Quality control

It’s no surprise that quality (often) comes at an extra cost, and neither is it a surprise that paying more doesn’t automatically ensure higher quality. When it comes to eating out, I generally remain skeptical and stick to the second premise, which is based on my extensive experience of feeling like I’m paying too much for what I’ve gotten, and which makes eating out a process of elimination.

Once in a while, you get lucky and understand the first premise (quality = greater expense). That happened only once last year, when I ate at Aubergine for the first (and only) time. Everything was good there, from the decor (very understated Afro-chic), the service (discreet but attentive), the winelist (bible) to, of course, the food (excellent). I wouldn’t want to go back every week, but next time I meet someone with a bulging moneybag who wants to take me out for dinner, I won’t hesitate to head back to the brinjal.

Since then I’ve been intrigued by what sorts of equations govern the long-timers on the Cape restaurant scene; all those places that have been around forever, and/or that people keep talking about as “excellent”. Research began with 95 on Keerom, famed as one of the finest Italian restaurants in town. Eat Out calls it ‘seriously stylish‘. And so it is, and neither is it that expensive (much to my displeasure, since I had won a dinner there in a bet instigated by one of the philosophe’s silly moments of thinking he knows more than me). The food was fine, too, but only that. It was a good evening, but I won’t be rushing back. (Perhaps only for the delight of hearing the chef’s lovely Italian accent, which puts all the right weight on ri-CO-tta).

Then there’s Leinster Hall, the seat of the “Cape Town club”; real old boys’ school. I was paying this time, as there was a moneybag to celebrate, and I had been swung by the (unreliable) information of the restaurant having been awarded x numbers of stars by the Cape Tourism Board, and the “award-winning” wine list (it transpires that Diner’s Club hands these awards out quite indiscriminately). Actually the wine list was probably the best part of the menu (where else can you get a glass of Springfield Life From Stone for R19?). The food was disappointing, because it was really quite ordinary, and definitely overpriced. But Leinster Hall probably won’t ever suffer, because it is one of those places that trades on a long history; half the price is the knowledge, I guess, that people like Desmond Tutu and Madiba have shaken hands with various other luminaries upstairs (we’ll overlook the less savoury types that have also qualified as old boys in South Africa’s murky history).

There’s a different group of restaurants that overcharge and get away with it because of location rather than history, but this is not a restaurant guide, so we’ll leave that to the people out there who make dining guidance their business, and do it very well.

To cut a long post short (too late now), one of my favourite places is Caveau at Josephine Mill, where the wine list is excellent (as it should be for a wine bar), and the evening tapas are delicious and inexpensive, but where I have a constant gripe with lunch because I find it ridiculously expensive. Nevertheless, I capitulated the other day and ordered a prawn salad for R70. What can I say? It was really very delicious. Perhaps the best thing about it was that it was the size that a salad should be, which means not a whole bloody platter of leaves that could feed a whole family of rabbits for a week.

A more “usual” salad price would be the R48 I pay for the calamari and avo salad at my self-elected local, 5 on Park. Their salad is also very good, but it’s too damn big, and it always irritates me that half of it goes to waste, even if it is (relatively) cheap. Much to my surprise, then, I was actually happy to pay more at Caveau, to get less food (and yes, more quality).

That said, quality equations remain sensitive to a host of factors, including my mood. I will probably have another calamari and avo salad at 5 on Park before I have another prawn salad at Caveau, for the simple reasons that 5 is just down the road, they make damn fine margaritas (only R20!!), and the philosophe likes their fish and chips. And of course I’m hoping that another cocktail session with him will end in more foolishness on his side, and another free meal for me somewhere nice and expensive. (That’s nice AND expensive).