ASH Restaurant, A Year On
A lot can happen in a year. For a new restaurant, a year can feel like a lifetime. In a city like Cape Town, where the industry moves at a head-spinning pace, it can feel like that lifetime passes you by in mere seconds. As a young chef, opening a new restaurant must be all kinds of terrifying. Not only are you baring your soul on a plate but suddenly you’re also responsible for running a business too and that’s another beast entirely on its own. It’s never plain sailing, let’s be honest, but you must forge on, you must put yourself out there, you must grow. These have all been part of the curve for chef-owner of ASH Restaurant, Ash Heeger, and she cites ‘learning to be extremely patient’ as one of the steepest she’s had to grasp.
So, where is ASH Restaurant a year on? Well, things have changed. The concept has been slightly remodelled, with Frankie Fenner Meat Merchants moving to new premises in Gardens (as well as still being in Woodstock). Tan leather banquettes have replaced where the butchery counter was, giving the busy restaurant the space to seat more covers. Publik remains in the same space and offers, as always, a meticulously curated list of local boutique wines that remind us of the wealth of winemaking talent on our doorstep.
To coincide with the reopening of the revamped space (which happened in just 8 days), and to celebrate a year in the biz, Ash has put together a revised winter menu.
The new offering retains some items that have become crowd favourites but also adds new dishes that speak to a year of growth. It’s a very clear evolution that is deceivingly complex and what results on the plate is very much a pared back, matured Ash. While you might expect a menu of rich, heavy dishes to match the cold season, you’ll be surprised by a menu that is lighter and refreshed.
With coal cooking being the cornerstone of the ASH Restaurant philosophy, we’ve come to expect bold dishes with intense flavour, and, while this is still the restaurant’s calling card, the new items show distinct restraint.
It can be tempting to fill a menu with unctuous meats and rich sauces, as we know that these satisfy bellies and sate the appetite. It takes a different level of skill, however, to balance texture and flavour in a way that deceives you into feeling that same way without the overwhelming fullness.
There are many highlights on the new menu. It wouldn’t be a meal at ASH Restaurant without bread and butter to start but, as always, it’s not just bread and butter. Toasted bread slices arrive with a generous amount of housemade butter, artichoke dip and wild rosemary salt. Next, a kataifi pastry nest holds a hollowed hens egg that contains silken leek and sweet potato soup. It wouldn’t be polite to stick your tongue in there, so you’ll have to hold yourself back – it’s simply that good. Velvety mushroom parfait sat atop garlic buchu charred sourdough is Mushrooms on Toast and is topped with vinaigrette dressed leaves and pickled mushrooms.
Raw Linefish was the dish of the night for us, cured and smoked angelfish with ponzu dressing, pickled ginger and smoked cream cheese. Fish can take on smoke in a way that can be too heavy if not careful but this is not that dish. Something as simple as serving the fish at just the right temperature, with the right touch of smoke to add richness, can make the difference between a summery take and an achingly delicious winter dish. The delicate Roasted Bird quail dish echoes the subtlety seen across the menu and is served with a nutty chestnut cream, poached quail egg, baked celeriac and onions.
There is a level of honesty to the new menu that feels like a chef who has found her feet.
This in no way discredits the food before but food, like everything, is an evolution. It’s about taking what you’ve learnt, letting it roll around in your head for a while, creating, recreating, adapting and growing.
It takes courage to serve simple food, especially in an era where there is an expectation that complicated food is clever food. There will, of course, always be a place for fine dining – many of us still want to go out and experience dishes that play with our minds, that challenge our thinking and make us wonder ‘how was that done’. But there is also a clear drive and an appreciation for simple dishes done right. Don’t be mistaken that because it looks simple that it is easy to execute though. That would be a silly assumption to make.
You know that old adage that we eat with our eyes – newsflash – we don’t. We eat with our taste buds. And, it’s the beauty of something as simple as a slice of meticulously brûléed Brown Sugar Pie that makes everyone at the table suddenly sit back and sigh with quiet contentment, that much more impressive. Yes, food should be beautiful and the food at ASH Restaurant is, but the bottom line is that it tastes good and that’s ultimately what you’ll walk away remembering.
Go to ASH Restaurant expecting strong concepts, considered, elegant plating but above all, flavour. Throw in an old school hip-hop soundtrack, go with people that you simply love hanging out with, drink (and appreciate) really good wine and you have all the makings of a really great evening out.