PL Kopp, a WineGoggle correspondent, visits the Butcher’s Shop in Sandton. Apparently for the last time.
There was a time when Sandton, Johannesburg, and the world was a better place. I remember those balmy Highveld evenings, strolling through The Square enjoying the lights and the cosmopolitan crowd and the fact that here, at least, was one place in this ghastly city where I could walk around after dark without getting a sharpened bicycle spoke in my neck before briskly being robbed.
Oh yes, and there was the Butcher’s Shop and Grill. When hunger set in after a couple of martinis I’d head off to this veritable inviting haven for carnivores to devour bloody meat and drink good wine. It was, then, a friendly well-lit place.
The staff would smile and cheerily steer you towards bigger cuts of steak than on what you had initially set your sights. You’d laugh and nod, also exchanging your modestly priced wine order for a bottle of something with a canon on the label or the letters R and V. Too hell with tomorrow. Eat and drink well, and if this happened to be expensive, so what? The Butcher’s Shop was the right place in which to partake in a bit of conspicuous consumption.
And man, was it good. The meat was juicy and aged and grilled to perfection. Bloody but warm with a moreish crust, the fat on the sirloin hot and crunchy.
But that was then.
Recently I revisited the Butcher’s Shop and found out that nostalgia just ain’t what it used to be.
First up was the vibe. Here the atmosphere was impersonal, a frequent occurrence when a 400 seat eatery is largely empty. Instead of inviting smiles, there was an air of surliness. Myself and the dining partners stood inside the joint looking at the wine bottles so elegantly displayed when Alan Pick, the legendary Mr Butcher’s Shop, edged passed us, not even giving three guys who were about to drop at least R450 each in his restaurant a cursory glance or a gruff “hello”.
Call me old fashioned, but in the service industry it is normally okay for the proprietor to acknowledge the presence of those who have entered the holy air of his domain.
Having been seated, the wine-list was perused as this used to make interesting reading. Not now. The first few pages are taken up by the smiling faces of members of the Cape Winemakers Guild, also known as “Pick’s Bitches” as the owner is their most ardent supporter when it comes to splurging on wine at the annual Guild Auction.
The next section consists or some Pick’s Pick selections bottled under an own label, and finally there is a smattering of independent wines. Good enough wines, but a motley and uninspired collection.
Deciding to freshen our palates and to clear our collective conscience for the meaty feast to come, we went for salads. Two prawn and avocado. One bacon and avocado.
Befitting a restaurant with an awesome reputation for meat dishes, the salads were abysmal. Prawns watery and overcooked. Toenail-clipping sized slices of tough avo. Limp strips of shredded iceberg. Clots of warm, reheated bacon.
But hey, I enjoyed the humour and could just see the chef hastily concocting a tired salad out of second-hand ingredients muttering “bloody rabbit food” under his breath. Why come to Butcher’s Shop, the veritable Emporium of Meat, and eat a damn salad?
What followed was, however, neither funny nor comprehensible.
Three sirloin steaks. Medium rare. With fries.
(We were offered a rice option, but apart from Gay Boy Bands and residents of Home Final Rest no one I know eats rice with steak.)
The meals came. And I looked around. Was this the same Butcher’s Shop I got to know and love, where I flirted with Spanish tourists on those balmy evenings and dropped more than a grand on red wine ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ 10 years ago?
The steak did not seem very happy. It had a greyish hue, as if the cow it came from had spent its life reading the speeches of Gordon Brown and listening to Roger Whitaker. Cooked medium rare: it sure was. But the mushy fibre attested to the lack of proper conditioning and hanging. Greasy, raw fat as if the griller had yet to learn the art of scorching the glutinous strip before serving.
At best, a very average and boring piece of meat. My local Spur does it seven times better.
However, proof that the Butcher’s Shop has lost its heart lay in the fries.
Now, steak and fries is one of the most satisfying meals known to man. For this we do not ask the earth. No three-day stocks, French-named sauces, foams, sous-vide baths or intricate garnishing. Good ingredients and a little care will do.
So, how the hell does a place that forks out more than R2m at a wine auction still muster the guts to use pre-cooked, mass-procured French fries? A great chip is very forgiving ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ as anyone who baulks at the idea of visiting McDonalds can second. The piping-hot, golden brown freshly fried chips of McDonalds tend to make you forget about the Big Mac made out of cardboard and ox sphincter.
And last time I looked an African grey parrot was on the verge of being trained to cook a good chip, so don’t tell me any kitchen worth its olives can’t ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ with some effort and a bit of concentration ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ produce a fresh fry.
But no. Let’s go the easy route. Stuff the 130 bucks per small steak, the R200 a person minimum food charge and make them eat the mass-produced stuff sold by Mr Chip. Tastes like a strip of bleached nappy with a splash of fresh urine, but who cares? They’re here now, aren’t they?
The mushroom sauce was also a huge joke. Not a slice of mushroom in-sight, this consisted of a porcelain thimble filled with some brown, salty stuff the constituency of Bull Dog flem.
I left the place vowing never to return. As the sun set, the Sandton skyline well and truly behind, I headed for the dirty part of town. Walking without looking around. Waiting for ominous whispers, covered faces and the glint of the bicycle spoke.
Let them come, oh do let them come. Because you never fuck with an angry meat-eater.