I’ve always dreamt of a tall, gangly blonde looking down at me and utterings words to the tune of “oh, just eat it like a mielie”. But this she did, smiling before turning around to head for the kitchen leaving me with a still heart and a deep-fried pig’s tail in my hand.
And then I proceeded to, as she advised, eat this morsel of fatty, flavour-packed dead animal like one would with a roll of corn-on-the cob, only stopping to sip dry white wine and to wipe the grease from my manicured facial hair.
It is all very London and very St John, this new Cape Town restaurant La Tête. Situated in downtown Bree Street, the restaurant is clinically furnished, tables and chairs offering a linear visual appeal with uniform bowl-sized lamps hanging from above. Everyone wears blue aprons and white in a workingman’s trendiness kind-of-way, just the look that made St John the universe for nose-to-tail eating 15 years ago.
Even the short-stemmed wine-glasses are St John, and at one stage I expected the legendary owner of that icon restaurant, Fergus Henderson, to come strolling out of the kitchen, owlishly blinking behind his round spectacles with a (short-stemed) glass of Vieille Prune in hand.
Yet La Tête is a trick of its own on the Cape Town dining scene, incomparable in look, feel and – most important – the quality of the style of food it has chosen to present.
The emphasis is on what Anthony Bourdain – largely responsible for causing St John to go stratospheric – calls “the good stuff”. Namely the parts of the animal not usually associated with restaurant eating, but food we of farmer and working-class stock know to make for good eating: tails and brains; stomach and lung; heart and that throat gland called a sweetbread.
These items find their way onto La Tête’s menu, which changes daily. During my visit I saw pig’s tails, which appear to be standard, as well as ox heart and pig’s cheek. In between there was terrine and octopus and lamb broth on the starter page, plus salt hake as well as onions and green beans. Mains included braised lamb, duck breast with red cabbage and mussels with leeks. Vegetarians were in for goat’s cheese and lentils.
A party of four began with pig’s tails with aioli for me and two portions of terrine. A plate of kaki-hued sourdough bread was brought to the table, freshly baked and correctly yeasted for a feral musk-like flavour. Delicious with a big spread of butter.
The tails are golden and breaded, accompanied by a dish of daffodil-yellow aioli and some lemon quarters. It was then when said young lady advised me on how to eat this item. Upon which I refrained with any retort implying that I was eating pig’s and other animal tails when she was still attached to a rounded portion of her mother’s anatomy.
Tail-eating is messy and noisy, and fantastic. Sucking the fatty meat from the tiny bones is one of eating’s big pleasures, especially when the food is slathered with a perfect silky aioli as is La Tête’s.
The terrine was finely structured, smooth as the tone of a jazz-singer on Valium and finely flavoured with good meat and fresh herbs.
My main was ox heart which by the look of it had been poached to tenderness before thinly sliced and grilled. There was an enticing smoky-taste I found delectable. With it was a portion of chard, flavoured with the world’s greatest accompaniment after Mrs Ball’s chutney, and that be the humble anchovy.
The salty-greenness of the chard blended superbly with the ribbons of cooked ox heart. Diemersdal’s Grüner Veltliner provided the partnering wine, and was an accurate choice for this dish. Stone and wet herbs and citrus, it was, coaxing the heart and chard down the hatch. Braised lamb was declared to be perfect mounds of shoulder-meat, braised for an ideal length of time. Focused meat flavour, joined by a broth with peas and sweet onions.
I got hold of some pork cheek, fragrant morsels of pig so soft the animal must have been on a liquid diet as not much chewing could have been done with that tender face. The endive, green apple and caper lifted the dish with dewdrop-like refreshment, providing a superb example of how simplicity and quality ingredients provide for complex and symphonic eating experiences.
Dessert was a plate of Madeleines, fresh and hot from the oven with a distinct homely egg note permeating the warm bake.
The long-limbed blond came to check on thing with the Madeleines, but she needn’t have worried. By that time I was eating it like a cookie.
- Emile Joubert