Upper Union successfully saunters between classy and generous

Photo by Jan Ras Photography

THE restaurant in Gardens has been open a couple of months now – long enough to tweak its original menu (but not the concept) – and to get Capetonians talking. They’re saying good things and I’m going to add my voice to theirs.

First impressions count, and the entrance is immediately impressive (see above), promising cool in various definitions. Sit right there outside or move indoors where it’s all shades of jungle green, bold upholstery patterns, mosaic, stained glass, tiles and natural textures like wood and marble. It was that ridiculously hot day when we went for lunch so with the help of the truly lovely staff, we hunted down the best table in direct line with the air conditioning. Bliss. The long narrow conservatory area down the side of the dining room is very pretty but too warm, and I don’t think any of us had the energy to consider the upstairs.

Tending specifically to us was Kuda, who had his work cut out for him; we had many questions and he handled them all with aplomb. Uniforms for wait staff are not unusual, but here they are just a little different, and very stylish. Beginning with a cocktail is a must. There are house cocktails (your Negronis, Old Fashioneds, Martinis and such) and signature cocktails.

As much as I loved the sound of Strawberries & Dreams (Beefeater London Dry, strawberries, tea, vanilla) I was assured it would be on the sweet side and I didn’t want to make that mistake again. I had instead the Cape Bazaar – Espolon Blanco, red bell pepper, toasted bread, cumin, citrus. I would never have expected to enjoy a drink that tastes like red pepper (but I suppose I can get my lips around a Bloody Mary, so) but life is full of happy surprises. All the signature cocktails can be made sans alcohol so my sober friend had the Cape To Casablanca (no Madre Mezcal, Jose Cuervo Traditional Reposado): honey, harissa, carrot. Even though there was honey, we were both pleased with the savoury notes of our drinks.

The food. Chef Amori Burger is a pure delight. She fizzes with enthusiasm and is not afraid to share her bold opinions on anything and anywhere the conversation might go. It’s this joy and exuberance that translates into deliciousness and generosity on the plates.

The menu has a small plates section full of tempting choices but I cannot say how small they actually are. I suspect not very, and I base this on what we did have, which were the two set menus – one with meat, one without. Each is four courses, and costs R550. For that you get bread, starter, main dish plus four side dishes, and dessert. You are not going home hungry, or past McDonalds. The only catch is, everyone at the table must choose either the set menu, or small plates.

What came out for us was the two main dishes (charcoal-grilled Karoo lamb with baharat spice sauce for me; green falafel for my veggie friend) and the sides to share. Except I had my own crescent moon of candied pumpkin because it comes with crispy chicken skin and I wasn’t going to pass that up. The other side dishes are fig and red onion bhaji with tamarind chutney and raita, red cabbage with Dalewood Boland cheese and candied walnuts, and broccolini with ezme (Turkish salad of chopped tomatoes) and haydari (Turkish yoghurt dip).

But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. First was the bread: kubaneh, a Turkish-style bread with a thin crisp lightly enveloping an enriched dough and twisted into pull-apart knots. It’s served with mebos olive oil and makhani butter. For my starter I had mulled orange semillon yellowtail crudo with pomegranate and fennel. My friend had the shishito pepper with Belnori of Bapsfontein’s ashen goat’s cheese with a lingering aftertaste which proved to be quite a talking point. Ajo blanco, a cold bread soup, is the other starter option for both menus.

The set menu offers two dessert options but when you know the chef, well, that comes with benefits, and it would be silly not to take advantage of that. While we would have most likely been perfectly happy with the prescribed choices, we were ecstatic with the other two we had. Amori described the Honest Chocolate fondant baulois as a marriage between a chocolate brownie and chocolate mousse. She’s not wrong. I asked for the Puglia ricotta fritters (poffertjies really) with fennel sugar, blackberries, lime and salt. There was a jug of thin custard which had among its ingredients amasi but I can’t remember the rest. I don’t know whose dessert it belonged to but when we discovered it we could not stop drinking spoonfuls of it until it was all gone. My friend declined to allow me to pour it directly into his mouth and I bet he’s sorry now. See more here.

Go for lunch, go for dinner, go for drinks, go for the small plates (all the dishes mentioned above are available as such), go for the vibe. Just go.

  • Address: 3 Upper Union Street, Cape Town
  • Email: [email protected] 
  • Tel: 021 891 0360
  • Instagram: @upperunion_restaurant 
  • Web

PHOTO CREDIT: Bianca Coleman ©

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