When I go home to South Africa, I always feel a little like I'm being pulled in ten different directions by all the places I want to go, people I need to see and things I want to do. As my family are in Port Elizabeth, I always go there when I visit, but as for my point of entry, I tend to alternate my trips between flying into Johannesburg and Cape Town. We often spend quite a while in Cape Town but I seldom spend more than a day or two in Johannesburg – which is just enough to see some good friends, shop up a storm… and have at least one swanky meal in a local restaurant.
On my most recent visit to Johannesburg last year, the restaurant in question turned out to be Roots @ the Forum Homini. One of the best barometers of what's hot in South African dining is the Eat Out magazine restaurant awards. Almost every year, restaurants from Cape Town and surrounds completely dominate the top ten spots in these prestigious awards, so I was intrigued to see a Johannesburg restaurant on the list – restaurant choice made!
The Forum Homini boutique hotel is situated at the Cradle of Humankind, about 50km north of Johannesburg. The area has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999 and is home to the Sterkfontein Caves, a system of limestone caves where the 2.3 million year old Australopithecus Africanus fossil skull (nicknamed Mrs Ples) was found by Dr Robert Broom and John T Robinson in 1947. Apart from innovative architecture, luxury accommodation, conference facilities and Roots restaurant, the other added bonus is that the Forum Homini is situated on Letamo private game reserve, so keep your eyes peeled for game as you approach the restaurant.
Roots restaurant has been garnering restaurant awards on a regular basis since 2007. Chef patron Philippe Wagenfuhrer was born in Strasbourg, Alsace, and raised in West Africa. He apprenticed at L’Arsenal in Strasbourg before attending catering school for seven years. This was followed by 14 years in Scotland, working at Cameron House on Loch Lomond, Darroch Learg in Aberdeenshire, and The Sheridan in Edinburgh. In search of warmer climes and new challenges, Philippe then worked in Antigua and Barbados for five years before settling in South Africa. It was while working at The Michelangelo Hotel in Johannesburg that he met Hendrik Marais, owner of Forum Homini – and the rest, as they say is history.
The fact that the restaurant is a 40 minute drive from Johannesburg only adds to the sense of occasion, and when you climb out of your car in to the starry, insect-filled African night it feels as if you are miles from civilisation. The restaurant itself is an appealing space with clean lines and, modern decor and a view through a wall of glass over a lake and a deck where lunch is also served. The menu uses top local ingredients transformed into dishes inspired by French, African and Asian influences. There is a choice of of either a set four-course lunch or a six-course dinner menu (both of which change daily), with the option of adding a glass of matching wine to each course for an additional fee.
Service when we arrived was very friendly and soon we were seated, unfortunately (despite our booking fairly far in advance) right by the restaurant's main door. More on this later. It took a further 30 seconds debate to decide that we would go for the matching wines per course, and then we waited for the show to begin. [Sadly, I cannot find the menu where I jotted down the individual wines we had - apologies!]
After good bread with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, we were presented with our starter: corn and vanilla soup and a mini corn fritter with fresh cilantro. This looked beautiful (that little bowl was yearning to come home with me and feature in a Cooksister photoshoot…!) but I did not think that the flavours worked well at all. The vanilla was not a clear enough flavour (random sweetness, rather than spicy vanilla) and the strangely grainy texture of the soup was not very appealing. Besides, the sweet flavour of the corn needed something spicy as a contrast, not more sweetness, as the delicious little corn fritter with its cilantro leaf topping beautifully illustrated. This was followed by a heavenly dish of seared tuna with Asian flavours – soy, sprouts, sesame and bok choi. This was truly outstanding – simple, ultra-fresh ingredients, perfectly prepared with lovely clear flavours. As good a piece of fish as I've had anywhere in the world.
Up next was pan-fried salmon trout on kedgeree with sauce vierge. Again, this dish worked beautifully – the fish was cooked to crisp-skinned but moist-fleshed perfection and the saffron-laced kedgeree provided a creamy, salty counterpoint. I also think the was topped with herb butter. The first of the meat courses, and the one to which I had been lookign forward the most, arrived next: confit duck leg on puree potatoes with foie gras. This was OK - tasty but not something I could get excited about, compared to the outstanding examples I have had in France. The duck leg was tiny (which is probably not a bad thing, given that it was part of a larger menu) but looked a little ungenerous, and was not as fall-apart tender as some confit duck that I have had. The puree potatoes were… well, mashed potatoes. But the biggest disappointment for me and Nick was the foie gras. Can you spot it? Yup, it's those two beige-coloured blobs on top of the leg, plus maybe another blob hiding behind the diced zucchini (yes, the blobs were smaller than diced zucchini bits…). When, halfway through the meal, the chef himself came round to the tables to chat to diners, we did ask about this particularly stingy portion – his reply was that because it is a controversial ingredient, he does not want to use too much of it in the dish. But surely if this is his reason, he should not be using the ingredient at all? Are people who object to foie gras going to be appeased because you use only a little bit? Hmmm, I doubt it. (He did say, though, that next time I could call ahead and request a larger portion, but I'm not sure this is the way forward either!)
The final savoury dish was pork belly braised in cider on egg noodles with butternut squash. This was another pleasant but unspectacular dish. The noodles were excellent, the pork was tasty and well-matched by the butternut squash cubes. But I still believe that the way to enjoy pork belly is roasted to fall-apart tendernes and crackly perfection, rather than braised. Still, a tasty dish. Another success story was the dessert: mini cheesecake with cranberry jellies and a red wine reduction. This was a perfect portion size for me – just a taste of something sweet and creamy, kept from cloying sweetness by the zingy and jewel-like cranberry jelly cubes. I thought the red wine reduction was a little strident in comparison to the other flavours in the dish, but overall I liked this dish and its pretty presentation.
I seem to recall that coffee and petit four were included in the price, but by then we had lost all patience with the service and left without having coffee. I have left this all for a separate paragraph so as not to detract from the food, which was generally very good, but as with other high-end restaurants in South Africa, in my experience it is more oftern than not the untrained and unsupervised service that lets the entire experience down. So here go the gripes.
We had decided to push the boat out and have the matching wines with each course of our meal. Instead of printing the matching wines and a short description on the menu, the restaurant has chosen to have a sommelier come to your table with each flight of wines and tell you about the wines, which sounded like a nice touch. When the first wines were brought, he introduced himself, told us all about the wine, and that was great. By the time the second wine arrived, we were in mid-conversation when he arrived. Instead of hovering a bit until we were quiet, he stood at the head of the table and theatrically cleared his throat to hush us, like the father of the bride preparing to speak at a wedding. I think we were all stunned into silence, and so he proceeded to recite his speech for the next wine. When the third wine came, he tried the same tactic again, so my husband said "do you mind, I was just in the middle of a sentence". In response, the sommelier wagged a finger at him and said "I can see you were a troublemaker at school" and launched straight into his description of the next wine. Although this may be seen as charming or amusing in another context, in a restaurant billing itself as one of the country's top fine dining establishments where I am paying nearly R400 for my meal, this is totally inappropriate – and more than a little rude.
As I said, we were seated by the main restaurant door – and when I say by the door, I mean I could touch door if I twisted around a little in my seat. We would not have minded if the door were kept fully open, or fully closed, but most of the time it was left open an inch or two, creating a concentrated blast of cold Highveld air directly onto our table and our food. Trying to gobble down your food before it gets cold is not the way I want to spend a rare evening out with friends, so we asked staff repeatedly to either keep the door closed, or open – all the tables were full so we could not be moved. Despite numerous trips to the door by our table to try and wedge it in the open position, no doorstop could be found and people (i.e. every smoker in the restaurant, plus the staff) passing in and out seemed determined to try and close the door. Sadly, the door also could not latch, so inevitably it would pop open an inch or two and the draft would start again. After initially trying to address our concerns, in the end the staff simply gave up and ignored us as being the "difficult table". There had been a maitre d' when we arrived, but he had quietly disappeared during the course of the evening. When one of our furious companions had finally had enough of the door fiasco, she stormed off to the kichen to find him – but when she peeked through the kitchen porthole, the matire d' was inside having an ice-cube fight with one of the waitresses. Needless to say, my friend did not think it was worthwhile pursuing that avenue. When we asked for the bill, nobody even bothered to ask why we were leaving without coffee, and our waitress who had started the evening all smiles was as sullen as a grounded teenager.
I visited the restaurant about nine months ago – maybe service has improved since we were there. Or maybe we just struck a bad night (although at this level of dining, a restaurant should not be having bad nights at all!). Either way, I am going to say what I have said many times before – why do so many South African restaurants run a great kitchen and serve good food and pay a designer to create a beautiful space… but then skimp on staff training and a professional, attentive maitre d'? Service is the single biggest factor that stands out in international fine dining restaurants, and one that top-end South African restaurants are going to have to pay more attention to if they want to compete on a world stage.
That said, I would go back to Roots. Philippe's food was generally of a very high standard, the wine matches were good, the price (R395 or about £33) very reasonable by international standards, and the setting truly gorgeous. As were driving out of the restaurant at around midnight, we rounded a corner and came across a large antelope in the middle of the dirt road. It contemplated us for a moment, just as its ancestors must have contemplated ours here thousands of years ago, and then lumbered off towards the waterhole. Welcome to Africa.
Forum Homini Hotel
Letamo Game Estate
Tel. +27 (0)11 668 7000
Fax. +27 (0)11 668 7010
This post is part of a new series for 2010 called Sundays in South Africa. As the entire football-conscious world knows by now, the FIFA World Cup 2010 will be taking place for the first time ever on African soil – in my home country of South Africa! I can't tell you how proud this makes me, or how good it is to see that all the stadiums that the naysayers said would never be built on time standing tall and proud and beautiful. The country is, of course, anticipating a huge surge in visitors and I know that many people will see the cup as a reason to visit a country they have long been meaning to visit, and use the tournament as a jumping-off point for visiting other, non-football South African destinations. With this in mind, as well as my backlog of posts about my South African trips, I will be trying to post a review of somewhere South African, or a South African recipe, every Sunday in the run-up to the tournament. I can't pretend it is going to be a comprehensive guide to South Africa – but it will certainly be enough to give you some ideas! Click here for previous posts in the series.