If you go down to Woodstock today, you’re in for a big surprise. Chef Luke Dale-Roberts, of La Colombe fame, has set up shop. Tucked into a corner of the warren-like Biscuit Mill, the aptly named Test Kitchen is Luke’s very own culinary playground.
The restaurant will be open for trade half of the week, and the rest of the time will be spent dreaming up dishes, embarking on kitchen adventures, and generally playing mad scientist with flavour and texture combinations.
‘In a full service restaurant the experience can get quite cynical,’ says Luke. ‘Here it’s going to be different, I don’t want to chase covers and turn tables. My hands will touch everything; I want to be here for every service.’
We’re chatting over dark, foamy coffee from Luke’s new neighbour, The Espresso Lab,where he’s apparently already racked up quite a caffeine tab. There’s a thriving urban culture here. The Neighbourgoods Market aside (that achingly hip, foodie free-for-all that happens every Saturday), there are also vintage décor shops, cute and quirky clothing retailers, galleries, and photographic studios.
Luke’s lair is open plan, with the swish kitchen for all to see. Housed in a box-like room with a high ceiling, he’s made the most of the industrial space, with input from his artist/designer wife Sandalene, and materials sourced from within the Biscuit Mill itself. Thin, beaten copper tables stand on textured cement floors, its pattern resembling swirls of Jerusalem artichokes; transparent felt lanterns add that Asian twist that Luke’s so famous for and fire engine-red ladders are propped up against open shelving, displaying all kinds of covetable handmade preserves and wine.
Running along the perimeter of the kitchen, is a low wooden bar with cocoa-coloured leather chairs stitched with flashes of post box red. ‘This,’ says Luke seeing my interest ‘is the Kitchen Bar. It’s for people who want the fine dining experience, but not the whole tasting menu. Here you’ll be able to order a cocktail and plate of food. It’s very relaxed, very casual.’
Those hoping for the same dining style as La Colombe will be disappointed. ‘No iconic La Colombe dishes will be making an appearance. Signatures can be like an anchor; they stop you from trying new things,’ says Luke.
What diners can expect though, is an endless array of imaginative dishes, such as the Caprese-inspired dessert that’s made of wet, melty mozzarella strands, sweet confit tomato, vanilla, gooseberries and topped with crispy basil and ‘snowballs’ (milk sorbet dipped in coconut), and shards of olive crackle.
For starters, try the ‘raw dish’ served in a ceramic egg; gorgeous green apple slices layered with sunset pink trout, oatmeal dressing and lemon emulsion. The only cooked item in the dish is the finely diced, deep-fried sweet potato garnish. Then for mains, move onto wood-fired roast pork belly served with a beautifully light and fragrant jasmine and mineola jus.
There’s a lot to look forward to, from interactive cooking demonstrations to wine- and food-pairing events, and there are plans to launch a vegetarian tasting menu made up of dishes such as truffle-scented poached quail egg, white asparagus truffles and sweet garlic custard.
Luke is clearly excited about his new geographic location. ‘There’s so much great produce in this area,’ he says, eyes bright. ‘I’m sourcing ingredients from local markets, like the Salt River Market, visiting the butcheries, the fisheries…’
He’s quite the mixologist too. Given half a chance, Luke will happily mix unusual (and sometimes deadly) cocktails. Look out for good-looking glasses filled with aloe vera, gin, crushed berry and yuzu (Japanese citrus) fizz, or ask him to mix up a mulberry, Bacardi and buttermilk cooler.
The Test Kitchen officially opens on 24 November. Visit www.thetestkitchen.co.za for more info.
By Malu Lambert