I remember when I got the call that the chef at Big Easy Durban by Ernie Els wanted me to try out their latest addition to the menu- crocodile meat. It’s not every restaurant that serves this delicacy and it became clear to me that the restaurant- which has become popular because of how accessible it is- is trying to court lovers of fine dining.
Not that I blame them. Durban’s fine dining scene needs to up its ante if it is to compete with the rest of the country. And I gather that they want the restaurant to attract both sets of diners- those who appreciate fine cuisine and those who just want to be served great food, without any fuss. And yes, there’s a market for that.
I last had crocodile meat in 2010 a few months before the World Cup. Team Nigeria was looking for a training base and KZN was pulling out all the stops to court them and so for lunch we went to Moyo where we had a crocodile meat, feta and strawberry salad. They didn’t tell us it was crocodile. Only until we had gorged ourselves on the salad, did the chef reveal. I didn’t mind. I actually enjoyed and could finally tick off a bucket list item.
Fast forward eight years later and I’m at the Big Easy and being asked to taste two dishes prepared in the same way- one is a crocodile meat dish and the other is chicken. Chef Sbu was enjoying having me guess which was which, but it wasn’t that difficult though. See, crocodile is game meat and therefore I expected it to be a bit tougher than the chicken, which is tender. So when I got the gamey texture of the dish, I knew which was which and I was correct. My dining partner got it wrong.
I enjoyed the dish and it was clear that the chef had spent time making sure that it was delicious. The meat was marinated thyme and mustard and wrapped bacon, overnight. It was then pan friend in butter and oil and was glazed as it was being cooked, along with various herbs. All the flavours came through, yet they didn’t overwhelm the dish. The meat was on a bed of crushed carrots and sweet potatoes and some mussels in brandy. It’s an infusion of flavours that should be overpowering, but actually work very well. I would suggest that they do the same for their chicken dish too, for those not brave enough to try crocodile.
While the chef suggested the meal would go well with a chardonnay, I had it with cola tonic and lemonade. Maybe it’s time more restaurants added more alcohol free wines and beers in their menus.
On why they added the meat to their menu, Chef Sbu said that he had a bad experience with crocodile and wanted to change people’s perceptions about the meat.
“As part of South African heritage, I think something like this is great for a South African restaurant and I felt like we needed to add it to our menu. I’ve only ever had it once before and it was oven roasted. I recommend that it’s cooked medium so we can enjoy the tenderness.”
Will people be enticed? “I think if you are an adventurous person and you want to try something new, something different to excite your palette, this type of dish is perfect to do just that.”
It certainly will be enjoyed by those who are always willing to try out something new.