With its impressive selection of made-from-scratch tapas and a unique wine offering, Escondido is giving Joburgers something to chew over, says Marie-Lais Emond.
Chef Willem Lizemore and Henri Martens opened Escondido in October 2014 to focus on each of their obsessions: food and wine, respectively.
Escondido means a little hidey hole or something secret, but when you enter the Illovo Post Office Centre, well known for two other great eateries – Assaggi and The Patisserie – this tapas bar is smack bang in front of you.
The huge variety of tapas changes all the time. While it’s true that favourites, like pork roulade, stick around on the menu, they appear in different guises and with new accompaniments. (May the dish with charred macadamia bits on a caramelised pineapple purée stay forever!)
Willem’s famous pumpkin fritters are back, now with classic cinnamon and sugar, as are the skinny fries with parmesan and truffle oil. Baby soles with a dense creamy pea velouté hang out alongside tapas-sized lamb tagines with tabbouleh. Swiftly seared trout with pawpaw and mint could arrive at the same time as a trio of different little bangers and mash, soy-glazed lamb riblets, crispy calamari with aioli or, another favourite, roast butternut and gorgonzola tart with toasted pumpkin seeds. The portions are side-plate sized and served that way, rather than on those dinky Spanish bar saucers.
The secret to this (and all really good food) is the making of absolutely everything from scratch – it really sorts the chefs from the cooks. The best spring roll of pork and halloumi was accompanied by real chilli relish: original, fresh and witty. A new take on a funny old classic, green peppercorn sauce, tastes delightful with its sirloin partner.
For dessert, the malva pudding is exactly as it should be, naughtily laced with Amarula, and a perfect brûlée features coffee crème underneath. A faultless dark chocolate fondant appears with homemade pistachio ice cream. You could also finish with the cheeseboard.
The wine experience at Escondido is entertaining and rewarding. The list gives wines by the glass, the bottle and ‘box’. The latter doesn’t indicate a slip in standard, but rather wooden bin numbers in the adjoining glass chamber. Here are tissue-wrapped and plain-label limited editions and beauties from the likes of Joubert-Tradouw and Gabrielskloof – the special appellations and interesting plantings of our innovative winemakers.
By-the-glass wine appeals with this kind of food and there are some greats to be sampled. Drinking a glass of Thelema Sutherland is a fine treat, and a rosé cabernet is a handy choice for gliding through many food choices. (It’s worth planning a driver for the occasion.)
There are about five beers, including a ginger one, and a pleasant variety of the trustier cocktails. Every month Henri features the wines of some other region of the world, two of the most recent being Chile and Argentina. Australia will feature soon.
The service is brilliant – incredibly warm and welcoming.
Dark wood and textures (in that purposely mismatched, up-cycled look) contrast with the transparency of the wine-box chamber. In the middle of the room is a dining table for ten.
The many blackboards, full of writing about the foods and the wines, are shifted around by staff wearing Rioja-red tees.
The waiters recommend you order two dishes per person at a time, but I’d suggest you order in rounds of one dish per person so that the food can be consumed as hot as intended.