Like football teams, fishing reels and expletives, every man has his favourite steak-house. One eatery where the smell is that of animal flesh being expertly grilled, the atmosphere unfettered by any sign of gastronomical pontification or superiority and where the knowledge prevails that what you are going to eat is bloody, meaty and good.
The Fat Butcher in Stellenbosch only opened last year, but it is already my personal meat-eating venue of choice in the winelands. And a shining example of why, in a world where culinary fashions are as fleeting as facial hair patterns and youthful romantic trysts, the steak-house will always be the most popular type of restaurant in South Africa.
Set in an old building oozing a wooden and gabled charm, the Fat Butcher is comfortably intimate without any sign of cramped familiarity. There are dining booths on one side, while the other area faces the road leading from Riebeeck Street to the Old Stellenbosch residential areas. A bar is placed at the end of the room, and despite there being a lot of space, you could be dining in a long lounge.
The menu underscores the fact that, had you failed to make the connection from the restaurant’s name, meat of the dead cow variety is the focus. Should the steak not do it, there is lamb, pork and chicken, with a seafood item or two thrown in.
Standard beef cuts include sirloin, rump, fillet and T-bone, in a variety of sizes. Signature steaks announce something called The Grosvenor, a fillet smothered with a chilli-chocolate concoction and the Huguenot which is also fillet, this time accompanied by a sauce of port and bone-marrow.
The specialist cuts are interesting: New York Strip – a sirloin on the bone – and the majestic Côte de Bouef which is a wad of prime rib, also grilled and served bone-in.
A recent visit to The Fat Butcher with Johann de Wet from De Wetshof saw me engaging with the menu and looking for the right accompaniment to a rather fine bottle of claret. Calon-Ségur 2008, to be precise, and one of the delights of The Fat Butcher is that nobody on site bats and eyelid when you enter the restaurant donning a bottle of wine. This is Stellenbosch, wine capital, after all.
Starters include calamari, mussels and peri-peri chicken livers, but their presence hinder the lust for flesh the two of us were bearing. Johann chose the marrow bone, thus, while I called for a dish of sheep’s tails. For any place that knows how to prepare the latter is to be trusted in matters meaty.
The roasted bones are splendidly sliced lengthwise allowing one to scoop the unctuous rivulet of grey-yellow marrow in a golf-ball sized glob of sensual eating pleasure. Placing this mound of marrow on a slice of toasted bread, topped with ground salt, is the culinary equivalent of experiencing a Roger Federer back-hand, so perfect is it in execution, delivery and beatific disbelief.
My lamb-tails were boiled to tender, followed by a brief flourish on the grill. Cute pea-sized bones are covered with meat serenely tender – for how much work does a lamb actually get to do with its tail? The texture is complemented by a tasty savouriness, a melting bite of buttery flesh that coats the palate with a dreamy and effete wisp of young fat.
The Fat Butcher does a show with its steak. The waiter brings the cuts to the table, allowing you to see the marbled flesh, the dead red colour, the sharp, firm bone.
Meat is Chalmar, grain-fed. This is much preferred to the overrated, over-marketed and over-priced grass-fed beef that people lacking in knowledge of things carnivorous want you to believe is superior to cows fattened on grain. Grass-fed is stringier and drier, and when aged exudes an aroma not unlike a piece of two-day old road-kill on the Karoo N1.
Grain-reared beef is not only far more tender, but also has a better flavour due the healthy fibre-fat ratio.
Johann ordered his rump rare, me settling for the 600g Côte de Bouef, medium-rare. Feeling a bit of French flair stirring through my bones due to the magnificent Bordeaux we were drinking, I requested some béarnaise.
This is all served with perfectly cooked French fries in one of those small bucket-like containers. And as a final fleshy flourish, a welcoming gob of bone-marrow is placed on each steak.
The meat can be ordered grilled with basting or without, but being purists we liked it done naked on the grill, so to speak.
A good griller is an artist, and the griller here is good. Both steaks were nicely charred on the outside and perfectly cooked below. The quality of the beef was evident in the ease with which it was sliced, fibres tender and interspersed with warm streamlets of bloody fat. Beautifully flavoured. A great steak satisfies primal urges, and I cannot think of a more comforting and life-affirming eating experience than a perfectly prepared chunk of good beef.
The sauce béarnaise was silky and pale-gold, and obviously freshly made. When the meat is good I usually shun sauce. But the tarragon flavoured butter-egg mixture, brightened by a hit of vinegar, was an ideal accompaniment to the gorgeous beef.
Although still young, the Calon-Ségur was sublime, the Cabernet Sauvignon of Saint-Estèphe leading the way with dark prunes, truffled salt and dried pine-needle.
We ate and drank it all, as one is taught to do in your home and which you do here. As home is where the steak-house is.