Winter in Cape Town, and the restaurant scene is awash with specials hoping to entice epicureans away from their slippers and fires, and out into the teeth of a rainy night. By and large, it works, although it's often debatable whether you're seeing the best side of a kitchen that has to balance a special menu with eking a profit that’ll see them through until summer.
But not every restaurant goes the route of packing 'em in and selling 'em cheap. Societi Bistro, for example, runs an adventurous "Taste of Italy and France" during the winter months to offer something over and above their casual bistro menu. And it works… just try and get a last-minute weekend table for dinner.
Not far down the road, in Woodstock’s oh-so-trendy Biscuit Mill complex, the man who is arguably South Africa’s top chef also seems to be having no trouble pulling in diners willing to splash some cash on a memorable dinner.
Luke Dale Roberts bagged his share of limelight when he took Constantia's La Colombe to 12th spot in the San Pellegrino 50 Best Restaurants of the World Awards in 2010. Soon afterwards he rolled up his knives and set up shop in The Test Kitchen; a cosy space in Woodstock’s trendy design hub.
And since opening in November 2010, Dale Roberts has been pulling sceptic Capetonians for fine dining in gritty Woodstock. A restaurant in Cape Town that has a two-week waiting list has to be good. But a waiting list in winter? Unheard of.
So with no need, or desire, to offer a cut-price special the humble Luke has decided to head in the other direction; offering a winter tasting menu that will alarm your bank manager (at R850 per head, with wine) and astound your taste buds.
But let’s talk about that price. Yes, R850 for dinner is a lot of money. But when you consider that includes 11 to 13 courses, suddenly the value-for-money starts to outweigh the chunk of change. Throw in expensive ingredients like truffle and salmon, and it’s looking better. Oh yes, did I mention there’s wine carefully paired with each course? Now it seems a lot more affordable.
And those wines are nothing run-of-the-mill… they come from two of the Swartland’s most adventurous, and respected, winemakers; Adi Badenhorst and Eben Sadie. Limited release wines, often from their own private cellars, seeing the light of day for the first time.
It’s fair to say that this is perhaps the only time you’ll get to taste the likes of The Old Vine Chenin, sourced from the country's oldest vines. Or the Single Bottling Cinsaut, which Badenhorst kindly brings along from his own stash at home.
And so - with Luke's genius in the kitchen, and winemaker magic filling glasses – The Fantastic Eben, Adi and Luke Show was born. Allegedly, a late night of eating and drinking also helped things on their way.
And if you want to be dazzled by this epicurean carnival, you'd best be quick. The "show" runs until 27 July, and bookings are already hotting up.
But don't arrive expecting dancing girls and acrobats like other inner-city eateries... here, the entertainment is on your plate and in your glass: a tasting menu that shows off Luke's deft hand in the kitchen, balanced with a soft touch from the cellars of Adi and Eben.
Served in a series of Acts, expect dishes reduced to their purest forms (an Egg on Toast enhanced with the richness of truffle), tomatoes as you've never tasted before (home-dried tomatoes with crumbling butter pastry and rich cream cheese) or delicate seaside flavours of fresh oyster and watercress (paired with an astounding funky white from Adi).
Of the array of dishes, there are no misses, but a few absolute standouts. Salmon tataki with yuzu dressing and halva was the first to leave me speechless. Sweet halva with fish, I hear you ask? Just wait until you try it!
I've never been a big fan of innards, but Pan-seared Veal Tongue served with the most delicate puree of peanut and elephant garlic was outstanding. Not to mention the accompanying scallop that almost led to some table thievery. This was paired with Mrs Kirsten's The Old Vine Chenin that "comes from the oldest vineyard in the country, planted in 1905," explained winemaker Eben Sadie. "We make just one barrel a year."
A generous fillet of seared duck breast came alive with a beetroot, lentil and juniper salsa, as Pan-fried sweetbreads (more unexpectedly fabulous innards) topped with a liquorice and liver glaze rounded off three hours of hope-it-never-ends dining.
"We really advise people to arrive early, if they're going for the tasting menu," said Luke as he took a rare break from the kitchen to drop by our table. "It's not the sort of thing you rush through, and if you rock up at 9pm and order the tasting menu the kitchen might not be too happy!"
I make it a rule never to annoy men with knives, and he's right of course. But arrive early for yourself, not the kitchen. This is an experience you'll want to savour.
It's a relaxed space, but you can afford to dress up a little. The food in this show makes it a special occasion worth a few gladrags. There's homely, yet modern crockery and good stemware to ogle over. There's excellent service to appreciate and 13 delectable courses to enjoy. Take your time.
So without further ado this winter; roll up, roll up ladies and gentlemen. Charge your glasses (and your credit cards) for the The Fantastic Eben, Adi and Luke Show!
For bookings or further information, visit www.thetestkitchen.co.za or call 021 447 2337. You can also follow Luke on Twitter: @ldrchef. The Test Kitchen is open for lunch and dinner from Tuesday to Saturday. The 11-13 course menu includes wines is priced at R850 per person. Prior booking is essential.