Luke Dale-Roberts at The Test Kitchen

Jean-Pierre Rossouw - 18/01/2011

Since taking La Colombe to number 12  on the World's 50 Best list for 2010, Luke Dale-Roberts has moved on to open his own restaurant - here's a report three months in. "The Test Kitchen by Luke Dale-Roberts" is where Luke D-R has now set up his canvas to explore his creative style of cuisine to its fullest, importantly with the autonomy of being an owner-chef. 

It’s in Cape Town's Biscuit Mill precinct, of late famed for its Saturday morning market, and still an area that is “on the up” according to the dreams of numerous property developers. This of course means that there’s character in spades, and a bohemian/creative air about the space – although commerciality is already inexorably making its presence felt, with the market less and less a “real” one.

The Test Kitchen perfectly fits this spirit of change and creative life, diners find themselves in a room that is more of a designer kitchen than a restaurant – the eye immediately drawn to the ovens and flat-tops, the chefs moving about with concentrated intent (and there appear to be as many chefs as customers!). Tables at the kitchen-side counters allow patrons to sit as close to the action as one can get; and then there are the limited number tables, in a more conventional arrangement, that quickly fill this contained space replete with its lovely touches, care and taste evident in all the detail  - brushed metal table tops; rich leather; felt lampshades; modern artworks; crockery that has been custom created.

At the same time the overall feeling is art-industrial (to put a label to it), the over-sized wall racks on one side with a sliding ladder and visible extractors, brick, for a warehouse feeling. The Test Kitchen sets a very cosmopolitan note, it would easily be at home in London or New York, and it’s a great space when buzzing – which is all the time at the moment, so popular it is. One immediate issue with the room, however, is that the wall racks house wine, and on this summer’s eve my concern was to the ambient temperature of the bottles – never mind that this was a warm evening, a hot kitchen is always a few metres away, and heat and wine wed poorly.

As it happened, our first wine of the evening, a sauvignon blanc, was too warm, the waitress explaining that this was the regrettable result of the fridge door opening and closing too often. To her credit, she did flag the wine as too warm before pouring it to taste. Best to start with one of the chef’s “kitchen cocktails”, while your white cools – this night a fruity, fizzy drink that was presented with some rather slow-moving theatre. When it comes to the menu (on A4 card) the choice of the name “The Test Kitchen” is not immediately explained, as the menu is a rather conventional one in layout and style – three or five courses with or without wine (3 courses for R345); or an eight course gourmand menu (only if all at table partake) that consists of a sample of nearly all the dishes currently on the regular menu (this R550 without wine, R750 with).

It struck me that a “test” element would be welcome – having the diner partake in some genesis concept; but having said that, Dale-Roberts proved at La Colombe that he knows how to surprise on the plate – and here highly creative design and complex flavours are again in evidence; and this meal was striking for its fantastic textures and stunning beauty, with flavour never sacrificed. On this night, the food did not put a step wrong, and highlights were the starters of pan-seared lamb tongue and scallops with a peanut and garlic purée, pancetta, bourbon and American oak velouté, ginger and spring onion; and the foie gras and Jerusalem artichoke “mi-cuit” with a duck confit salad, rosemary streusel and leaves (this dish did feature beans that made an unheralded appearance, but added much to the textures).

Fantastic mains included the line fish with carrot and ginger emulsion, rock shrimp and yuzu salsa with sushi rice; and the seared duck breast with a cashew and turnip purée, minneola and jasmine ice, served with foie and confit duck sushi. A savoury dessert really stood out: called “tomato and mozzarella” it featured cape gooseberries, a vanilla and pepper syrup, stracciatella cheese and goat’s yoghurt “snowballs”. It was both innovative and satisfying, and really captured the excitement that a “test” kitchen is about; on the other hand the lack of a chocolate “test” is regrettable. This is high-end food, of international calibre.

Dale-Roberts is notably making ample use of his Asian cooking experience, with many Eastern flavours and the frequent use of rice, all happily in concert with modern fashions. The freshness and brightness of his plates with their artistic, light-touch plating, is remarkable; and here the bespoke crockery really adds beauty. Also bespoke are the “egg” salt and pepper dispensers that sit in an “egg tray” – the pity is that the pepper is of the harsh-textured and tasting coarse-ground variety. On the night our service was personable (in attractive designer shirts) but lacked experience or guidance.

One can put this down to teething problems, as with the temperature of the wine, at the same time these are elementary points for a restaurant that has its sights high.

The wine list itself is reasonable, not very big, should have vintages but does not, and is happily informed by a modern producer sensibility – though lumping chenin with rosé says little about respecting either. Overall: the value is fantastic for such wonderful food and the hitches are eminently fixable, making this a very exciting new dining option.

Tue to Sat: 12.30pm to 2.30pm;
Tue to Sat: 7pm to 10pm

The Test Kitchen, Shop 104 A, The Old Biscuit Mill, 375 Albert Road, Woodstock, Cape Town 021 447 2337