It’s always a gamble trying to re-live the past. Meeting up with an ex-lover after a separation; re-tracing your steps on a journey that you enjoyed many years ago; or going back to a place that holds happy memories for you. It could be fantastic; or you could find that the harsh reality of the present destroys all the happy memories of the past.
The year that I moved from South Africa to London, my mom and I were trying to get an export business started. As my mom was already quite physically frail, I really wanted to make sure that the business was up and running by the time I left, so that all my mom had to do was service existing clients rather than run around sourcing new business. As part of this process, we undertook a number of business trips together to talk to potential clients and suppliers in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. Travelling together, unencumbered by the rest of the family (or doing some unescorted roaming as my mom used to call it), always thrilled us with the prospect of endless shopping opportunities and endless restaurants chosen only according to our tastes.
On the last trip that my mom and I ever took to Cape Town, I think a part of each of us already knew that we would not be coming here together again, and we made sure we tried pretty much every restaurant we’d always wanted to try. One of these was Salt restaurant at the Ambassador Hotel in Bantry Bay and I remember the dinner being magical. The venue was lovely, the view was astonishing, and I remember having one of the best pieces of salmon of my life that night. So when I was trying to decide where Nick and I should go for dinner this year after the Cape Town Food Blogger Conference, naturally Salt sprang to mind… but would my happy memories be affirmed or destroyed by a return visit?
Salt is discreetly situated in the Ambassador Hotel in Bantry Bay, a building which is literally built into the rock several stories above the crashing Atlantic waves. The decor is sleek and modern – I particularly like the chairs with the cutaway backs and the modern take on a chandelier light fitting. By day, you walk in and all you see on the other side of the floor-to-ceiling windows is the glittering ocean. By night, the view is not as spectacular so I suggest that you either go early enough to catch the sunset or do as we did: book as early as you can and request a window table.
We both started with a ballottine of Franschhoek salmon trout with champagne foam, fish roe and dill. I was a little surprised at the appearance because it looked pretty much like a salmon steak! but some prodding with my fork revealed it to be two pieces of cured salmon trout laid side by side, and the “skin” was in fact a liberal coating of dill. The fish itself was outstanding – oily and unctuous - the flavours worked well together, and I adored the plating. A winner.
For our main courses we opted for more divergent choices. unsurprisingly, Nick chose the Chalmar ribeye of beef with mushrooms, a red wine jus and a single raviolo (which I think may have contained oxtail but I did not take notes – mea culpa. He pronounced the meat to be of excellent quality and perfectly cooked. I chose the seafood in a bouillabaisse sauce with rouille toasts. I was slightly surprised at the appearance of this dish – I had expected something altogether soupier, like a traditional bouillabaisse, but what arrived was various pieces of seafood with the (fairly thin) sauce spooned over them. The seafood was all fresh, tasty and correctly cooked – but I still felt a little like somebody who rented an Audi TT and was handed the keys to a VW Golf. The toasts were good, but I still prefer my rouille as a sauce rather than a bread topping. Still, if you did not have visions of traditional bouillabaisse in your head, this was a tasty and solidly executed dish.
Nick is not much of a dessert person, so I was left to my own devices here. The menu features such temptations as pineapple tarte tatin and spicy pear samoosas – but on the night we visited I was intrigued by the coconut parfait-stuffed koesisters with a citrus reduction and caramelized orange segments. I have written about koeksisters as opposed to koe’sisters (the Cape Malay version) before – and these were definitely the latter: not crispy and rolled in desiccated coconut after being fried and dipped in syrup. I’m a sucker for an updated take on a classic, and this dish was a perfect example. The koesisters were small enough not to be too doughy and heavy and the zesty citrus flavours of the orange segments provided a perfect foil for their sweetness. Clever clever.
To wash all of this down, we had a rather good bottle of 2007 Doolhof Malbec. I was not even aware that South Africa was bottling Malbec as a single cultivar and this delicious, full-bodied wine proved that we are – and should be doing so more often!
The total cost of the meal came to about R650 (just under £65) for two, and in contrast to London where after two hours there would be another couple breathing down your neck to take your table, we were left to sit by the window staring happily at the crashing surf and the lights of Bantry Bay for as long as we liked. Service was a quite slow but otherwise pleasant and as I said, the surroundings were wonderful.
All in all, I am pleased to say that my happy memories were affirmed rather than tainted by our visit and I would gladly visit Salt again. For lunch with a view, or a chic dinner a deux, Salt is definitely worth a visit when you are next in Cape Town.
The Ambassador Hotel
34 Victoria Road
Tel. +27 21 439 7258
Fax. +27 21 434 0000
And in other news…
The May 2011 Plate to Page hands-on food writing and photography workshop presented by me, Meeta, Jamie and Ilva is now sold out - but register now if you are interested in Plate to Page II in Italy in Autumn 2011!