The Test Kitchen is the most difficult reservation to secure in South Africa and deservedly so since this restaurant is consistently named the best restaurant in South Africa and was recently named amongst the 50 best restaurants in the world. When I inquired about a reservation in February of this year, the restaurant was fully booked for Friday and Saturday night dinners through the end of July and for lunch through the end of June. If you want to eat here on a weekend, advance planning is required. I selected a weekend five months in advance, bought a plane ticket, and made plans to travel to Cape Town for a solo lunch date at the best restaurant in South Africa.
I have eaten at The Test Kitchen on several occasions, although this was the first time I had booked for lunch. As I have written about previously, I much prefer to sample tasting menus at lunch simply because I can digest the copious amount of food (and likely wine) throughout the day instead of finishing dinner and heading to bed. Plus for someone who blogs about food, the drool-worthy dishes produced by the kitchen photograph much better during the day when there is a bit of natural light.
I arrived at the Biscuit Mill in Woodstock an hour before my reservation and wandered around the Neighbourgoods Market – a bustling and popular Saturday food and artisan market on the same premises. While the myriad of treats on display were tempting, I abstained from consuming any food prior to my reservation so I could ingest every morsel the kitchen placed in front of me.
The Test Kitchen is tucked into a space on the opposite end of the market. Despite being a fine dining establishment, there are no white tablecloths and the wait staff look like they could be the patrons of a hipster coffee shop. The open bar and kitchen dominate the entire back wall of the restaurant which means every table in the restaurant is afforded a view. For solo diners, a table with a view is an important component of the experience because without a dining companion to converse with, watching the choreographed movements of the kitchen is a chief source of entertainment. My table was located directly in front of the dessert station and over the course of my three-hour meal, I enjoyed watching the staff prepare sweet treats.
The meal started with three choices of bread and a ribbon of butter. I had to stop myself from devouring the three types of bread served and promised myself I would only consume half of each option so I would have room for the rest of the set menu. I quickly broke my rules upon eating the sweet potato roll that was made with unctuous lamb lard. The lard provided a gamey depth not often found in bread. In quick succession the kitchen served two appetizers – an artichoke puree with a quail egg and an elegant beef tartare.
The first course – a modern, clean, Asian inspired tuna nicoise was the highlight of the afternoon. My description won’t do the dish justice, but the kimchi beans added the perfect amount of fiery spice, the egg yolk, fish bone jelly and fermented tofu cream only displayed the chef’s deft abilities to create a complex and bold dish that I consumed in delicate, tiny bites. At first I tried eat each component on its own and then mashed several of them together in one single bite.
Next up was a dish that had to modified for the shellfish averse. A scallop was intended to be the star ingredient. It was served wrapped in bacon with a cauliflower salad and cauliflower cheese foam, but in place of the scallop was another piece of cauliflower. The dish was rich, primarily owing to the cheese foam and bacon, but it somehow it still managed to be light – a satisfactory substitute indeed.
Since all meals are enriched by a bit of theatre, the next course was brought to the table while still cooking in a sphere-shaped dish that could be split into hemispheres. A small piece of kingkilp was being infused with various flavors. Periodically the smell of the dish being opened on a neighboring table would waft through the restaurant filling the space briefly with a smokey smell reminiscent of incense. After the fish finished cooking it was plated with a curry glaze, carrot noisette, baby carrot, pesto, and the tiniest dollop of a carrot and cashew puree. The description on the menu described the curry glaze as light – an apt description since the taste came through as a mere wisp on top of a perfectly cooked piece of fish.
Next up was the last of the mains – a springbok loin paired with a red cabbage emulsion and thin sliver of roasted cabbage. Nearly every meal I have had at the Test Kitchen has involved springbok and in addition to the loin, there was a small spoonful of liver, another signature component of the springbok dishes I have had in the past. It is a fantastic, rich addition to the plate.
The first dessert course was sublime – a dish of golden sunflower seeds that was almost granola-like and studded with honeycomb and two chunks of cake with brown butter. This teaser was followed by a rhubarb and custard dish that also eschewed traditional cloying sweet tastes in favor of a mellow, subtle contrast of sweet and ever so slight tartness from the rhubarb. What was particularly effective was the contrasting textures – crunch, puree, tiny jellied balls. I followed up the meal with a cappuccino, a perfect end to a decadent lunch.
The Test Kitchen is a restaurant worthy of advance planning and a plane ticket for any food lover. I highly suggest trying to secure a reservation if you find yourself in Cape Town. Then sit back and enjoy.