Terroir 13 April 2006

When I last ate with the Hungry Man, he was a wan specimen. Worn and worked by the voracious demands of his employer, he sat in front of me, visibly struggling to muster the strength to explain the many reasons for his exhaustion.

It was therefore a very good thing that we were sitting at one of the better restaurants in Stellenbosch, with a very attentive waiter and some victuals only a few syllables away. And it only took a few draughts of some rather fine shiraz, the Boschkloof 2004, for the Hungry Man to begin to resemble his old self, springing into a theory of the types of food that are most popular and why they all have one thing in common.

Lunch venue was Terroir, the winelands spot run by the very experienced Michael Broughton and Nic van Wyk. Broughton previously ran a few eponymous places in Johannesburg and quickly gathered a reputation equally for his good food and quick temper. Van Wyk used to be a chef at La Colombe, arguably the best restaurant in the Cape.

That day I noticed that Broughton has had a haircut and that Terroir, which I had always liked but felt lacked the final nth degree that would make it great, has improved. It’s not so much in the food, which is still bistro in style with an emphasis on rich sauces and red meats, but that the service is far smoother, more professional and crisp – without losing the friendly local touch.

It also came home to me why I’d struggled with the prevailing adoration of the place – the food is actually very plain bistro grub. Seriously elemental dishes, like moules frites and lamb shank. But they are precise, with fine-tuned sauces. People love this stuff. I love it. The Hungry Man gave the shank his stamp of approval, no small matter.

What niggled were the prices, more in tune with the fine dining establishments of the city than a country bistro. But the food is damn good, so the price should be no issue. But that’s careless rich talk. Everything has its fair price. Yet I now like Terroir more. Perhaps then the fine diners are under-priced (and by international standards they are) but I would not like to see a hike in these until the food quality, in this category, is consistently better. Hence Terroir’s brave prices for basic dishes are justified by the excellence of their execution. This is a benchmark for such food.

That’s the reality. The Hungry Man’s theory I mentioned earlier is this: that everyone’s favourite foods are those which have a crisp/crunchy exterior and a soft, succulent interior. So think char-grilled steak, think fries, think tempura, think crème brulée. He added fois gras, and he may be right there. He may also be onto something with the theory as a whole. I would add that people love savoury succulence in all its forms: the soups, the stews, the baked dishes. The crunch is a wonderful extra, a foil, to the rich and soft.

The mistake many make is trying to find this in salads – but that’s a story for another day.