At The Tableby Su-Yen Thornhill / 02.10.2013
In flight magazines rarely inspire. Insipid letters to the editor professing amazement at service and cuisine, (in fact the more unlikely the praise the greater the chance of publication and if you’re cynical like me, prize money for star letters probably would be my guess the greatest motivating factor,) sit alongside ill-disguised product placement articles featuring fancy resorts, big game reserves and vertiginous experiences in the many sky scraping destinations the airline serves. So, it came as a surprise some years back when I read one such article, having exhausted the then, limited options in-house entertainment system, that has stuck with me ever since and made me wish I was on board a flight to Paris and going to attend a Jim Haynes supper club. Or better still open my own ‘pop up’ restaurant.
For thirty years, Jim has hosted a Sunday supper club at his home where up to sixty people in winter and double that in summer come together for dinner cooked by a guest chef, drink wine and rub shoulders with an eclectic mix of artists, scientists, students and travellers. All you have to do is drop him an email and if he has space you’re in. And all that for a suggested 25 Euro donation, to be placed in an envelope as you leave. How cool is that?
Needless to say I never made it to Jim’s, (it’s on the bucket list,) but I have created a ‘pop up’ restaurant of sorts in Johannesburg where once a week, I demonstrate a menu of Asian inspired dishes to fourteen guests who come to taste, have a go at making and be introduced to authentic dishes that are sorely lacking in the restaurants around town.
So it was with some trepidation that I accepted Mahala’s offer to go and review At The Table, a new ‘pop up’, (in so far as it only runs once or twice a week but has a permanent home,) restaurant in Parktown North. Of course, the cook in me is always excited by the something new; the snob in me will assume the food will be terrible; and from a business point of view, I totally wanted to check out what the ‘competition’ was offering. Is it possible to be a double agent and provide an objective critique? I was about to find out.
At The Table has been running since June and their concept in their own words is: “At The Table is a place for people to meet, interact, chat, laugh and enjoy good food. We believe that the best conversations happen around the table. We hope you have an amazing evening and that we will see you again…”
When they first opened, I noticed on their website they offered people the opportunity to ‘pay what they think’ dinner was worth. Now, there seems to be a fee that starts around R300 for a three-course dinner, a BYO policy and diners are treated to a guest speaker. Last night was the launch of False River, a novel based entirely on true events by Domnique Botha.
The day before I was due to go to supper, I received an email that provided me with a map and the menu for the evening. No choices are given, unless I had some sort of dietary issue, I had to live with what was on offer. I suppose it’s like going to a dinner party except I would have had to pay, had Mahala not swung me a freebie. The email also stated that the evening started at 7. I got there a few minutes shy of the hour and realized as always being on-time in Africa is more of a guideline, although as it turned out, we were only waiting for one more guest and she arrived an hour and twenty minutes after seven, well after starters were served and Dominique was half way through her talk.
I arrived Hans Solo and empty handed, having forgotten the bottle of wine at home. I decided it was probably good for me to attempt to be professional and not drink on the job, but gosh evenings like this need alcoholic lubrication and as the evening wore on and I was offered wine and resolutely declined, I realized how helpful fermented grape juice can be.
The space is a delightful room tastefully decorated with one yellow accent wall with stencils of kitchen paraphernalia and the At The Table dinner plate inviting you to take a seat in black. Sparsely furnished with two large scrubbed pine kitchen tables down the middle, an awesome animé style statue, which I wanted to take home and two chandeliers provided the light. A shelf housed flowers, a coffee machine and large communal ice baths for the wine, I sorely regretted forgetting.
I was met by Hermi, the creator of At The Table and introduced to Emli, her sister the chef. By day, Hermi runs a TV production company and Emli copy writes for her. At The Table is something they do on the side for fun and was borne from Emli’s passion for cooking and their shared love of entertaining. All fantastic attributes and I was made to feel extremely welcome despite arriving completely mateless.
The other guests when I first arrived were all women, which flagged for me an issue, why are men so afraid of supper clubs? Is there some assumption that events such as these are really a girl’s only zone? However, two guys did eventually turn up, but the table was by far and away heavily oestrogen dominated. As such I automatically assumed they were gay.
There is no seating plan and it felt awkward loitering by the door with the group of ladies who arrived moments before me, so once I had exchanged pleasantries with Hermi and Emli, I went and joined the girls who were already seated at the head of the table. Here I met Dominque the author, her publishing agent and her friend. A rather forceful lady, who got progressively drunker during the course of the evening and ever so slightly aggressive in her defence of government schools and her choice to educate her children publically and me backing into the corner trying to justify my kids private education, without much success because what can you say to someone slurring and probably seeing three of me.
I never got chatting to the other ladies present, two seemed quite intent to talk to themselves and of the two guys, one decided to dominate the table with his chatter and his friend seemed to shrink into himself. The gay couple label I ascribed them was proven wrong by the softly spoken Frank, the quiet one sitting next to me who coincidentally was French and lived in Paris and father of 4.
Hermi eventually called the guests attention and welcomed us formally and Emli explained that the menu was inspired by Dominique, who when asked, wanted South Africa cuisine, later changing her mind to Italian and again to Indian. We started with deep fried mielie pap balls stuffed with mozzarella and topped with Emli’s chakalaka. Funnily enough, having lived now in Joburg for three years, I hadn’t eaten any traditional South Africa dishes until Sunday when I went to Soweto for lunch and had ‘pap and sos’. Cant say it is my favourite thing in the world and to see it on the menu only a few days later didn’t exactly rock my boat, but thankfully the Italian twist with mozzarella, basil and cherry tomatoes made it a much happier experience for me.
Dominque got up to speak after the first course and inspired me to buy her book. The content of which is not for the faint-hearted: the story of her brother who died of a drug overdose and the family history leading up to this tragic event. I wouldn’t normally expect this to be dinner party conversational material and it led to a long discussion on Aparteid South Africa, national service and the after-effects. Other topics revolved around South African authors, the machinery and manipulation of International publishing and media in general.
Mutton bunny chow followed by a dessert trio of pancake, malva pudding and koeksister played second fiddle to the intense discussion. I wished sincerely I could contribute something to the chat. My inept historical knowledge, and possible brain damage from extreme sports and largely talking to young children was a little ostracizing and my dastard choice to remain sober surely didn’t help.
I think Hermi and Emli have a pretty cool concept, but perhaps need to help direct conversation to avoid dominance from one or two guests who rather fancied their own voice. Would I pay R300 for just dinner, probably not, but to sit round a table of strangers and chat is indeed an awesome concept and I think they are on to a good thing. I imagine each week with its different themes and guest speakers will create different moods and I wish them good luck with this venture.
* Images © Darren Meltz/At The Table. More information can be found on the At The Table website.