The Test Kitchen, as one of the first restaurants that helped lead the revolution of fine dining in the city, has a very special place in the hearts of Cape Town diners. The restaurant, with Luke Dale-Roberts at the helm, boldly took ownership of its unique, refined style and had a huge impact on food trends and the way that Capetonians eat. Featuring a menu that was always edgy and worldly, while still retaining a very strong local feel, Luke turned fine dining on its head.
With its rise into the Top 100 restaurants in the world, Test Kitchen cemented the good work done by iconic establishments like La Colombe under Franck Dangereux and Le Quartier Francais under Margot Janse, and helped to earmark the Cape as a world-class dining destination. This year, it reached an all time high, being voted number 22 at the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, making South Africa even more proud. Dale-Roberts, along with his cracking team, has gone on to open some of the country’s most loved restaurants. Namely, The Pot Luck Club, Naturalis and The Shortmarket Club, as well as taking over the restaurant at The Saxon in Johannesburg and yet, The Test Kitchen has always remained the jewel in his crown. When the restaurant announced that they would be closing for a refurbishment, the public was intrigued. Why tinker with such a good thing? Having been closed for seven and a half weeks, The Test Kitchen reopened on Friday and we were lucky enough to be a part of the soft launch, and got to see exactly why Test Kitchen is possibly even better than ever.
Along with the cosmetic and culinary changes, the restaurant’s concept went through a dramatic transformation. Half of the restaurant (the section that loyal followers will remember once housed the original Pot Luck Club), has been boarded up to create an intimate lounge area. Dubbed The Dark Room, this part of the experience is centred around a niche and succinct cocktail menu and is, as the name suggests, darkened and moody. Soft plush sofas and retro armchairs keep you comfy as you choose a cocktail and settle in for the evening.
In similar LDR-style, there are four drinks to choose from, each determined by their dominant flavour profile; sweet, salty, bitter and sour.
Preferring a more bitter note as an aperitif, I tried the Plum and Thyme Old Fashioned, which was a fun and refreshing update on the old school classic. To accompany the cocktails, an assortment of tapas-style dishes began to make their way out of the kitchen. Naturally the Billionaire’s Shortbread made its reappearance in a fitting trinket box – the archetypal ‘snack’ consisting of a porcini shortbread, foie gras parfait, dark chocolate and gold leaf almost needs no introduction. Following that was a simply prepared dish of salted pine nuts, Morgenster olives and a plate of liquorice-cured Wagyu. Diners are encouraged to spear the local Wagyu with the accompanying liquorice stick, which naturally enhances the rich anise flavour within the dish.
Following that was a beautiful dish of baby vegetables alongside a bowl of an interpretation of a ssamjang dip that was topped with a crunchy mix of ‘marmite on toast’. The dip itself was a revelation, with a rich umami flavour, a hint of spice and nuttiness, it was good enough to eat straight from the bowl. The marmite on toast topping added more than just texture, the marmite’s tanginess cutting through the dip’s richness. The fresh veggies made for the ideal dipping vehicle. The next few plates were perfect adaptations of ‘bar snacks’ – pork crackling, dusted with celeriac salt and vinegar, decadently dipped into a Guinness foam and the restaurant’s take on pickled fish, a silky smoked snoek pâté topped with pickled carrot dust, was a thing of beauty. Making for perfect finger foods, the Peking quail was crisp, crunchy and perfectly balanced, and the smoked lamb atop a wafer of barley and ginger and doused in XO dressing, was delicately sweet and nutty.
The procession of your time in The Dark Room is swiftly managed, and before you realise it nearly 45 minutes have passed and you’re expected in the next room.
Although, not before a palate cleanser of an invigorating pine needle granita, topped with gin and tonic jellies and compressed cucumber. This dish also speaks to the die-hard TK fans, and is reminiscent of the palate cleanser served at the original Test Kitchen.
Walking through a heavy door affixed with a submarine-like porthole, after the time in The Dark Room, your senses are awakened as you step into The Light Room. Not only are your eyes adjusting to the contrast of light from dark, but the smells and noises wafting from the kitchen prickle at your ears and nose.
The Light Room menu is where Test Kitchen reminds you that at its core, it’s still the same Test Kitchen you know and love. The raw walls and industrial feel of the place is still there, but there’s the addition of white tablecloths – a first for the restaurant. The 8-course menu kicks off with a vanilla, peach and rose scented foie gras parfait (replaced with equally delicious burrata for vegetarians), and the heady floral scent stands up perfectly to the rich, creamy components, echoed by the refreshing Raised by Wolves
Muscat de Frontignan. A bold, interesting and ultimately delicious start to the meal. The proceeding tuna dish followed suit too, herb-fired tuna served on miso cream cheese along with varied textures of kale – this dish was rich and meaty and decidedly moreish. Counteracting the rich mouthfeel of the tuna was a 12-hour smoked sea bass served in a celeriac broth with frozen horseradish and compressed apple. This course ticked all the boxes in terms of flavour, heartiness from the fish (despite being served sashimi style), sweetness from the apple and fierce spiciness from the horseradish. Certainly a lot of flavours happening, but none too many for the Neil Ellis Amica
, which paired beautifully.
Switching direction and moving away from light dishes, the cauliflower and truffle cheese was a hearty offering. This was definitely not your mom’s cauliflower and cheese, having been gussied up with a crispy black garlic salsa, and was definitely one of the scene-stealing dishes of the night. The soft, fruity notes of the accompanying Fable Mountain Jackal Bird
made for a completely mesmerizing course. The next main course, a perfectly cooked duck breast, turnip purée and barbecued turnip drizzled with an orange-scented dressing, was a strong ode to the opening of Test Kitchen in 2010, when a similar dish featured on the menu. Ending off the savouries on a high note, the pine-smoked pancetta-wrapped sweetbread (try saying that after a couple of glasses of wine) was creamy and salty in all the right places, but was almost upstaged by the punchy ox heart stuffing served alongside it.
Test Kitchen has always hit home-runs with their desserts and tonight, it was no different. Featuring two incredible dishes of contrasting flavour profiles. The first was a chamomile ice cream, brown butter sponge and toasted sunflowers. So simple in its execution, this dessert was wonderfully rich and toasty. The last dessert of the evening celebrated all things spring and floral – an elderflower ice cream, an impossibly delicate rose meringue, a zesty strawberry snow and freeze-dried berries scattered all over the plate. Sadly, the meal had come to an end, and was sealed in classic Test Kitchen style – with a millionaire’s shortbread.
The phrase may go ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, but that doesn’t apply to Luke Dale-Roberts. As most rules go, he tends to break all of them as the true trailblazer that he is. Overhauling a restaurant that seated 70+ people a night, one that was full every night, to roughly a 40-seater restaurant may seem like a crazy thing to do but that’s just what makes Luke so special. He’s the leading chef in the country because of his drive to experiment, play and push the boundaries, never one to rest on his laurels. Though he hails from the UK, Luke has become something of a national hero for South Africans – especially for those who love to eat.
If the stellar performance of the soft launch is anything to go by, then diners and LDR fans can look forward to even bigger and better things from The Test Kitchen in the future.
The Test Kitchen is now open for dinner reservations.
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