Tucked away in the back corner of the Old Biscuit Mill in Cape Town’s hip and happening Woodstock is world of wonder called The Test Kitchen. At number 28 on San Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best restaurants list, it is well, one of the best restaurants in the world.
Here’s what the World’s 50 Best Website says:
British-born Luke Dale-Roberts spent much of his career working across Europe and Asia before settling in his adopted home of South Africa. And his travels are certainly reflected in the food he serves at The Test Kitchen in Cape Town, where menus comprise an eclectic mix of international flavours, ingredients and cooking techniques.
Rooted in fusion cuisine, Dale-Roberts’ very personal style of cooking is as bold and inventive as it is intelligent and skilful, confidently marrying imaginative flavour combinations with artistic presentations, turning dishes into culinary works of art. Unusual plates and bowls are designed to accompany and enhance dishes, enticing all of the senses. A case in point is his TK Concrete Ball, which sees two steaming concrete flowerpots arrive at the table containing kingklip grilled on hot charcoal. The finished plate pairs the fish alongside a snoek medley, black forest ham and fish jus, roasted potato skin purée and smoked red onion foam.
Located at Cape Town’s Old Biscuit Mill in the city’s up-and-coming arts district of Woodstock, the restaurant reflects its artistic surroundings in both its cuisine and décor, with its massive open-plan kitchen allowing diners to be part of the creative process. Offering five- and nine-course tasting menus at dinner as well as a five-course and an à la carte menu at lunch, a meal at The Test Kitchen is an experience packed full of imagination and flair.
It is owned by Luke Dale Roberts, and the Head Chef is Ivor Jones. It is also the only African showing on the list, and so therefore the best restaurant in Africa. The food concept is based on the impact that travel has had on Luke’s originally English palette. You guys know how I love the concept of fusion in food. Guess who got to go.
You cannot imagine my excitement. Even as I type this, I am remembering the nerves and the tension Busola and Iendured before we found out whether we had got a table or not. You see, this is not somewhere you can just rock up to.
To get a table here, you have to book six to eight months in advance.
So the fact that we got in, was like Christmas come early. On the journey from the hotel to the restaurant, the Uber driver split his sides laughing at us. He said we were nuts to think we could eat there and that we should know that it was just not going to happen. I have no way of getting in touch with him now, but I want him to know that you have to believe, man. If anything is going to happen, you have got to believe. It was a long shot, but we said our prayers, and then we put on our Ruby Woo and headed over. Between those two things, the impossible became possible. Halleluyah.
Usually, on a dinner like this, I would try to be fully present in the moment, to savour every fleeting flavour and mark it indellibly on my palette. I try to remember everything and to consciously process it all so that I can access the minutia later on. But that didn’t work out for me on this dinner and that in itself was a huge learning curve.
What I came away from this restaurant with, is above all else, a memory of how it made me feel. It was like there was nowhere else and no one else on this planet except for those of us in that room. There was no music, but the combined low din of the kitchen and patron conversation created a unique background sound. The ambiance was mesmerising. I guess that is was an incredible restaurant does.
The food is so radically exciting, and so sensorily engaging that you go beyond the limits of your own understanding, and then after that it is just silence and noise, silence and noise, rushing through your senses; until you no longer know which way is up and you are just gloriously and incandescently happy.
It is also really clever what they have done with the decor. It doesn’t feel like a constipated fine dining establishment that trips on its own left foot. It is a hearty and warm and lived in space, with large windows, lots of rough, hand-hewn textures, and an open plan kitchen so you can watch the magic happening.
All I can tell you is this: we opted for The Gourmand Menu, which is a 9-course menu, paired with a different South African wine for each course. I won’t try to describe all the dishes in great detail and what not. Like I said, I can’t fully remember because it is all a wonderful blur. What I can do, is share pictures with you, and assure you with the utmost confidence, that if you ever have plans to be in Cape Town, you must move hell and high water to go to The Test Kitchen.
Thank you to the wonderful manager who did his best to secure us a table, and also to our wonderful waiter Matt, who put up with our spastic behaviour – all our sighing and smiling and giggling must have been infuriating – and he handled it all like a trooper!
Now feast your eyes, my dear friends, and imagine you were there.
A warm welcome: Le Lude South African sparkling wine, a basil and ginger cocktail, beetroot crisps, porcini mushroom shortbread, duck liver parfait, truffle gel with dark chocolate and malt salt. This was an explosion. Every cell in my mouth was singing.
Heirloom Tomato: tomato jelly wood roasted aubergine, west coast crayfish, toasted parmesan custard, basil oil. Still sipping that Le Lude. It was both energetic and soft with divine structure.
Salmon: Salmon mousse, tapioca crisp, fennel powder and ikura (salmon roe). This was a marvel of balancing opposites – mushy and brittle, green and pink, soft and hard, dry and moist, dusty and loamy – with the occassional pop of brininess from the roe.
Home Smoked Trout: beetroot, creme fraiche, parsley jellies, saffron pickled onions, buttermilk trout crema. This was trout in a tux. Oh so familiar but so much more refined.
Wagyu Beef: seared rump tartare, hazelnut yoghurt, pickled radish, smoked onion croutons, black sesame mayo. This is the lightest, most caressing touch I have ever seen given to beef. It became fragrant and fanciful and was totally unexpected.
Scallop: Naturalis bacon, cauliflower salad, black garlic, caper and pine nut salsa, cauliflower cheese foam. If the Cauliflower Council ever needed to win a food war, this dish would be it. You can’t imagine that cauliflower can go where these guys have taken it.
The famous Test Kitchen Kingklip: an aromatic, theatrical cook on-the-table delight which is taken away and plated once it is cooked. I love incense and this dish reminded me of that; watching the smoke curl up and dissipate and then having the scent hit my nostrils and tickle my mind.
Light Curry Glazed Kingklip: carrot and cashew puree, carrot beurre noisette. This is what it looks like all plated up. We just weren’t ready. It was like tasting the colour orange for the first time. 5/5.
Duck: Cherries, foie gras, BBQ meringue. The only dish I could not finish because it was very rich. There was something very right about the dark sweetness of the dish, but I just couldn’t handle it.
And for Dessert…..
Rhubarb and summer berries: Tasted just as it looks. Bright, open, and light.
Banana, Caramel, Coconut: Steamed Italian meringue, salted pine nut curd banana sorbet, coconut and rum broth.
Everyone needs to eat here at least once in their life. I would love to just be in this kitchen and help out and observe.