Something unique in Johannesburg, Mamasan is attracting diners in droves with its modern Cape Malay flavours. Grant Greenhead, head chef and partner in the business, says the name deliberately contains the term ‘eatery’ instead of ‘restaurant’, because the team wants people to come just as they are, without expectations, and be surprised.
While it’s not a faithfully Cape Malay restaurant, Mamasan is its own kind of delight, with exceptional, expertly composed dishes showing very clever traditional influences.
You will want to come back time and time again to try as much as possible on the exciting menu, which changes according to seasonal produce and innovation. There are no burgers, pizzas or wraps to pander to the boring or unadventurous. The contemporary dishes showcase Cape Malay ingredients, whole and sustainably sourced produce, from-scratch sauces and preserves, and fresh breads, throwing a whole lot of tongue-in-cheek fun into the bargain, too.
Over weekends (from February onwards) there will be fantastic, unusual brunches divided into three sections – savoury, spicy and sweet – with two dishes each that change with the seasons. On a recent menu an egg-in-a-hole made with Grant’s aniseed-raisin toast is nestled against a small mavrou (a spiced meat dish usually served at Eid) of ground steak mince, with a pickled beetroot mousse and banana-coconut sambal. It’s perfect with a glass of South African champers on a lazy weekend morning in this cheery spot. The most popular brunch dish is the buttermilk flapjacks, with impressive suurvy preserve and creamy, homely mango ice cream spiked with rosewater.
It’s best to book for dinners, where lots of sharing happens. The meal starts with Beginners like denninigvleis, which is tamarind-soured pulled rich lamb offset by a sambal of sultanas, coconut and bananas. Alongside it is tameletjie – not the sugary sweet with nuts you thought you knew, but one made of butternut, with cumin seeds and pumpkin seeds. Paaper (the crispy pastry used for samoosas) is the carrier for an outstanding snoek pâté, with a bit of chilli and a yellow peach to bring out the snoekiness, and divine lemon atchar served alongside.
As in Cape-Malay home cooking, the spices are never hot, even if they’re chilli or red masala, but are present to expand the flavours. A pineapple peri-peri chicken features the slightly acidic taste of fruit, just aroused with chilli, and the caramelised meat arrives half-perched on an intriguing waffle that contains within its batter the classic spinach accompaniment, apple, and hint of the taste of dhaltjie (like a chilli bite made with pea flour).
If you’re not a tripe eater, this is where you might be converted. Tender offal strips are accompanied by equally tender speckled beans and enveloped in a salomi that brings tears of nostalgia to an ex Capetonian – though he wonders if this one isn’t actually nicer… On the side is a tomato-onion sambal and Grant’s green-mango atchar. A note on the menu reads: penslawer is the Cape Malay answer to mogodu; salomi is the Cape Malay answer to a burrito. There are humorous and educative notes throughout the menu.
For the ‘meltert’, you get a shot glass of a non-alcoholic liquor as the essence of a classic South African milk tart and, on the plate, a coconut-milk custard and peach melktert in a date-studded, melt-in-the mouth pastry. The ooh-aah favourite is a banana fritter served banana-split style, with boeber (vermicelli and sweet spice) ice cream, covered in peanut sauce, with a spoonful of real peach preserve.
There’s an interesting selection of South African reds, pinks and whites, with some unusual bottles and well-priced bubbly. The gin is bespoke and lightly spiced. There’s whisky and beer, too, but the major cocktails are gin based. The one with gin, fresh cane juice and lime, surprisingly unsweet, is recommended, as is the beautiful martini and an outstanding Bellini.
The non-alcoholic choices are also interesting: the perfume from iced gadat milk in its stemless champagne glass is a bit like summer Turkish delight but tastes slightly of rosewater, cinnamon and cardamom. Flou tea lemonade is tingly and refreshing. The offering is completed by rooibos, plunger or espresso coffee, and fabulous juices.
Staff are smart, fast and well trained on the menu. By day some of the waitresses are maybe just a bit too casual about completing the otherwise delightful experience.
It’s difficult not to feel happy here. It’s purposefully bright, like a Bo-Kaap picture postcard, full of art specially selected by Dawood Petersen from his own substantial art collection, mostly Cape-Malay themed and some of it amusing. The room is surrounded by little trees and a bevy of mother-in-law’s tongues hangs close to the ceiling. Flamingo pink sheepskins are flung over the backs of the macramé chairs; the stylised Table Mountain was designed by Dokter and Misses; and the bright shop-window decals are kitschy-kool. Dawood and Grant sourced well-designed tableware (like the remarkable pouring jugs) and beautiful, scarf-like cotton napkins. The music is cheerful but unobtrusive and often includes some delicious jazz in the evenings.
The open kitchen is a couple of steps up from the restaurant, and the chefs there welcome feedback as they work.