A 14-Karat Feast at South Africa's Gold Restaurant

6 years ago

When tourists visit Africa, they often go on animal safaris in search of lions and giraffes. But on a recent winter holiday to South Africa, my daughter and I were invited to go on a “taste” safari—with gold and ostrich on the menu.

I probably shouldn’t have been surprised. Ostriches are native to Africa and run wild outside Cape Town’s city limits; they’re cultivated in many countries for their eggs and meat, which tastes mildly like beef when grilled. But the gold?

That harkens back to the extensive gold mining and manufacturing that has occurred in Africa for centuries. This valuable ore has been made into jewelry, headdresses, teeth, and clothing. Why not food?  So on the taste safari we went. But rather than travel over vast tracts of wild lands in a jeep, we hopped in a cab at our hotel and 15 minutes later, arrived at The Gold Restaurant in downtown Cape Town.

Of course, this is no ordinary eating establishment. Rather, it is part of The Gold Museum, the most comprehensive collection of golden artifacts made south of the Sahara desert. The museum is housed in an elegant home built in 1783 and originally used as the parsonage for the Evangelical Lutheran Church next door. The principal collection of 350 artifacts was assembled by Swiss art lover Josef Mueller over a fifty-year period. The museum now offers workshops in goldsmithing as well as tours of its breathtaking displays.

The Gold Restaurant spreads out over lush courtyards that lie behind the museum.  Arriving around 7:30 p.m., my daughter Dana and I were escorted to our al fresco table by the smiling hostess, a strikingly beautiful woman wearing a large headdress as colorful as her billowing blouse and floor-length skirt. Thousands of festive lights sparkled on tall trees and thick vines; candles flickered on tables while the wait staff, as brightly attired as the hostess, flitted about pouring water and setting baskets of hot bread on the tables.

That’s when our “safari” truly began. Every night, the Gold Restaurant serves a 14-course meal that offers a sample of foods commonly prepared in different countries on the African continent. Many are made in the “Cape Malay” tradition, a cuisine developed when Dutch colonialists enslaved people from Java, Indonesia and brought them to Cape Town to work in the early 17th century. Others come from countries far north of this southern metropolis but still nestled somewhere in between the Atlantic and Indian oceans.

First things first: we ordered wine. South Africa boasts some of the best vineyards in the world. Dana ordered a crisp Riesling, I the more subtle sauvignon blanc. After a jovial toast, we waited expectantly for our first tastings: South African Tomato Soup flavored with pounded green chiles, garlic and ginger, accompanied by African pot breads baked and served in small earthenware cups that reminded us of the popovers I usually make for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner at home. The soup steamed as we slurped it up with our spoons. It never occurred to us to add our own salt and pepper.

Once the soup bowls and bread pots were whisked away, our waiter quickly reappeared with small dishes of Mozambican sweet chili prawns served on skewers with a garnish of orange. The recipe “honors Portuguese seafarers who called at the Cape during the 16th century while on voyages of discovery searching for gold, precious stones, ivory, amber and spices,” noted the menu. We nibbled at the prawns until the skewers were bare, then licked any remaining delicious juices off the sticks.

We could hear commotion at the far end of the courtyard as the evening’s entertainment began. But quickly thereafter, our attention was re-diverted to the plates of Egyptian phyllo shells that had appeared before us. The shells overflowed with a butterbean mash sprinkled with duhkah, an Egyptian concoction that mixes chopped toasted nuts like hazelnuts with sesame, cumin, and coriander seeds, plus aromatic spices. We both giggled as we used our fingers rather than our forks to shovel the shells into our mouths.

Sadly, I had to pass on the next dish, the Cameroon Corn Cup. It’s made from mielie meal, a staple throughout Africa. When cooked, it has a consistency similar to polenta. That I wouldn’t mind so much. But it was infused with a tropical mixture of mango and avocado seasoned with fresh ginger, coriander and a splash of lime juice. Being terribly allergic to avocado, I pushed my cup over to Dana, who was as happy to devour mine as her own.

Just then, the entertainers entered our part of the courtyard. Whooping, hollering, yipping, and jumping up and down, they began drumming, dancing and telling stories. We couldn’t understand much of the language they were speaking, but that didn’t stop us from clapping and yipping along with them.

It was time to order more wine, which we did just in time to help us enjoy the Beef Keema Seekh Kebabs. I’m generally not much of a meat eater, but this Indian spiced minced meat delicacy, which originated in India’s Mughal kingdoms centuries ago, was too yummy to resist. I particularly loved the accompanying Cape Malay dhal, a mild lentil stew that nicely offset the kebab’s spicier flavors.

The food kept coming. My favorite dish of the night was the Cape Malay Chicken Curry, cooked to mouth-watering perfection thanks to a very slow simmer and exotic spices that somehow managed to retain their unique flavor. The curry paired perfectly with a serving of Cape Malay Yellow Rice with Raisins, flavored and colored with turmeric, called borrie in Capetown. South African spinach, onions, fresh tomatoes, and roasted pumpkin seeds rounded out this portion of the meal. Traditionally, South Africans would collect a variety of wild greens from the ”veld,” or wild, to mix with the other ingredients. At the Gold Restaurant, spinach is used as a delicious substitute.

Suddenly, a cadre of tall walking puppets swished into our corner of the courtyard, part of a performance known as “Pulse of Mali.” The performance genre heralds from West Africa and the Bamana people. According to animistic Bamana tradition, puppets and masks are intermediaries between the human and spirit world. The puppet performance celebrates the interconnectedness of man and nature, and the innate balance of human and spirit forces. The “puppets” jested with us and other diners as dancers and singers blended Congolese, Xhosa nd contemporary rhythms.

Now then, where was that ostrich? Alas, the chef used his prerogative to make a substitution. But a delicious one it was, swapping the bird for a Springbok, in the form of Namibian Venison Pie served in a light and flaky pastry.

As more plates appeared on our table, Dana and I both began to roll our eyes: our tummies were filling up, but how could we NOT continue on our culinary adventure? Agreed, we dipped into a refreshing Moroccan Herb Salad composed of fresh tomatoes and onion mixed with mint, coriander, and a hint of chili, followed by Cape Malay Lentil Dahl poured around nuggets of roasted butternut squash.

The table was cleared and we both ordered herbal tea as we waited for the “piece de la resistance:” an irresistible collection of Algerian Almond Fritters with Amarula Mascarpone and Gold Dust, accompanied by a huge serving of fresh tropical fruits.

As we polished off the fritters, the entertainers poured back into the courtyard more ebullient than before, singing, dancing, shouting, laughing.If we hadn’t been so busy gobbling up the mascarpone and fruit, we would have joined them! Instead, we licked our fingers and congratulated ourselves on the good fortune we’d had to eat gold.

If you go:

Take a guided tour of the Gold of Africa Museum before your dinner. The tour lasts about 45 minutes, and a glass of champagne sprinkled with 24 carat gold leaf is included in the tour price of R60pp, which, depending on the exchange rates, will be somewhere around $9.

The set dinner and live entertainment cost R250pp, around $40 depending on exchange rates. Children under 12 are charged at half price.

Diane MacEachern

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