Globally celebrated chef Luke Dale-Roberts has finally brought his international flair to Johannesburg. His pop-up of The Test Kitchen at exclusive boutique hotel and spa, The Saxon, is located in the venue previously used by Five Hundred, which was run by the acclaimed chef David Higgs. (David is soon to open his own live-fire restaurant called Marble.)
The restaurant is more formal than Luke’s award-winning Cape Town restaurant, The Test Kitchen, but offers an equally impressive menu with strong Asian influences and intricate art on a plate. The opulence and luxury of The Saxon is enhanced by this dining establishment. The entrance is grand: a glass lift take you up to the dimly lit, cosy dining space with its showcase kitchen and walls adorned with carefully selected artwork. Luke’s menu is an elaborate affair, featuring an eight-course tasting menu paired with an option of local wines, international wines or tea. We enjoy the local wine pairing, which includes superb choices by a seasoned palate.
To begin, my taste buds are tantalised with a creamy pea mousse with morel mushroom jelly, pickled walnut and wafers of toasted brick pastry (Tunisian-style pastry). Spoon-tender Wagyu beef carpaccio follows, in a masterful combination with soy-braised sweet potato, burnt aubergine and macadamia purée. A dish of heirloom tomatoes with smoked-tomato dashi jelly and light parmesan custard is the final starter on this journey of unusual combinations of exotic and everyday ingredients.
The next course is an option of flash-grilled salmon with whispers of Korean chilli and a grapefruit salad topped with a nest of buckwheat crisps, or lamb tataki with picked enoki mushrooms and garlic catalan, finished off with a lovage pesto. While our waiter cannot explain the meaning of ‘flash grilled’, the salmon still makes for an outstanding dish.
A bit of theatre follows. A concrete ball is brought to the table and opened by the waiter with a flourish, releasing white smoke. When the smoke settles, a sizzling crayfish tail on hot coals is revealed in the centre. The theatre, unfortunately, ends there, as the ball is taken back to the kitchen for the plating of the crayfish along with braised sushi rice and Thai-style foam.
The pork belly with blue cheese, parsley and compressed apple completely steals the show from its opponent, the ragout of octopus, which lacks inspiration and finesse despite the exotic ingredient. Tender pan-seared duck with an incredible smoked meringue shard with cherry jus and foie gras is a moreish finale to the savoury courses.
Finally, the rhubarb-and-strawberry salad with real clotted cream, elderflower granita and shortbread provided a memorable ending to the four-hour dining experience.
When enjoying a fine-dining experience from an acclaimed chef like Luke, expectations are, almost unfairly, extremely high. The meal is evaluated against a combination of factors like service, food and value. While the food, presentation and flavour delivers, the experience is marred by keen but inexperienced service. This is a shame as ‘the experience’ is what makes fine dining special. However, this factor can be easily corrected to match the truly magnificent food. The meal costs R1330 per person; R1900 paired with local wines; or R2100 with international wines.