Although we humans like to view the world as a static and predictable place, where we know how things function and have an expectation that they will continue in much the same vein, every now and again, we are confronted with evidence to the contrary. A good friend of mine goes to see the house where she grew up every time she visits our hometown. The house she lived in is now pretty unrecognisable, having had a whole new wing built on, an imposing new garden wall and gate, and a complete cosmetic makeover – a transformation she could never have imagined when she lived there. Even more disconcerting is the house where my brother’s friend grew up which has since morphed into business premises and brings visions of filing and typing being done in the room where he once played and slept. And of course, I worry what will happen to my childhood home that is now on the market: will it be bought and restored to its former glory so that another family can give their children a childhood as idyllic as the one I enjoyed there; or will developers buy the property to get at the land and knock down the house to build something new? Shudder. But not all transformations are negative. My husband’s great grandfather was an optometrist in Cape Town for many years and had a shop in an imposing building on the corner of Adderley and Wale street. He occupied the premises for so many years that it was informally known as Druiff’s corner, and the name was still visible above the shop until a decade or two ago. Not knowing what had lately become of the building, you can imagine Nick’s surprise when it turned out the restaurant we were dining at one night in Cape Town was next door to his great grandfather’s shop – and that the shop itself is now a sparkly new champagne and oyster bar!
The restaurant which we were visiting was the Bombay Brasserie, situated in the Taj Cape Town hotel. The hotel occupies two historic listed buildings in downtown Cape Town: the former Board of Executors building (also known as Temple Chambers) built in 1896; and the former South African Reserve Bank building completed in 1932. Because of the buildings’ protected status, the exterior facades and much of the interior detail has been preserved, resulting in a hugely impressive lobby where the old banking hall used to be. This huge space in the shape of a Greek cross with its barrel-vaulted skylights comes complete with little elevated balconies from where bank bosses could survey their staff to make sure nobody was slipping themselves a few notes here and there! The Bombay Brasserie, however, is a more intimate space, lavishly decorated with dark wood panelling, Venetian glass mirrors and chandeliers, and quite possibly the prettiest dining chairs I have ever seen. Apart from the dozen or so tables, there are also two 2-seater tables for two adjacent to the open kitchen where the final plating and prep is done, so do remember to request those if you want to see how your food is prepared.
We were soon sitting cosseted in one of those beautiful chairs (although I have to say that I found them a little too low for eating comfortably, and long-legged Nick found the seat not to be deep enough to accommodate his lanky frame). There is a selection of interesting cocktails (such as the delectable-sounding vanilla pear and cardamom moijito) as well as a non-alcoholic cocktail selection. The wine list is comprehensive and 100% South African (other than some French Champagnes at eye-watering prices – the cheapest being non-vintage Moët & Chandon at R900, or £70 per bottle!). There are only 10 wines under R200 per bottle, but the vast majority of the wines on the list are available by the glass, which makes a refreshing change. The menu is divided into vegetarian and non vegetarian starters/mains and is unashamedly pan-Indian, spanning the culinary highlights of the subcontinent. Executive chef Harpreet Langani began her career in 1997 at the Masala Kraft restaurant in the Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai and her love for regional Indian cuisine is evident in the menu. Many of the dishes would be totally unfamiliar to those who regularly eat “Indian” food in London – which more often than not is Bangladeshi or Pakistani rather than Indian. We opted for the chef’s tasting menu (R395 per person, or R575 with matching wines) in order to get a feel for what the kitchen’s best dishes are, and a bottle of Paul Cluver Riesling to accompany the meal.
While we were deciding, we nibbled on a platter of snacks consisting of carrot and cucumber sticks, colourful crispy tubes (rice-based?) and some excellent spicy poppadums, plus a spicy tomato chutney to dip everything in. Our amuse bouche came in the form of a crisp little deep-fried lentil flour dumpling with more of the addictive tomato chutney. This reminded me a lot of the medu vada often found in South Indian cuisine and was deliciously moreish. Our soup course consisted of bhuni makai ka shorba (roasted yellow corn soup with turmeric popcorn). The plates were brought to us with the popcorn in the base and the soup was then poured at the table. I really loved this course – the soup had an outstanding flavour, partly because of the flavour imparted by roasting and partly because of the spot-on spicing. Although the idea of the popcorn in the soup is good, it turns instantly soggy as the soup hits it and becomes chewy rather than crisp – I would rather have the popcorn served separately, allowing the diner to decide whether to eat it crisp or in the soup. Still, a very successful and satisfying dish.
Up next was the starter platter consisting of porchai yera (spicy tempered prawns); ambi fish tikka (green mango curry linefish); and sarson ke phool (broccoli in mustard pickling spices, roasted in the tandoor oven). I must say that I loved all three the starters. They were all significantly different in texture and flavour, and each was quite different to anything I am used to. The prawn was succulent and juicy, and bathed in a creamy curry sauce, full of complex, warm flavours. The fish (Nick’s favourite) was kingklip and was delicately spiced and cooked to perfection. But it was the broccoli that stood out for me – in fact, it was probably my favourite dish of the night. The mustard pickling spices were an intriguing flavour, adding a nice spike to the brassica’s already gently mustardy flavour – but it was the turn in the tandoor oven that gave it a smoky, chargrilled kick and lifted it into the realms of vegetable Nirvana. Perfection.
After a palate-cleansing sorbet, the next thing to arrive was our selection of main courses and we were pleasantly surprised by the generous size of the portions. Our selection consisted of lamb curry infused with saffron, kasuri murgh tariwala (homestyle chicken curry flavoured with fenugreek), lasooni palak (sautéed spinach with golden fried garlic), and dal makhani (slow-cooked black lentils and kidney beans). To soak up the deiciousness, we also had steamed basmati rice and garlic naan bread. Both the meat dishes were wonderful and (once again) tasted significantly different to each other – not as if lamb and chicken had been stewed in the same curry base sauce. The chicken was tender perfection and delicately spiced – the kind of thing I could happily eat for dinner every week. The lamb was a little spicier, although it was hard to detect any significant flavour of saffron. Both the spinach and lentils were tasty and vegetarians could probably happily eat the lentil dish as a main course without feeling in any way let down.
By this time we were somewhat full, so it came as a relief that dessert portions were small. We had cardamom khulfi (ice-cream) and one of my favourite Indian desserts: decadent gulab jamun (deep-fried condensed milk dumplings in syrup). The cardamom khulfi was pleasant if unremarkable – I far preferred the gulab jamun with its surprisingly yielding golden skin revealing a pale interior soaked in cardamom and rose-flavoured syrup. Super-sweet, but delicious. To finish off, I had a pot of masala chai which was rich with the flavours of cardamom and cinnamon; and was accompanied by a couple of petit fours. There were perfect squares of white and pink coconut ice which took me directly back to childhood, but my favourite were the squares of chewy caramel encasing a selection of seeds and nuts – absolutely addictive.
Overall it was a good evening and a good meal. Service was very friendly and knowledgeable, but seemed to vary in pace: initially very slow, then speeding up, but tailing off to glacial speed towards the end of the meal. There did not appear to be a maitre d’ in evidence – perhaps this would have improved matters? The food was good to excellent and remained authentically Indian, rather than veering off into a haute cuisine take on Indian, relying instead on excellent and diverse spicing to keep the culinary excitement going. My only reservation would be that although the prices were quite reasonable in Pounds, they are pretty steep in Rand terms. For the amount of money our meal cost, I suspect there are more exciting meals to be had in Cape Town. Still, it is good to see that high-end Indian dining had arrived in Cape Town, and the surroundings are rather sumptuous if you are looking for somewhere to celebrate an occasion. It’s also good to find a place where vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes get equal amounts of space on the menu!
After our meal, the duty manager kindly took us on a short tour of the hotel, including the other restaurant Mint, the Jiva spa, the Taj Club floor, and then the rather breathtaking Tata Suite. This spectacular 4,800 square foot, split-level suite takes up the entire top floor of a modern extension added to the roof of the Reserve Bank building. It includes two bedrooms, a dining room, a lounge, a study, two full and two half bathrooms, an oversize steam shower with twin rain showers, a private treatment room for massages, a mirror TV, and (my favourite) a rim-flow bath with views of Table Mountain, Lions Head, and Signal Hill through the floor-to-ceiling windows. The wrap-around roof terrace has a formal dining table for 12, as well as a fire pit and masses of space for hosting a function. However – luxury like this does not come cheap: rates hover around R30-35,000 per night, depending on the season. Still, standing on the terrace gazing at Table Mountain after our dinner was a pretty fantastic way to end the evening – expect me back when I win the Lotto!
Liked: unusual and delicious dishes, the beautiful chairs
Disliked: the sometimes patchy service, the wine and food prices
On a scale of 1 to 10: 7
DISCLOSURE: We enjoyed our meal as guests of the Taj Cape Town
The Taj Hotel
cnr. Wale Street & St George’s Mall
(Dinner Mon – Sun)
Tel: +27 (0) 21 819 2000
This post is part of a series called Sundays in South Africa. The series started as a way of providing visitors with some ideas of what and where to eat during and after the FIFA World Cup 2010 which took place in June/July 2010 in my home country of South Africa! Although the tournament is over now, I still try to post a review of somewhere South African, or a South African recipe on Sundays as culinary inspiration for visitors. Click here for previous posts in the series.