Luke Dale-Roberts, one of our very finest chefs, has found a thrilling, irresistible setting for The Pot Luck Club. I dined here when it was still on the ground floor sharing space with his flagship restaurant The Test Kitchen. Now you take a glass elevator on the outside of the Old Biscuit Mill silo over six floors up.
When I entered the first time, I thought of the glassed-in restaurant atop the Tate Modern, London. It has a similar industrial history, and the same hard surface echo and clatter.
The kitchen is open plan. Steel trusses crisscross the roof space. The floor is beautiful parquet, lifting in places (Dale-Roberts has had a nightmare rainproofing his glasshouse).
My favourite view is towards the working dockyard with the container terminal and the trains gliding to and fro; that and the view from the furthest toilet cubicle which has a glass wall, and is worth a visit.
For me this is a brunch spot. R150 gets you a bottomless glass of Pierre Jourdan Méthode cap classique. There is no wine pairing menu. Brunch is R350 and includes between 12 and 14 tapas-sized dishes. You are given cutlery and a pair of chopsticks, which come in handy. Dining this way works especially well for groups.
In the US, potluck refers to a meal where the guests contribute the food, as in our “bring and braai”. Originally, Dale-Roberts had in mind chefs providing dishes. I recall downstairs there was Ivor’s fat, crispy duck spring rolls and Claus’s scrumptious calamari salad with a hint of coconut.
Taking pot luck of course also means the optimistic belief that chance will favour one. But with a chef such as Dale-Roberts the food is pretty well guaranteed. The service however is pot luck. Service here is meant to be unfussy, but on one recent occasion I sneaked in it was very shabby, actually disrespectful to food of this calibre.
The first few courses came thick and fast. Although the food speaks for itself, the dishes were plonked down higgledy-piggledy, without any explanation, one on top of the wine menu I was still busy consulting. The wine was promptly ordered but only arrived well after we’d finished the first four courses.
Then everything slowed to a halt. We had sake compressed watermelon with bitter jellies and then waited 45 minutes for the next plate. After complaining, we were offered a free glass of wine. Dale-Roberts wasn’t in the kitchen that day.
The cuisine is modern fusion, combining strong classic European gastronomy and signature Asian fare. I was an immediate convert to pork belly with “Luke’s XO dressing”, red cabbage and apple slaw; fried prawns with tom ka gai butter, sesame leaf and roasted chopped peanuts; and another triumph, kingklip in a clay pot with Thai style black pepper sauce and Thai basil.
Leaning more towards Europe, you’d be hard pressed to do better than rare, smoked Chalmar beef fillet with black pepper and the deepest truffle café au lait sauce that nearly always has the guests asking for extra bread to mop it up. Desserts included churros (spelt chorrus on the menu back then) with tonka ganache and stem ginger ice cream.
Now the menu is arranged in five taste categories. We know of four basic taste detectors in our mouths – sweet, sour, bitter, and salt, which produce the countless flavours we experience, the way the three primary colours make up the visible world.
In recent years, there has been some convergence in the scientific community that umami (think meaty or savoury) is a fifth taste. There are also more controversial candidates – fat (often referred to as a “mouth feel” rather than strictly a taste), calcium, and carbonation, and still others with their advocates, such as metallic, mineral, soapy, or the Japanese sensation of kokumi.
One starts with some dishes from the salty section, which stimulates the appetite. Currently (the menu is liable to changes), these include crisped but vividly green celery leaves (like many of the courses served simply on a sheet of cardboard); steamed edamame beans in their pod with miso and toasted garlic salt; and a wooden board with artisan French bread, seriously delicious green and black olives (from the Chrisna company), a whole head of roasted garlic, and red pepper pesto. Later one has chorizo with green and red salad leaves, figs and poached quail eggs.
Taste is only a fraction of flavour however. According to neuroscientists, smell, especially retronasal olfaction, accounts for anything between 75 and 95 per cent of what we experience as “taste”. Dale-Roberts sour grouping demonstrates this well with seared fish and the most delicate nachos you’ll ever come across; oysters (unavailable some days); and black mussels on the shell in a spicy, aromatic Thai style bisque with baby corn, lemon grass and fresh coriander.
Interestingly, chili or hot “tastes” are actually tactile sensations on the tongue conveyed by the trigeminal nerve, not by the taste buds, which have no receptor for “hot”.
An umami dish serves as a “main course” with meat (fillet or lamb) and gravy, and charred root vegetables, and roast potatoes accompanied with rosemary and parmesan cream. Another one of this restaurant’s blue-chip umami dishes, which has been on the menu from the outset, are plump mushrooms on toast with grated lemon, parmesan and porcini dust.
For the sweet tooth: nectarine almond tart with malted popcorn ice cream – playful but seriously tasty; orange and miso cheese cake with chocolate pretzel crumb. Finally, a selection of South African cheeses rounded off what was a demonstration of impeccable taste.
The Pot Luck Club, The Old Biscuit Mill, Albert Road, Woodstock. Tel: 021 447 0804.
This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian on 17 May 2013.