Superlative talent mixed with eclectic style produces casual brilliance
Luke Dale-Roberts is hardly a newcomer to the South African culinary scene, and was even part of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants during his time at Constantia’s La Colombe in 2010. However, it is in the past two-and-ahalf years, running his own venture, The Test Kitchen in the shabby-chic district of Woodstock in Cape Town, that his distinctive talent has taken flight.
Located inside an old biscuit mill, its décor is reminiscent of an industrial workshop for artists rather than the location of some of the most impressive cuisine on the continent. Having already been recognised as best restaurant and chef of the year in South African food awards, Dale-Roberts and his restaurant are verging on breaking into the global élite once again.
The culinary style of this British-born chef is best described as international eclectic rather than modernist or traditional, and reflects his own experience in European restaurants, plus five years in South-East Asia and the Far East. It is telling that Dale-Roberts’ first job as a sous chef was at Bali Sugar, formerly the legendary Sugar Club, one of the first fusion restaurants to hit London – a style that he has refined with the years he has spent in Seoul, Singapore and the Philippines.
The real skill of this kitchen is in drawing together all the ingredients on the plate so they become a symphony rather than a jumble of ill-assorted sonatas. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Dale-Roberts’ signature dish of wild mushroom and duck liver chawanmushi (egg custard) with morel-glazed sweetbreads. This is a plate that shows the chef’s skill in conjuring up the ‘forest floor’ elements of the mushrooms while cooking the sweetbreads to perfection – no easy task as they can easily turn to rubber if overcooked. He and his team display equal talent with meat and fish with a rendition of pan-fried springbok loin showing off perfectly the flavours, while a slow clam extraction with green tea pasta and oysters is in precise balance.
There is also a skilful offering of wine pairings for each of the dishes on the evening menus, drawing mainly from South African wineries. A more casual approach is apparent at The Test Kitchen bar, where the chefs create dishes in front of your eyes. In an adjoining space sits Dale-Roberts’ recently opened Pot Luck Club, which has more of a sense of humour and highlights local produce more than innovative technique. But it’s the main restaurant – at once both casual and brilliant – that is truly the one to watch.