Confident eating out in a pandemic
The Secret Diner
Where: Sameja Drive, Dunkirk Estate, Salt Rock
Open: Tuesday to Saturday 7.30am to 7pm, Sunday 8am to 3.30pm
Call: 032 525 4505
TO say Covid restrictions are not killing restaurants is a bit like saying the Orange Man didn’t incite last week’s insurrection.
The trifecta of the early curfew, the booze ban and customer reluctance to dine out is all playing its part. Add to this the fact that January is traditionally quiet but there was no season to fall back on because the closing of the beaches effectively cancelled Christmas.
But after the president’s deadly serious pep talk this week, it is clear such restrictions are necessary. After all, we can’t take our lives back until we have this dastardly pandemic under control.
Ray’s Kitchen in Ballito has a recipe for such hard times. It offers all the right ingredients: good food, good sanitising and distancing, and a setting that makes one feel more comfortable dining.
The restaurant is basically a glorified verandah open on two sides, and there's a further terrace and a separate outside eating area. Tables are properly spaced, and staff are properly trained in mask wearing and infection control.
On a late Friday afternoon, despite the fact we were downing rock shandies and not pink gins, there was a nice convivial vibe, but not threatening in pandemic terms.
The menu has been simplified somewhat but the outdoor woodfired pizza oven is still firing on all four cylinders. Many a local popped in to collect the hand-stretched pizzas they had ordered.
There are a number of focaccia options with toppings like onion marmalade and gorgonzola, or shaved bresaola and grana padano, as well as your favourite pizzas like a bacon, avo and feta or Hawaiian, along with a chicken tikka or seafood options. The vegetarian one sounds good, brinjals, artichokes, avo, mushrooms, olives, tomato and rocket, and for those who simply can’t survive on all veg you can add pepperoni to the mix.
Starters might include regulars like crispy squid or peri peri chicken livers, but there’s also a deli plate for two with a selection of meats and cheeses along with a focaccia. The Thai-style rock cod fish cake is a winner served with chilli, lemon grass, avo and a baby leaf salad with an Asian dressing. It could be a meal in itself.
Tuna lollipops are famous here. These are chunks of tuna skewered as lollipops and cooked in a sesame tempura batter with wasabi mayo, pickled ginger and a soy lime reduction. If these delectable morsels were ever removed from the menu I’m sure their fans would storm the kitchen.
I settled for the phyllo wrapped prawns with spicy mayo (R98) which were large, juicy and the phyllo crisp, while my friend opted for a special of masala mussels (R100). More of that later, because it was to be my main.
Speaking to its Italian roots, the restaurant offers some interesting home made pasta dishes including langoustines with vermouth, or a creamy chilli Bolognese as well as risotto options with mushrooms or seafood. There are falafels and burgers as well as grill options with deboned peri peri chicken, prawns, pork belly, ribs etc.
My friend opted for a special of the “summer” fillet (R220): slices of fillet stacked up between layers of various summer flavours including basil pesto and tomato salsa all on top of some good sweet potato chips. It was a great dish allowing the flavours of summer to come through, and the steak was cooked to perfection.
I ordered a mains portion of those mussels (R200) which was a huge portion and was worth getting one's hands dirty slurping the sauce off shells and mopping it up with good ciabatta toast. Great cooking.
Neither of us are dessert people, I didn’t even look at the menu, but the coffee was good. I enjoyed our waiter’s smiling eyes when I asked if a dom Pedro was possible. Sadly, Uncle Cyril would not allow it.
Ray’s Kitchen is scrupulous about the curfew, with bookings from 5pm. The kitchen closes at 7pm, with the restaurant closed by 7.45 to allow the staff to get home on time. Yet nothing was rushed. Staff managed to be both efficient and friendly and without intruding on our little bubble on the verandah. And I was safely back in Durban before pumpkin hour having enjoyed an excellent meal.
Food: 4 ½
Service: 4 ½
The Independent on Saturday