Kitchens can be brutal places. Think of the giant kitchens of imperial Rome, filled with roaring fires, slaves and cages full of exotic creatures; part abattoir, part culinary studio. Or the near-implausible description of Prince Ludovico Sforza’s kitchen fantastically mechanised by a 30-year-old Leonardo da Vinci with horses and oxen driving wheels powering 12-foot bellows attempting to dispel the smoke from the fires Da Vinci insisted on lighting with gunpowder; in the process burning and nearly maiming the staff. He made up for it by making models for war machines from marzipan and carving sculptures out of almond paste (which the prince and his guests simply gobbled up).
In time, the kitchen was tamed. Fires were replaced by gas stoves and ever more sophisticated appliances, a process accelerated by electricity and revolutionised by the thermostat. (Although I still know of many a European kitchen whose owners absolutely refuse to admit a microwave.)
Our modern domestic kitchens today seem to pursue one of two paradigms: either a nostalgic harkening back to the wooden-countered, copper-skilleted, homely rustic kitchen with its warmth and moral authority; or the cold, clean, stainless-steeled food machine that fetishizes the industrial kitchen.
Chef Luke Dale-Roberts’s new restaurant (opened last November), The Test Kitchen, accommodates both these concepts. Alongside the wood-fire oven is a sous vide cooker. Felt pendant light fittings, exposed brick walls, kiaat counters, wooden shelves stocked with jars and wine bottles, and brushed steel tables create a convivial warm tone. Central to the experience is an open kitchen, although compact, occupying a third of the floor space. With seating for only 30 patrons, this is really an extended chef’s table.
It is a far cry from starchier La Colombe (Dale-Roberts’s previous station). There is salt and pepper on the table, although in novel ceramic egg boxes. It is in Woodstock, which seems (at night) to have a filtering effect on the clientele. The vibe reminds one of the revival of the meatpacking district in New York.
Ringside seats (ask for table 7) close to the action are a treat. Be prepared however to have kitchen smells intervene at times with what is happening on your plate.
The kitchen is calm, collected and almost silent. Dale-Roberts, impressively in control, seems to do a lot of pottering, at times staring transfixed into a saucepan. Occasionally you hear instructions in near neutral tones; precise orders such as: “Wonton in one minute”.
On the night I get in, the amuse bouche is an ethereal foam with miso cured kingklip served in the hollow of a wooden block.
Naturally, I go for the five courses finely paired with small production wines (R600) - Quion Rock, Sequillo, Lazanou and such. After all, didn’t Brillat-Savarin in The Physiology of Taste say a man’s palate can go numb and dull to even the best wine after the third glass of it?
Dale-Roberts certainly likes variety and his plates are busy. Merely listing the items on the ten courses will take up more words than are available to this review. Regrettably, a taste will have to suffice.
One quickly developed the impression that this culinary team could make anything, including things you don’t like, delicious. The pan-seared veal tongue is an example; soft as butter and its secret all in the sauce – “a bourbon and American oak velouté”.
Among the other six starters: gelatinous veal sweatbreads, liver and liquorice jus, compressed field mushrooms, foie gras puree and liquorice crumbs; the foie gras with red cabbage and fig confit bolstered by smokey rabbit ham, braised chestnuts and gently pickled quince.
The sommelier is extremely busy, and pushed to speak a little too fast. One is tempted to ask her to breathe, the way a good wine should be allowed to. The wine tends to lead the food and when co-ordination lapses the staff are quick to generously refill your glass.
After a palette cleanser of gin sorbet with mint jelly and lemon, the mains make an entrance: duck breast, braised lentils, nicola potato (the perfect variety for) fondant, roast parsnip and honey purée, pan-seared foie gras, beetroot and Jagermeister jus; springbok loin “forrestiere” (Dale Roberts’s take on a woodland mushroom sauce) with butternut beurre noisette, intense porcini jus and chestnuts and salty, crisp savoy cabbage.
There is a surprise round of pre-desserts followed by the dessert orders. If you are not a pudding fan, then try the cherry tomato and mozzarella sweet. Oh My Lady Gaga! as the young Chinese say. Arriving on a black plate, the treats it includes: Cape gooseberries, vanilla and pepper syrup, Stracciatella, and goat yoghurt “snowballs”.
On her visit to South Africa, Michelle Obama was taken to a different kitchen (The Kitchen) in Woodstock. Lucky for her, she doesn’t know what she missed.
The Test Kitchen, Shop 104 A, The Old Biscuit Mill, 375 Albert Road, Woodstock. Tel: 021 447 2337.
This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian 29 July 2011.