As I marveled at the hanging carcasses and gnarly cuts of swine at Frankie Fenner’s Meat Merchants, a carnivore’s nirvana along Cape Town’s bustiling Bree St, a certain book for sale caught my eye. Not so much for its somewhat rudimentary title – ‘Tapas’ – but because of the author’s name: Liam Tomlin. I remembered him from Banc, a fine dining temple in Sydney’s Central Business District, where he was once the head toque, cooking classical French-accented food for big dudes with big city expense accounts.
A short walk away, across a non-descript car park, is the airy and casual Chef’s Warehouse, now under Tomlin’s watchful eye and the exacting standards for which I recall. A resident of Cape Town for almost a decade, his food here is decidedly more global and much lighter, with many flourishes calling on Asia’s bounty. The food is hardly casual though, each dish plated beautifully by a dexterous hand, without pretension but certainly with an acute eye for detail.
Most people take the daily tapas option, a rotating list of 6-7 dishes that should appease even the most voracious appetites. You could also pop in for a quick snack from an additional list of staples that might include duck rillettes, potted crab or chicken liver parfait. For the gluttonous, you could also add these to kick off proceedings before the main event begins. These arrive on a massive circular butcher’s block with a delightful fruit chutney, although a cheek of lemon cannot save the potted crab, which is tough to pierce through its layer of fat and overly dry.
If it’s a nice day (which most are in February) and you don’t mind the relentless parade of cars buzzing by, then the curbside al fresco seating is the way to go. Especially with a bottle of Cederberg chenin blanc, from a small but well chosen list of mostly local wines. The beers deserve a mention, too, and if that’s your thing then there are certainly worse ways to begin a summer meal than with a bottle of the Vedett hefeweizen, made in Belgium by the famed Duvel brewery.
What is essentially a chef’s degustation is brought to the table by a very friendly and well informed waitress in two separate courses. Truth be told, three courses would have been more ideal – cold then hot dishes – especially when several of the hot dishes are luke warm at best by the time you get to them (unless you’re a very fast eater, which I am not). It’s a lot of food to have in front of you at once, although it sure does look inviting.
Two immaculate pieces of salmon, served at the correct temperature, are draped over sushi rice with a flurry of nuances from Japan: nori strips, togarashi oil, dehydrated wasabi and something the waitress tells me is simply “Japanese mayonnaise,” whatever that means. There appears to be flecks of shiso in there but I can’t be certain. Either way, it’s an accomplished dish and a light, elegant segue into what’s to follow.
Tender squid is lightly dusted and served with bok choy, oyster sauce and shitake mushrooms. It needs a lift from some acid, as does the pork belly (served with a heavily sauced celeriac slaw/remoulade) otherwise both are sublime dishes, although the swine is a little dry, a theme that sadly follows me through the meal. The same sadly happens with a blue fish curry salad, an explosion of south east flavors, the curry not too spicy but haemorraghng aromatics and crunch from toasted coconut. With a little more moisture it would be a complete triumph.
There’s also a textbook onion tarte tartin served with rosy pink slices of lamb. The dish of the day, however, is a mussel and parsley risotto, radiating a bright green hue and a waft of the ocean in every bite. We finish strongly with a panna cotta of sorts with a berry compote and superb espresso served in Bodum glasses. Before you leave, be sure to peruse the providores inside where you might find inspiration for your next ambitious meal at home.
Address: 92 Bree Street, Cape Town City Centre, Cape Town, 8000, South Africa
Phone: +27 21 422 0128