Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Sidewalk Café

On a corner at 33 Derry Street in Vredehoek, Cape Town, stands the Sidewalk Café.  We were meeting my daughter Lexie there to enjoy Sunday lunch together.  I was instantly intrigued by the sight of green double doors. 'The Green Door' is a  short story by O. Henry, also a song from the 50's.  It describes an  establishment with green doors, behind which a "happy crowd" play piano, smoke and "laugh a lot".   So what lay behind these green doors?   All sorts of happy surprises!

We left the damp Cape winter's day behind as we entered the warmth and buzz of the Café.  It is not a huge place and while the tables are cleverly placed to optimise the space, it filled up rapidly.  One enters what appears to be an enclosed stoep.  There are tables set against a backdrop of all sorts of interesting and quirky oddments.   Then, through a  glass door to more tables and a bar counter above which hang a variety of weird and wonderful things.

We were shown to our table near the bar.  Lexie was waiting for us, happily sipping a glass of Brampton Sauvignon Blanc, while perusing the menu and enjoying the vibe of this lovely place.  In no time at all I was also enjoying a glass of Brampton and Eugene, a Windhoek light.   We decided to order before we got too involved in the detail of all the fascinating bits and pieces around us.


The menu, which changes seasonally, is printed on a plain sheet of folded white paper.  Simple and practical.   Inside the fold, on the left-hand side is a breakfast menu and a description of the cakes and pastries and sandwiches that are available all day.   On the right- hand side is a menu that doubles as both a lunch and dinner menu.  There were so many delicious options, that it was hard to make a decision.    Eventually, I settled for 'Linquini and Medley of Seafood tossed in a Veloute Sauce and finished with Wild Mushrooms."  Lexie faced with a similar dilemma, eventually chose 'Prawns in Pastry served with lemon, apricot and Sweet Chilli Sauce and Eugene, without hesitation,  plumped for his very great favourite, Classic Fish And Chips with Fresh Lemon and Tartare Sauce.

There is also a 'Specials Menu' written on a blackboard.  These specials are changed every two weeks and when we were there the specials included a most interesting breakfast alternative; Fried Egg on Turkish Flat Bread topped with hearty savoury mince, avo and cheddar cheese.  A great breakfast for a cold winter's morning.  Actually, I thought that it sounded rather like a medieval feast.  There were more salad and seafood options to tempt one, as if I wasn't already having enough trouble choosing from the printed menu. 

All the while, a very friendly and helpful waiter stood by answering our endless questions without any hint of impatience.   One so appreciates this standard of good manners and professionalism from staff in restaurants.   We are all very tired of indifferent  and impersonal service.  There are two delightful young women, Natalie and Peta, who are managers and part-owners of the Sidewalk Café.  They share duties and are there on alternate days.

While we waited for our food, we gazed at this delightful and somewhat eccentric place.  I was fascinated and decided that I would love to return to find out more and satisfy my curiosity.   I spoke to Peta and arranged to meet at the café a couple of days later.  Then our food arrived and we settled down to the business of serious enjoyment.

My seafood linguini was served in a large bowl.  The pasta was perfectly cooked, firm and moist  and the seafood consisted of  succulent mussels, juicy calamari and small chunks of line fish.  All lovely, all delicious.   Eugene's fish and chips arrived in an enamel pot.  The dish is quaintly named 'Vis in 'n Blik'. (This is an Afrikaans moniker, a sort of local colloquialism, which translated means 'Fish in a Tin', but implying that one is enjoying the food served in  it's simplest form.)  Someone has a great sense of humour.   The fish was cooked in a beer and soda water batter, all lovely and puffy and crisp. There were excellent chips and a homemade tartar sauce as an accompaniment.  He loved it  and polished it off in no time.   Lexie declared her prawns to be a triumph.  She seemed transported with delight.   The prawns were served on a big square platter with a piquant sauce in a little bowl and a generous quantity of salad to round it off.   What a meal we were having!   What wonderful choices we had made!

There are many other interesting choices on the menu.  If you'd like a burger, you can enjoy a Bacon, Chicken and Avo Burger with Onion Jam and Chilli Mayo.  You might like to try Chicken, Mushroom, Spinach and Pea Risotto with White Wine or a Rack of Lamb or Slow Roasted Springbok Shank.  There are options for vegetarians, a Lentil Moussaka or a Red Coconut Curry.  The carnivores can add chicken or prawns if they wish.  There are also specially chosen favourites for 'Tiny Tots.'

The bar was groaning with beautiful cakes and pastries.  I spotted an exquisite cheese cake and some very decadent-looking chocolate brownies.  I am told that everything is homemade and that these are regular offerings together with a lemon loaf and cheese and bacon muffins. What delicious temptations!  And by the way, the very good bread is supplied by Knead.  But we had eaten our fill and ended the meal with excellent coffee for Lexie and Eugene and Rooibos Tea for me.

With great anticipation, I returned two days later.  As I settled down to speak to Peta, there was a sudden whirlwind of activity.  It was a cold day and a slight young man, wearing a woollen cap and bundled up in a winter coat,  flew in.  I was about to discover what the Sidewalk Café was all about.  Peta introduced me to the whirlwind, Richard Griffin, chef, restaurateur and entrepreneur extraordinaire.

This special and very different 'corner caf' is the brainchild of  Richard Griffin, the creative force behind Madame Zingara in all its incarnations.  In the course of the Madame Zingara journey, he has suffered hell, fire and brimstone.  Real fire and brimstone when one of his restaurants burnt down and hell when sponsors in London pulled out when he, his staff and his fantastical magic tent had already arrived there.   After a mourning and healing period,  he rose like a phoenix from the ashes and started all over again.

Madame Zingara  has now morphed into 'Madame Zingara's Theatre of Dreams', a dinner- cirque spectacular in an eighty- year-old Belgian mirror tent, called Victoria.   But now it is the turn of the Sidewalk Cafe to take centre stage.   In my interview with this wunderkind, he is all of 37 years old, he leaps like quick silver from topic to topic describing his philosophy of service, his devotion to the people with whom he works and his fierce determination to succeed.   It is very clear that Richard Griffin is a perfectionist who is as demanding of others as he is of himself.   I was told by one of his staff that at times they could cheerfully murder him while at others they would happily leap in front of a runaway bus to save him.

Aged 13, he started as a dishwasher at the Jonkershuis at Groote Contantia and worked his way up through the ranks.  He worked and travelled until at 25 he went to Le Cordon Bleu in West London to complete his education.   He oversees the kitchens in all his establishments and is constantly creating new and exciting dishes for his menus.  He describes the gentleness and kindness of food,  food that satisfies your appetite and your soul.  I understand that.

With a view of Lion's Head behind and Robben Island in the distance, he decided that the decor should be what he rather eccentrically describes as 'beach farm'.  So there, high above Cape Town, is a beach farm!  Strings of shells hang from the ceiling, abalone shells are filled with sea urchins and a certain weather-beaten feel completes the beach effect.  The farm is represented by lovely wooden tables, farm aprons and pots and pans hanging everywhere.  There is a wood burning stove, with logs of wood waiting to be used, and above the bar hang bunches of vegetables, enamel pots, big enamel mugs and wicker baskets waiting to be filled.  And in the middle of all of this a big beautiful white birdcage without a bird!   Richard describes this as shabby chic, I think it can be whatever you want it to be.

When I asked Natalie how she would describe the food at Sidewalk Café, she said, without a moment's hesitation, 'Gourmet Café' with South African influences.  Fresh, vibrant and full of personality is a perfect description of the food, the place and the people that inhabit it.  

Sidewalk Café is a neighbourhood restaurant.  As they describe it, 'a place to take your mom on the weekend, your pooch after a sunset walk, your kid for a morning chino and your mistress on a Thursday night'.   Forget about the mistress part Eugene, I'll be going with you on any day or night and I look forward to all of our future encounters.

Sidewalk Cafe is open on Monday to Saturday,  for breakfast, lunch and dinner from 8am - 10pm
On Sunday it is open for breakfast and lunch from 9am - 2pm



Booking is essential.
Tel:  (021)  461 2839
www.sidewalkcafe.co.za

Eugene and I love eating out and always pay for ourselves whenever and wherever we go.



If there is anything else that you would like to know about the lovely Sidewalk Café,  you can leave a comment on the blog or email me at les@leslieback.co.za .  I would love to hear from you.

1 comment:

Patricia said...

Charming Les, I can't wait to go there. And what a revelation to find it's a Richard Griffin enterprise. I love his indomitable spirit.