bath and shower although the shower is very small and would challenge some people to fit in it. The hot water takes a surprisingly long time to heat (about two minutes of running water) and I can only think of the amount of water wasted to get it to temperature. The shower head could also use some more pressure.
The amenities include a vanity kit with cotton buds and pads, nail file and dental floss pick. There is also lotion, liquid soap, bath salts and loofah and a shampoo condition 2 in 1. The amenities do need some reworking as everyone in the group reports having difficulty getting the pump to release and we resort to unscrewing the pump from the bottle (you pull and turn it).
Pluses are the "Instant service" which is at the press of a button and I test it out when my baggage takes some time to arrive. The internet is free and wireless although it is slow and many in our party report their internet not working at all in their rooms. iPads are also available for loan. An international plug is installed in one switch.
The tea and coffee selection is fantastic and laid out just like a dream. With a kettle plugged in there is a very good range of teas, hot chocolate and an Illy coffee machine as well as small Lindt chocolates. And a bonus is a bottle of fresh milk in the fridge!
It's a quick check of emails before I realise that it's time to head downstairs. We're travelling to Sandton to the Palace Montecasino, another one of the hotels that are owned by the Tsogo Sun chain and trying the chefs table experience which is 750R or $87AUD per person. The Palace Montecasino is very gold and reminds me of a Vegas casino. By now I've learned some new South African expressions. They use terms like "now now" which means quite soon and "just now" to mean any time in the future as they're fairly relaxed about time. A normal greeting is "Howzit?" and a response of howzit is just fine. And if you want to get someone to stop saying something "shame" is used. And to describe something as "lekker" is to say that it is nice or tasty!
We go for drinks on the outdoor terrace where open fireplaces burn and we sip our sherry martini "Vin MMX" style which has wispy thin strips of lemon rind in it.
We take a seat in the glass fronted dining room which gives us a prime position in front of the kitchen where we watch the stuff busily preparing dinner service.
The canape is a three parter. Firstly there is a consomme with a blue cheese tortellini inside it and a coddled quail's egg yolk. Secondly is a parmesan crusted prawn with pomegranates and pickled cucumber. The final part is a delicious morsel of maize which is crispy on the outside and soft inside.
Amuse Bouche: "Mos-Bolletjies" Bunny Chow
After all the bunny chow we ate for lunch that day I have to chuckle at the mini bunny chow which is made with a crouton or Mos-Bolletjies, a rusk of grape must fermented bread dough filled with Cape Malay chicken prawn curry. It also comes with two finely chopped salads. This bunny chow is fantastic and really hits the spot-and it's tiny so you can finish it all unlike perhaps a regular bunny chow which is enormously filling!
Chef Garth Shnier
Crayfish souffle with bisque foam
At this point, and because I was full of five bunny chows, two rotis and two biryanis from lunch, the flavour of this fantastic crayfish souffle meant that I ate it all and promptly filled myself up completely. The souffle is cheesy and eggy with a deep flavour from the bisque which has the flavour of the crayfish shells and there are also little pieces of tender crayfish inside.
The sorbet was a refreshing and sweet smooth mix of granny smith apple with a bottom layer of basil and chili to give it a spicy hit.
Chef Benny Masekwemang, Samantha Perry and Neil Perry
Cherry tomato tarte tatin
The cherry tomato tarte tatin is topped with melted camembert giving it a gooey stretchy top and sweet tomatoes sit underneath. To the side is a shakalaka oil (shakalaka being like a chutney) and a tomato jelly and balsamic jelly.
Study of Karoo lamb
We ended up skipping one dish as everyone was so full from the previous courses that we just couldn't fit it in. And when I see the size of the lamb dish, it was probably a prudent idea. There are are lamb cutlets covered in a short, shortcrust pastry, some fillet slices, savoy cabbage with brandy currants that have been soaked for three days, turnips, parsnip puree and sweet potato fondant and a pea salad. The vegetables are from a local farmer. And as part of the chef's table experience, Executive Chef Garth introduces us to a new member of the team each time who is responsible for the dish.
I'm so sorry Dear Reader, as much as I wanted to eat this cheese plate, I couldn't fit it in especially as I knew that there was another dessert course. There were Cape Town cheeses with a big bowl of fruit and fruit bread too.
Naartjie Malva pudding
The dessert I had to leave a couple of bites for was the malva pudding, a South African classic baked pudding which has a sweet sauce poured all over it. Served warm, there is an Amarula caramel sauce that covers and drapes it and it is accompanied by a milk tart ice cream. Milk tarts are those wonderful tarts that are a cousin of a Portuguese custard tart except with a crispy shortcrust pastry base. The recipe is from chef Benny's deconstructed milk tart. They are currently in throes of Masterchef fever and chef Benny is a judge on Masterchef and this was one of his dishes. Hence the masterchef logo!
Chef Benny Masekwameng
Our last portion is the coffee, an espresso with sweet, creamy parfait top to it. It is accompanied by a chocolate coated strawberry and a "cook's sister" or Koeksusters which comes from the dutch word for cook and sizzle to signify the deep frying of the food. It is a plaited dense, doughnut type of sweet that is on the cakey side. It is served with a spiced syrup and is typically served with tea or coffee.
And despite the fact that we had so much food, I can't resist but steal a quick bite of the carrot cake and sip of Amarula left during turndown! ;) I've been lucky with jetlag, after the first night where I woke up at 4am but then went back to sleep I haven't had any startling weird sleeping patterns. The next morning, I awaken to the sliver of light and the hustle and bustle of people and activity outside.
Today, for lunch we are headed down to the level 4 restaurant of the hotel and we start our lunch in their chic Veuve Clicquot bar with its gorgeous black and white wallpaper. We move into the main dining room where Neil Perry and chef Benny Masekwameng have been busy at work. Today Neil will show South African journalists some of his Australian food.
Chefs Benny Masekwameng and Neil Perry
Crayfish, avocado and raw artichoke salad
The ceviche of crayfish, avocado and raw artichoke salad was tangy with lime and had the most beautifully sweet semi dried tomatoes on the side. It also had a pronounced amount of chilli in it which made me a bit homesick.
Rich and noble congee of prawn with anise peanuts and chilli oil
It was interesting to see the South African's reactions to our Australian food. We were warned that Jo'burgers don't like chilli in their food which would prove interesting to Neil and Andy Evans from Spice Temple who love to cook with chilli. Despite this, the journalists around us seem to love it. The fat, juicy prawns in the congee are contrasted with the soft, pap like texture of the congee and soft crunch of the star anise infused peanuts. Neil and Andy had prepared the chilli oil that morning and it gives the dish a deep spiciness.
Steamed Kingklip Jiangxi style
The kingklip is a very firm fish, even quite dried in texture and although I like the seasonings of sesame oil, sesame seeds, green onion and chilli, I wasn't a huge fan of the fish itself.
Twice cooked chicken with yam and ginger puree, pickled cucumber
I was quite full at this stage even though the portions were judicious (I was still full from last night I think) but the twice cooked chicken was so tender and the skin so moreish that when I speared a bit on my fork along with the creamy yam and ginger puree, I had to finish it. I didn't actually think it needed the pickled cucumber, I would have been happy with just those two elements.
Panna cotta with berries
Some of the panna cotta on the outside of the fridge ended up a bit frozen which actually lent it a semi freddo texture. The South African journalist across from me just looks at me and says simply "wow...." The panna cotta has a lovely buttermilk flavour to it and there are fresh cherries, strawberries, blueberries and a basil and mint flavour through it.
That evening, we head towards the Sandton area where the Nelson Mandela statue sits (although it really doesn't look much like him). We're dining at the Butcher Shop & Grill which is famous for its steaks. When you think of South African cuisine, meat features heavily whether it be steak or biltong, the dried beef that is delicious and like a tastier, less leathery version of jerky.
Tasmanian or Tasmanian Cape Grim and "Azzies" or Australian steaks feature here and they have a large retail operation where you can buy a diverse range of meat products. Carcasses of beef hang in the cool room on display as well as biltong and there are also samples of biltong. The beef biltong chilli is worth buying although we may have problems bringing it into Australian due to customs regulations.
An enormous taxidermied but rather realistic cow stands at attention. We make our way to a table at the enormous restaurant which is very busy this Monday night. It takes up a whole building and there are several sections in which to sit. The menu is varied and is expectedly meat heavy. I flip towards the South African game classics and go for the ostrich fillet and we also tackle some of the sides.
Soft butter rolls with rosemary and other herbs and small pieces of beef sausage in a tomato based sauce start us off.
Ostrich Fillet 128R/$14.40AUD
Served with pepper sauce and cranberries, the ostrich fillet resembles a slightly gamey beef. It's deliciously tender and cooked medium which I left up to the chef. It was served with a large baked potato. There was also a whipped sour cream spread and a creamy pepper sauce.
_Baked pumpkin _33R/$3.71AUD
The sides are also said to be very good on the menu and people tend to order quite a few of these to accompany their meat choices. I loved the baked pumpkin which had a rich sweetness to it and the spinach was also tasty and softly cooked.
Malva pudding 48R/$5.40AUD
By now, we've had several versions of the malva pudding, this being the most sizeable. It's soft and moist, like an unspiced version of a sticky date pudding.
Halva Ice cream
Billed as "middle east meets west" the ice cream came as three scoops of very sweet ice cream with glace cherries and pieces of sweet jelly inside. It's just too sweet for me (I know, really!) and I bypass it for another round of Springboks, that very South African shot drink with a layer of peppermint liqueur and a layer of Amarula on top. I'm persuaded by everyone to drink the whole shot unlike last time where I just drank the Amarula. I drink it all and it tastes just like a liquid version of a mint pattie chocolate.
One last toast to our final night in South Africa with Graham Beck South African sparkling wine which is very nice and drinkable indeed. When Nelson Mandela became president, it was the drink that he celebrated it with. It was the perfect drink to toast to the Nelson Mandela statue outside.
And then on our final day would be a trip to Soweto! Stay tuned for that! ;)
NQN travelled to South Africa as a guest of South African Tourism
54 on Bath
54 Bath Avenue Johannesburg 2196, South Africa
+27 11 344 8500
Montecasino Blvd Johanneburg 2021, South Africa
+27 11 510 3000
Butcher Shop & Grill
Shop 30, Nelson Mandela Square, Sandton, 2196 South Africa
+27 11 784 8676