WELL, would you look at that? Luke Dale Roberts has done it again. SALON, at the Old Biscuit Mill in Salt River, is the latest addition to his portfolio of culinary destinations, and it is simply marvellous.
The concept is called The Journey, a nine-course culinary trip around the world, stopping in England, France, Italy, Singapore, Korea, and the Philippines – as well as, of course, South Africa – with the menu marking something of a return to the heady days of The Test Kitchen, once rated as the best restaurant in Africa.
“The ‘Dark Room’ experience was, for me, the high point of The Test Kitchen at the time, so I decided to emulate that here at SALON,” says Luke. “On the Journey menu, I’ve taken each country I’ve worked in and created a signature dish from that country’s culinary heritage. I really wanted this menu to be small, focused and interactive. I want people to come along on a voyage that really shows my evolution and influences as a chef.”
Part of that journey has been building teams of talented people, and working alongside Luke in creating the menu was head development chef, Carla Schulze. “Even though she has been behind the scenes, Carla has really been instrumental in creating this experience,” says Luke. “We have become an incredible team, and we work extremely well together in bringing concepts for dishes to life.”
The nine-course Journey menu begins with a dish that was a favourite in the Dark Room, representing England: light-as-air pork scratchings which you dip into Guinness foam, presented in a pewter tankard. It’s not filled to the bottom but there was enough left over for me to drink it directly from the cup. It gets the journey off to a great start. We stay in the UK for the second course, titled Sunday Roast: Wagyu sirloin with a profiterole filled with horseradish cream and tarragon pesto “snow” dusted over it at the table. The wine pairing is Bellingham (when last?) Bernard Series SMV 2020, which is so, so lovely.
Then it’s across the Channel to France for Forest Noir, which is vanilla and parmesan shortbread, foie gras, sour plum jelly (with more of the same wine), and – oh my word – chocolate. It’s dainty and delicate and delicious. When you’ve only got this far and each dish surpasses the one before it, it helps you manage your expectations. They are high.
A hop, skip and a jump over the border to Italy, we have Quail Carbonara; the elements include quail breast, ravioli, celeriac and mushroom extraction, chawanmushi, and pancetta braised cabbage. Singapore is next, the other side of the world, where we loved to linger over langoustine, smoked tomato jelly, egg noodles, and an advertised chilli sauce. Now, I’m not a fan of the chilli and the endless dance with wait staff who always say “not very” whenever I ask “how hot is it?”. This is usually a lie, being subjective and all, but in this case, the chilli was a mere whisper, which I was able to appreciate.
Coming home to South Africa was a triumph with the Pork Smiley, nothing for the squeamish to fear. Anthony Bourdain said the best part of any creature we eat is the cheek and you’re welcome to test this. It is true. Locals know the smiley as a sheep’s head cooked over a fire in the streets of the townships, but here it’s interpreted as a pork cheek, or jowl, and bears no resemblance to anything’s actual face. It’s a rich fat cube of tenderness, offset with celeriac blue cheese sauce and tart cubes of compressed apples.
Six down, three to go. We fly all the way back to Korea for Beef “Kalbi”, a dish of multiple elements including fillet, chestnut and shiitake rice, mirin tea, ssamjang dipping sauce, ponzu and kimchi. The drink pairing is sake and no, you do not swirl your meat in it (I heard wrong but was luckily stopped in time).
To finish there are two desserts, or a dessert and a pre-dessert if you will. The first is Tropica from the Philippines, refreshing flavours of lemongrass, coconut, lime, litchi, and pineapple. It’s followed by something South African that can hardly be more traditional – malva pudding, served with amasi ice cream, “ultramel” and a hint of pear. “Best malva pudding ever,” said my friend, whose name is being withheld to avoid having to explain this to the future mother-in-law.
“The Journey menu is a real snapshot of my life as a chef,” says Dale Roberts. “It takes my decades of travelling, tasting and cooking in some incredible kitchens around the world, and condenses it all into a nine-course exploration of all the wonderful flavours and dishes I’ve encountered along the way.”
Luke, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts for sharing this with us, and special mention to Pardon Musiyakuwi who looked after us so well (as did several other staff members, who are to a man, exceptionally highly-trained to explain the dishes in detail). This is such an important part of any dining experience (I think I’ve probably mentioned it before) from fine to fast, and can make the difference between something great and something mediocre.
The environment in which all this takes place is exquisitely stylish, sophisticated and at the same time subtle and understated; the design complements the food without detracting from it. “From the start I wanted the feel of this new restaurant to draw on the concept of a traditional European salon,” explains Luke. “It’s created a space that is as much about the food and drinks as the people around you.”
Long-time interior collaborator, designer Maurice Paliaga, contrasted contemporary elements with tones and textures that resonate with both the heritage of the building and the traditional salon concept. Golden domes and Art Deco patterning soften the square dimensions of the room, while Venetian plasterwork and vintage-style filament lamps bring both texture and warmth. Two alcoves, one with a gorgeous green glass wall, offer semi-private dining experiences.
“Luke felt it was important that SALON was broken up into various areas, and so our plan created a general seating area backed by an elegant bar and banquettes, while intimate dining spaces feature just behind a series of arches,” explains Maurice.
The Journey menu is R1100 per person, with a condensed version of four courses – The Explorer – for R550 per person. These menus are available as a pairing menu with dishes matched to one of the small-batch wines, beers and saké. Or choose signature cocktails from SALON’s carefully curated drinks collection, which is impressive. The staff will advise you on your choice if you tell them what you fancy. SALON is open from Tuesdays to Saturdays, and guests can reserve their timeslots between 6pm and 9pm. For bookings and more information, click here, or call 087 093 5890 during normal business hours.