Food that stands out from the crowd

The prawn curry at Surf Riders.

The prawn curry at Surf Riders.

Published Dec 31, 2023


Durban — This year saw some memorable dinners in Durban, some memorable for all the wrong reasons, including a terrible Mexican experience in Florida Road. Cold cheese, gritty gravy, soggy tortillas, uncomfortable chairs and no booze ‒ this had them all. The restaurant can remain nameless; it might not even be there today.

But, sadly, Durban’s Florida road, with two notable exceptions (read on), is not exactly a beacon of excellence. There are too many chains, too many indifferent experiences, which are often expensive, too many sushi menus and burger joints and too many steak houses. Little that is original, or exciting, or going to blow your hair back.

Chartwell Drive in uMhlanga suffers much the same conundrum, hundreds of restaurants forming another medley of mediocrity, often over-priced.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. One thing Durban does well is its coffee and I’m going to start with its many coffee shops, often individual owner-driven and offering simple meals that are far more exciting than anything another Starbucks or Seattle could produce.

Cheese and mango pickle toastie at Humble Coffee.

Five that stood out:

Humble Coffee at 21 Churchill Road (open Tuesday to Saturday 7am to 3pm) stands out as one of the city’s best. I wrote about it earlier this year: a simple and excellent toastie of cheese mango pickle and red onion. It was a good mature cheese, proper sourdough bread and home-made pickle. But it was imaginative and sensational. A bridge friend read the review, popped in and ordered the same thing and fell in love. Now she drives there from Westville.

Another gem is the Glenwood Bakery, either at 398 Esther Roberts Road, Glenwood, or 45 Lillian Ngoyi Road, Morningside (open daily from 6am to 3pm, and on certain evenings.) Besides offering a good cappuccino, both offer simple, interesting and inexpensive breakfasts, from curried beans on toast with a poached egg to a full English. There’s a dish of oyster mushrooms and whipped hummus, and vegans are taken good care of. (My colleague Wendy Jasson da Costa will write about Veganuary this month). Plus at the Morningside branch there are a range of bagels, from New York classics like smoked salmon and cream cheese, or salt beef and pickles, to slow roasted lamb or roast veg.

The Break Room in Hilton Avenue, Hilton, (open Monday to Friday 8am to 3pm, Saturday 8am to 1pm) is another spot for interesting breakfasts, a whole array chalked up on the boards and changing regularly. Ingrid Shevlin and I stopped in for breakfast after the Hilton festival. It’s the brainchild of Christina Martins graduate Lee Hankey who wanted to make sure plant-based and vegetarian options are not “boring”. Expect good coffee, a zany variety of juices and smoothies, great breakfasts, snacks and cakes. My Turkish eggs with a piquant tomato chilli salsa and laban were inspired.

The Fat Frog in Newport Avenue, Glenashley, (open Monday to Friday 7am to 4.30pm, Saturday 7am to noon) is a place where you soon become family. Apart from good coffees and fluffy scrambled eggs and decadent toasted muffins, the old-fashioned cheese toastie rarely tasted so good, properly made on good bread with home-made pesto. Claire Allen and Jenny Clark’s business also offers an array of home-cooked meals, catering options and then there is the baking. It’s not called the home of the bee sting cake for nothing.

Italian sausage and red onion pizza at Col’Tempo.

A lovely spot on Durban’s Berea is the Italian deli Col’Tempo, at 2 8th Avenue (closed until January 11). All the meats and breads are made on the premises, and much of the other produce flown in from Italy. It’s also a lovely place to sit out under the vines. The coffee is great, the simple menu offers amazingly good and authentic Italian staples like minestrone soup or beef ragu on fettuccine. Baked artichokes and Gorgonzola gnocchi are favourites. I popped in just before Christmas to create a cheese board, and relished a simple crisp-based pizza with Italian sausage, red onion and a chilli sauce with a nice bite.

Whenever I look at restaurants over the year, I always like to acknowledge what I call the neighbourhood local, often a little restaurant that may never win great awards but which provides a home away from home for many people, a restaurant where the village would be poorer without it. These are generally individually run, inexpensive and get to know their regulars as part of the family. They may only offer two or three dishes but they do them exceptionally well.

Back to Florida Road. At the bottom is the Pink Duck at 52 Florida Road (open Monday to Saturday 6am to 9pm), a simple Thai eatery. I can’t seem to get enough of their prawn pad Thai and red duck curry. It may have the ambience of a canteen and you’ve got to place your order at the counter, but the food is authentic and inexpensive. It’s also on Mr D and is often my Friday night go-to as we put the paper to bed.

The mezze platter at Sofra Istanbul.

At the top of Florida Road (no 245) is Sofra Istanbul (open daily 10.30am to 10pm), the authentic Turkish eatery offers excellent and authentic lamb shish kebabs and falafel platters along with a range of Turkish baking. The baklava is Durban’s best. Morsels of buttery goodness. The restaurant is Halaal, and offers a traditional Turkish lemonade.

Authentic Greek goodness is the speciality of sisters Maria and Doddi Teranes at Delfi at 386 Lilian Ngoyi Road. From humble stuffed tomatoes, and pot-roasted beef, to memorable imam Bayaldi, the little restaurant is filled with Greek clutter and lots of Greek warmth. It often offers three or four choices of linefish, including sole, something not often seen on local menus. But by far the most popular is what’s known as Maria’s prawns ‒ a kilogramme of prawns that feeds two, grilled in lemon, garlic and her own peri-peri sauce, a bargain at less than R500. (The sisters close the restaurant in January to recharge and give the tiny space a thorough spring clean).

Surf Riders on Durban’s Addington Beach (open Monday to Thursday 6.30am to 5pm, Friday to Sunday 6.30am to 6pm) is an unprepossessing spot that offers surprisingly good food and a remarkably in-depth wine list. It’s always busy, you’ll usually meet someone you know, and the waiters are always scurrying about everywhere, but chef Samantha Small Shaw runs a tight ship. Whether it’s an exotic range of Benedicts for breakfast, or some exotic super crisp pizzas for lunch, it also offered the best prawn curry of the year. An exceptional dish.

Garlic steak flamed in brandy at Joop’s Place.

I’m going to include the steakhouse of the year, Joop’s Place, in the Avonmore Centre (open Wednesday to Saturday 8.30am to 10pm, Sunday 8.30am to 5pm). Not only are they offering better value than many of their more expensive cousins in Florida Road or Chartwell Drive, but that pepper sauce is the best. And even the vegetable options are decent, like a proper creamed spinach.

Mature Cheddar custard and poached pear at Meraki by Charlie Lakin.

And now for the serious awards … a round of applause everyone.

Best dessert had to be Meraki by Charlie Lakin at 7 Builders Way, Hillcrest (Open Tuesday to Saturday, lunch and dinner). This was a mature cheddar custard on a short cheesy biscuit, topped with poached pear and a pear skin crisp. Simple, deeply flavourful and thoroughly fulfilling. Lakin’s five-or-more-course tasting menus offer exceptional value. That evening, we enjoyed rabbit frikkadels, three ways with duck ‒ seared breast, croquette and duck prosciutto ‒ as well as an excellent hubbard squash soup and a second dessert of plums with rhubarb. Meraki won two stars in the Eat Out restaurants of the year as well as the service award.

Lobster bisque served at The Living Room.

Another Eat Out two-star restaurant is The Living Room, at 9 Belvedale Road, Cowies Hill, where Johannes and Johanna Richter served the meal of the year. With the Glass Guy and his family, I remember us getting excited over a simple pumpkin soup, the chicken velouté with green bananas, and a lobster bisque, poured into the plate with panache. Five- or seven-course tasting menus include many extras. Highlights of the current menu include impala with blueberries, and bush pig with purple sweet potatoes.

Seared scallop in pea puree with trout roe at 9th Avenue Waterside.

Starter of the year was at 9th Ave Waterside, 2 Maritime Place (open Tuesday to Saturday 11am to 11pm, Sunday 11am to 5pm). Chef Theo Chiloane presented a scallop, perfectly cooked in pea purée, light beurre blanc with trout roe and pea shoots. It was a delicious and surprising combination. A burrata cooked with sundried tomatoes and tomato granita, a wild mushroom risotto and a beautiful piece of fillet completed the picture.

Cape salmon on wilted greens with a soy and miso sauce at 3603.

And now I need to squeeze three other establishments into the top five ‒ okay, let’s call it six. Ray’s Kitchen on Dunkirk Estate Salt Rock for an oxtail that was simply sumptuous, and 3603 in Clifton Road, Gillitts, for the best linefish of Cape salmon on wilted veg with a soy and miso glaze and crispy noodles. The salmon tartare too was excellent. And finally to Mundo Vida, South Beach Road, Umdloti, for serving up consistently good fare at a number of occasion lunches this year. Their Louisiana prawns rock.

Wishing you all happy eating in 2024.

Independent on Saturday