The Cape Town City Bowl can lay claim to many fine and commendable attributes, but the offering of a good piece of steak does not seem to be one of them. Whereas the City’s Northern and Southern Suburbs are well-serviced with passable steak-houses, the main drag in the shade of Table Mountain’s dramatic precipice appears to struggle in getting together a place offering true carnivorous pleasure.
However, this does not seem to bother those residing in the City Bowl much, nor tourists seeking a night out. For how else to explain the success of The Nelson’s Eye, a well-worn steak-house in Cape Town’s Gardens area that, after 60-something years in business, continues to attract diners the way open-air animal markets lures deadly viruses of Oriental origin.
An unexplained blood-lust led me to The Eye the other night, and despite the hordes of raucous diners – eating, drinking and oozing joie de vivre – the experience had me wondering whether part-time veganism is not a possible option. As this would surely lessen the chances of me ever having to negotiate an evening’s meat-eating such as this specific one.
Steak-houses are meant to be safe refuges. Dead certs that do not disappoint. Meat, well-cooked to your specification and preference. Chips. A choice of sauces. And, perhaps, followed by an ice-cream and chocolate sauce or Irish coffee. Simple stuff, done well. In a convivial, no-nonsense setting.
The latter, well, this The Eye did have. Despite being a bit crammed, the chairs, tables and place mats were simple and semi-retro with a few old-time marine ships and pictures of that scrawny, pale one-handed British wanker Horatio Nelson on the walls.
The menu offers starters ranging from prawns and calamari to chicken livers and snails. Sardines add an almost exotic touch. Steaks are grilled cuts, or cooked and sauced in pans. There is game and fish, and calamari. Not a jus, reduction or piece of kale in sight. Just as it should be when visiting a steakhouse.
Living the retro vibe that greets one when walking through the door, I chose snails in garlic butter to start, while other parties on my table opted for tempura prawns. The snails came sans shell and were slathered in a rich concoction of melted butter and chopped garlic. Eating snails is more about texture than flavour, and these were tender gobs of mollusc, earthy in flavour and with the garlic butter providing the dish with a satisfying lift, as well a garish yellow colour one expects to find in the residue emanating from urgent and painful kidney treatments.
The snail-portion included some strips of innocuous government brown bread, but these could just as well have been recycled hessian rice bags and would have still been edible if dipped in that garlic butter.
But this is all small-talk, as The Eye is about the meat and the meat only. You see the slabs of beef lying next to the grill as you walk in. Sprightly, quick service-staff hoist plates of grilled beef to huge tables of noisy, thrilled diners who welcome the arrival of their steaks with a hush and gasp, the kind of awe-struck wonder of people seeing the Mona Lisa for the first time or experiencing a maiden glimpse of Helen Zille’s new hair colour.
My order was for a sirloin on the bone. No sauce, nothing, for a grill and attentive basting brings out the best in a piece of meat. The other party chose some creamy fillet-in-a-pan thing.
I requested the steak be medium-rare, as well as a portion of French fries, for steak without chips is pretty much as useless as an olive-less Martini or a South African cabinet minister without KFC on speed-dial.
The main-courses arrived promptly and my steak was a good looking slab of inch-and-a-half thick beef carrying a strip of bone. It could have done with a better, deeper char on the outside, but I assumed that the skill with which the meat had been grilled was more aimed towards creating flavour and tenderness within the sub-surface of the beef.
Things started to go astray when I went for the first cut. My eagerly carving steak-knife came to an abrupt halt, hitting a sinew the way a slick Monaco speed-boat crashes into an unaware sleeping hump-back whale. This required me to go into surgery mode, craftily slicing the meat from the sinews.
It was then I noticed the meat was cooked a very rare side of medium rare – something I do not normally mind. But when subjected to an investigatory prod from a sensitive, alert index-finger, the undercooked interior of the steak turned out to be cold.
The episode was not worthy of scene-making hysteria or actioning steak-knife violence: If you are a specialist steak-house, have been around for over six decades and still can’t grill a piece of meat medium-rare, the message has been received well and clear. You’re fucked.
But being keenly committed to further investigation I sliced and ate the steak, except for the bone and the sinews, as I wished to sensorially analyse the quality of the meat. The first finding was that, yes it was beef. Dead bovine, RIP. But there all similarities to a good beef steak ended. The meat was bloodless, had no soul, taste or personality, reminding me of the early songs of John Denver.
I sucked the juice out of a raw beefy sliver but found none of those life-affirming, satisfying and good flavour a steak should offer to still the primal longing for eating the flesh of a dead animal. It was bland, bad, lifeless and actually very depressing.
Unfortunately there were no simple pleasures on offer in the bowl of French fries that accompanied the meat. Golden on the outside, as soon as the chips went into the mouth the rancid taste of old oil overpowered everything. Beneath the crust the chips were mealy, tired and annoyingly bad.
I had by now tried to down my sorrows with a brilliant bottle of Delheim Grand Reserve, yet listlessly ordered an Irish coffee to put me out of my misery. It arrived, dark with a good head of cream. But after one sip and two minutes in the glass the cream had dissipated and you were left sipping watery coffee bearing a sharp flavour of hard spirit. Which was the only spirit present, leaving me to wander into the Cape Town night, warm and breezy, with two bright stars to show me this is not the end of the world.