When chef Angelo Scirocco, South Africa’s entrant for the 2015 S.Pellegrino Young Chef awards in Milan last year, left Chefs Warehouse, he was advised not to take his talent to Joburg where it was said he would ‘fail’.
Instead, he realised the city is both receptor and generator of new foods and ways of eating in urban South Africa. Johannesburg is also the ideal source of some of the unusual ingredients he requires for his ‘urban garde’ cuisine.
In Newtown Angelo found the inventiveness and edginess he needed for his Urbanologi concept. For comparisons, think Amsterdam’s industrial De Hallen or Copenhagen’s meatpacking district in Vesterbro. But this restaurant is not based on anything that has gone before – and part of the reason is the feedback between the constantly inventing brewery and restaurant.
The food is impossibly good. Make that perfect – if there is such a condition. It’s inspired by what tastes good with special beers, using Japanese street-food flavours and processes with inevitable French influences in an urban melange.
The menu has six sections, each including a mix of you might consider to be starters, mains, accompaniments or even desserts. It’s a way of eating that you can construct in many ways, depending on who you are and what you enjoy. Everything, no matter how simple, is the best it can possibly be.
Chips could never be just chips; you’ll get a stunning wooden bowl of chunky deep-fried spud slices, served with a seaweed-mayo condiment with a fresh, delightful taste of seaspray. The deep-fried skins are served in the same bowl, with crackling textures. They appear under the Fried section of the menu, as does a pork belly dish that involves salt-curing the meat first, cooking it sous vide for the softest texture, battering it with black pepper and frying the pieces. The resulting crisp exterior and melting interior are contrasted with sweet butternut purée and sour tamarind dressing on fresh cucumber with smoky peanut flavours.
You might choose to start with a taste from the Steamed section, like the little steamed brioche buns. Made with sourdough, raw milk and butter, they’re injected with truffle custard and dusted with potato-skin salt.
Be blown away further by something from the Cured section, perhaps octopus cured in jalapeño and ginger, with a small shower of fresh, delicate petals of shaved turnip, and lime-and-coriander dressing over seared fresh tuna. Beautiful, yes, but even better to eat.
Move onto the Kushiyaki section of charred and glazed meats, with rump marinated in a Korean paste, fired on the Japanese grill, sprayed with lime and served with soba noodles and taste-wakening lemon-wasabi mayo, black-turnip shavings and seaweed dust. The rendang-style soft-shredded beef cheeks are also unforgettable, with creamy truffle- cauliflower purée and sherry-glazed onion sections.
The Frozen section will surprise and delight with gorgeous local tomatoes with salt and oil, served with a snow of oyster, buttermilk, fresh yoghurt, whey and horseradish. A devastatingly beautiful and well-balanced dessert in this section combines the tartness of blackberries with the earthiness of beetroot juice, poached plums and basil, under Angelo’s liquorice fruit powder.
Eating is a sensational, playful experience for all. The dishes are prepared with complex understanding, but require no finer appreciation tools than your taste buds. Angelo entertains without intimidating. And the lab is developing ever more dishes, such as the dessert using wonderful local milk in different forms, as well as new cultures for beers.
The Mad Giant’s four beers – a pilsner, weiss, pale ale and amber ale – are the drinks that complement this oriental menu, and vice versa. The beer experience is foremost about taste; the staff are well versed in the flavours that complement the food in many surprising ways. Besides the beers, the wine menu is limited to only seven whites and seven reds, led by organic names like Waterkloof. Interestingly, there are three kinds of glasses to elevate the beers to new heights.
Urbanologi staff are fully trained and unhesitating with advice because they really do know their stuff. It’s very busy by night, but the space and the attitude of the staff makes everything seamless and genial, happy even. But so would you be in the comfortable-looking pale-blue and beige hemp shirts and aprons designed by Daniella Kisten. The team of chefs is headed by Scirocco and manager Rogio Pedro.
All under one enormous industrial roof is the high-tech Mad Giant working brewery, fragrant with the aroma of delicate fruit. No glass separates you from Urbanologi’s fully open kitchen, allowing you to see what you get. Haldane Martin designed the interior, which features modern lighting, a variety of tables, and clever industrial chairs that accommodate a variety of bodies. The parquet of the floor is as clever as an artwork, leading the eye to the table detail. Couches of released-pleat flowing leather really stand out.
It’s difficult to get such a voluminous space to be cosy, but this is achieved by light pools. On the tables are wooden chopsticks on holders (but you can use your hands), wooden boats of salt flakes and slightly pressed peppercorns, and gorgeous Mervyn Gers bowls instead of side plates. The attention to detail is impressive.
As the manager says, the food is enjoyed equally by guests hailing from First Chinatown a street away, the new cops from what used to be John Vorster Square cross the road, hipsters and tourists. However, beer drinkers wearing shorts are just as welcome.
Something surprising is planned for August to add to Urbanologi’s already fantastic experience. You’ll hear it from us first.