It is intriguing to watch a restaurant unfold, blossom and grow – or simply disappear without making a sound. One doesn’t know how it will go, even with the good ones. That’s why it is such a tough business, especially for the good ones
The restaurant business is a volatile one – from one year to the next, you simply can’t tell who will make it, who will survive and who will quietly go away. It’s a tough industry. One restaurant that has excited me from the beginning is the State Theatre’s Afro Lounge Bistro. This has been a problematic space: many areas are dark, there are a number of different levels and the courtyard was rarely used. A local couple, Ashley and Linda Moemise, moved in more than a year ago, determined to turn this space around – and they have.
But it is still a work in progress. Training is a huge part of the process, as is figuring out what the diners want.
“One of the things we’ve changed is to remove all pork from our menus,” says Ashley. It just didn’t move, and they felt they could pay attention to things that do.
A new chef, Karabo Mmangwedi, has taken over the reins. She reminded me that I had spotted her a year ago selling sushi with a friend at the Hazel Food Market, and the adventure of two young chefs and what they were getting up to struck me at the time.
Now she’s firmly in the Afro Lounge Kitchen and doing a sterling job. We recently had to take leave of one of our colleagues and a group of us moved into one of their private rooms for a farewell lunch.
I was keen to see what was happening with the food and my lunch included two starters – the lime chicken breast (R62) served on spinach (marogo), which had a slight tartness with all the combinations and textures coming together very smartly; and the Harissa prawn starter (R42), which I was quite nervous about because not everyone knows how to prepare it, and when it goes wrong, it’s disastrous. But the prawns were plump and crispy, with a sharpness that was perfect.
Another partner in crime, Janet Smith, had this to say about her meal: well-prepared spinach makes you flourish a little, and when it’s combined with succulent chicken livers (R32), you know you’re eating at home, in Africa. Afro Lounge’s delicate but delicious treat relied more on the original flavours than on a sauce, which made it all the more splendid as a starter. For those who know their chicken livers, this one’s light on flamboyance, but high on organic taste.
It would be difficult to choose the more enticing starter, between the chicken livers on spinach or the braised Nguni kidneys (R45), but the kidneys get the slight nudge ahead. This is because the meat gives your tongue an unusual little spin, as it is slightly caramelised and velvety on a tender scone. If you haven’t eaten kidneys before, this is a mouthwatering introduction to another very traditional taste.
Talking to Karabo about our meal, she was beaming at the compliments: she’s been trained on the job and ascribes all her success to the couple in charge.
“Both of them cook well so they’re the ones who teach and guide me,” says the young woman who started in the scullery and has worked her way through the ranks. The experience has been stunning and she learns constantly as she experiments with new dishes and tries to make everything she does as perfectly as she can.
She says oxtail (R125) is probably their most popular dish but the liver, kidney and lime chicken are also top of the pops.
For the moment, her sushi expeditions are on hold because her rise as a chef keeps her busy. But she wants to try that again at a later stage because she knows there’s a gap in the market, especially for sushi chefs on the move.
She’s also tickled by the whole Masterchef competition and hopes that she could also have the chance to test her skills.
Keeping herself in touch with trends and what’s happening in the food world, she turns to books and she likes to practise as much as she can. With Ashley and Linda always on hand, there’s constantly talk of new dishes and she also hopes to get her baking up to scratch. “It’s not something I do well,” she says.
Way yonder in the future, she’s hoping she will have the chance to open her own restaurant. Hopefully in that way, we will finally establish a stronger South African cuisine. Ashley and Linda can certainly claim to have played no small part in laying that foundation.
If she has to order from her own menu, Karabo’s current favourites are the rack of lamb with cranberry sauce or the Afro chicken.
It’s a good place to pop in for a meal before a show but if time’s an issue, make sure to book so that they know what the constraints are.
It’s one of my favourites in town. It adds to the diversity that is one of the strengths of the Pretoria restaurant scene.