In case anyone objects to my title before we’ve even got started, let’s get a few things clear. I know that Johannesburg’s Cube is not a vegetarian restaurant. I also know Cube has no choices on the menu. Heck, it doesn’t even have a wine list. Cube – or to give it its full, and functionally precise name Cube Tasting Kitchen – only does one sitting, and it’s a small place, maybe 20/30 covers. Put it this way – you basically walk through the kitchen to get to the loo.
But when I ate there with my vegetarian wife in October, we enjoyed one of the best meals we’ve ever had not just in Johannesburg, but anywhere.
So let me make a few things a little clearer. For ‘no choices’ read 12-course tasting menu, where your only choice is whether you want the meaty and fishy version, or the vegetarian one. We had one of each.
‘One sitting’? You arrive around 7.30pm. You start eating your first course around 8pm. And four languid hours and 12 lip -smackingly good courses later you are done.
‘No Wine List’? Parktown North’s Cube is BYO, with no corkage, which for this oenophile Brit meant the chance to work our way through a bottle of The Chocolate Block and a Springfield Methode Ancienne Chardonnay. Premium wines enjoyed at cheaper than a bottle of plonk at the pub at the end of my road back home. Oh and they email the menu to you when you book, with suggestions of what sort of wine might go well with each course.
What I am trying to make clear is that – from the loo out the back to emailing me wine suggestions – this South African restaurant is the antithesis of European haute-cuisine hauteur. Instead Cube unselfconsciously revels in a no nonsense practicality, allowing the real focus to be where it matters – the food.
Ah yes, those 12 courses. Everything about our meal was full of theatre, without ever being pretentious. Combinations were designed to challenge our preconceptions, surprise our pallette then delight our tums. My first course was called ‘Elements of a Martini’. Lined up along a plate there was a cucumber gelee. Then ‘olive impregnated cucumber’ – a little joke really, where cucumber tasted of green olive. Some Yuzu pearls. And cucumber ice. Later on there was ‘Duck biltong with sweetcorn a squash crème brulee, chocolate chips and spice’. Duck + Chocolate + Sweetcorn? Yep. A perfect combination whose memory lingers even now. And for every course I had, the vegetarian had in essence the same, only the duck replaced with baby corn, lobster with pearl barley etc. So we got that rare pleasure for a couple where one is vegetarian and the other not – that of a shared culinary journey.
Throughout all of these 12 courses the service was faulteless, and extremely friendly. And it’s not even waiters that serve you. It’s the chefs, who talk you through what you are eating, and answer any questions about the previous course. Our favourite moment was when one of them served our Vichyssoise, described on the menu as having ‘Hints of truffle, Confit potato and garlic. Poached leeks. Leek ash. Aioli. Truffle’. Or as our waiter/chef put it: ‘basically a posh potato salad’. Considering how most menus these days have become cluttered with excessive proof of provenance and needless gallicisms, it was a relief to be reminded for a change – Don’t worry about the words, enjoy the taste.
When they weren’t debunking pretensions, pouring wine or clearing dishes, the chef/waiters seem to spend the rest of their time cooking and laughing in the open plan kitchen at the back. Another good sign. They enjoy their job. Maybe focussing on cooking 12 dishes wonderfully well is more satisying than manically responding to the many various demands you get in a ‘normal’ restaurant.
A further sign that this Johannesburg eatery is somewhere that does things a little differently was that I accidentally left my bag there (something to do with the BYO wine, perhaps) and only realised two days later, by which time I was 400 miles from Joburg in the Drakensburg. A few days later still I emailed, and got a friendly reply not from a receptionist, but from Dario d’Angeli, the owner and head chef. These little touches communicate a lot about a restaurant’s ethos. This is a guy who has been Eat Out magazine‘s Chef of the Year. But here he was taking time out to deal with my bag. And when I turned up two weeks later to collect, it was Dario that broke off from cooking for a full restaurant to go find my bag and chat to me for a few minutes about where I’d just been. I can’t see Gordon Ramsay doing that.
Indeed if this place was in London you’d be lucky to get a table 6 months in advance. We got one a week after booking – and the place was full – a lively and mixed crowd of young and old, black and white, locals and travellers. Cube really is Johannesburg dining at its entrepreneurial best and somewhere I will be blocking an evening out for every time I return.
Call 082 422 8158
Address: Shop 5, Parktown North Heights, 17 4th Avenue, Park Town North, Johannesburg