A night in the life of a food critic’s sidekick... by Meleney Cunniff
I must have done something right in my previous life to get invited back to the Greedy Buddha (thank you Joanne Hayes) to try a 7-course gourmet tasting menu. It was a very interesting evening with truly good food, but the conversation was a bit surreal and not at all what I expected. Let me set the scene….
Brave owner Jess Watts invited food critics to try his new tasting menu. The invite meant driving to Umhlanga. At night. So Ingrid Shevlin asked if I could drive. Now, therein lies a tale. A while ago we drove to Umhlanga via Tongaat or Mount Moreland or Timbuktu to avoid road works and Ingrid has still not let me forget the extended detour. It was certainly an interesting trip, which resulted in us arriving very late to that particular tasting event. So, with much admonition about driving ‘straight there’ and instructions to not keep braking (it makes her sick) we set off and arrived without a single wrong turn.
One of the fun things about food tasting with Ingrid is our different palates. I like red meat. She doesn’t. I drink alcohol, she doesn’t. Just a pity we are both night blind. Oh well…. with every intention to forgo wine for the night I drove in a relatively straight line.
Now the thing with tasting events is you’re never quite sure who you will be sharing a meal with. Let me explain a bit about the company before bemoaning, again, that I had to forgo alcohol. The other diners were all foodies, but strangely the topic of conversation at our table revolved around breastfeeding. Mmm…. did I mention that I was not drinking? So, through a fantastic 7-course meal I learnt all anyone could ever want to learn about breastfeeding. A few baby pictures were shown (and a proud granny broke into ‘Baby Brightstar’ songs about wheels and busses) and a brief conversation about siblings reared its head before moving swiftly back to breasts. What more can I say? I needed that wine!
The food itself was truly interesting. One of my own bugbears is repeating ingredients, so seeing both coconut and peanuts twice on a small menu was something I think only I would complain about. But, in both instances, the ingredients worked well with the dish. Jess was present at each course checking on how we liked it and here, again, I say brave man. This was not someone looking for accolades or ego-stroking. He genuinely wanted to know our opinions.
The difficult part about tasting is to judge each dish on its own merit and not compare complexity/plating/ingredients with preceding dishes. That is not as easy as it sounds. Neither is menu design. Chefs who list every ingredient on the menu description are in danger of running out of menu space before you get to taste the cream or oil or soil you are looking for. In this instance, these ingredients were all listed and even the ‘delicate’ items were found to be absolutely perfectly paired with the rest of the dish.
But Jess wanted answers other then ‘it’s great’. So you respect the prep, the love, the heart and soul that went into the food and you savour the flavours and look for a mistake. Or something that would make it better.
In this particular tasting menu I found two, but that is only because I was asked to be pedantic. The first was the flame-grilled midlands baby chicken with satay peanut sauce, egg noodles and 5-spice kale. The chicken could have been a bit more tender, but poor Jess admitted that the kitchen had already served about 120 chicken dishes so error incoming were understandable.
The other was the flourless chocolate brownie cake with white chocolate mousse, mange and strawberry coulis, dark chocolate soil and mint. The brownie was heavy and the mousse oddly-textured. But that is only because I was asked to be picky.
By now the conversation had moved on to how sensitive the nipple is when the child is older and has teeth. I caved and had half a glass of lovely ice cold pink bubbly. And still drove home in a straight line.