The Countess in Melville has taken Joburg by storm. Having perfected the basics so soon after opening, it’s now at the stage where it can concentrate on making statements with smoky barbecue coupled with modern cooking techniques.
The food is, in a word, smoky. The smoking equipment is visible through the kitchen’s glass wall, allowing guests to watch the processes. The Countess is at the forefront of the latest food movement of more-is-more, but the from-scratch menu is based on the best ingredients, responsibly and locally sourced, and makes use of house-made pickles, breads and brioche. In presentation, each dish is a masterpiece.
Starters can be as outrageously delicious as mac ’n cheese made with actual truffle paste, parma ham croquettes, or beer-and-cheese brulée, topped with house-smoked chorizo and served with freshly baked ciabatta.
The beer-battered fish with fennel-and-garlic aioli is my best-yet combo, and another main that’s worth fighting over is their French dipping sandwich of rich, fall-apart, eight-hour-cooked brisket, with molten mozzarella (smoked, of course) piled with spring onion into a Countess baguette, and served with some of the rich onion gravy for dipping – and much dripping. With every main there’s the choice of 11 sides, such as onion rings, creamy garlic mash or deep-fried battered gherkins, and your selection of as many condiments, including bacon jam, pickles, homemade piccalilli and chutney.
Desserts on special might include The Countess’s pot de crème. It is simply delicious: sous-vide caramelised cream custard with slightly bitter maple syrup and black lava salt floating on top in a little glass. The chocolate mousse syllabub is ridiculously rich too, with real Belgian chocolate contrasted with that fresh lemon-curd taste of the syllabub.
The liquor licence is in contention (some local residents haven’t approved), but there are great cocktails if you bring or buy a spirit from the bottle store. The mixologist (who can sometimes be seen making infusions like lemongrass syrup) produces lovely mocktails like Cool Cucumber, made with cucumber juice, green apple, salt and lime in a tall, frosted glass, and The Grand Dealer, made with fresh pomegranate, orange juice, house-made cinnamon bitters, and lime. The coffees are excellent and include iced condensed-milk fantasies of the day.
The double-volume space of Prussian blue and lots of copper, both practical and decorative, is there to impress. Inside, there’s a huge mural of The Countess above the mixology area. The canopy of white umbrellas outside, surrounded by young olive trees, is one of Melville’s prime meeting spots.
Leona Chauluka, for instance, embodies the kind of happy and funky service that seems natural here. It’s quite casual but efficient. Knowledgeable waiters who offer to find out, without a fuss, really inspire confidence.
The coffee is so good because they get the beans green, roast them and grind them for your cup – and they sell the goodies to do it yourself.