Steaking a claim on Boksburg
This week started with the tragic news of the passing of Walter Ulz, beloved chef-proprietor of Linger Longer. Walter, who just recently celebrated Linger Longer’s 50th anniversary, not only represented the heyday of fine dining in Joburg, but was an institution.
Those who had the pleasure of dining at Linger Longer over the years will understand what a sad loss he is, not only on a personal level, but also professionally. Walter always set the bar higher in a sea of mediocrity. I was to have had dinner with him on Tuesday – so instead, here’s a toast to you, Walter.
And I’m drinking Springfield, as you would have suggested.
A few weeks back, I heard Philippe Wagenfuhrer, chef-proprietor of roots at the Forum Homini hotel out on a game farm west of Joburg, had apparently left them to start up a new restaurant called Gray in Boksburg.
Why? I wondered. It’s a helluva change of scenery and pace for Philippe who needs little introduction to those who is a regular on the awards circuit.
Philippe’s food has always impressed us, so we didn’t mind schlepping to Boksburg.
It’s a far cry from his roots days, I think when we enter the soulless business park in a light industrial area down the road from the East Rand Mall. Undoubtedly, Gray’s rough-around-the-edges environs aren’t the drawcard.
Glass doors separate it from a Harley Davidson dealership, so the Harley theme is carried through into the restaurant with metallic grey (“gray” being the American spelling) curtains shielding the huge shop-front windows.
The floors are a utilitarian shade of mustard brown. Harley components decorate the walls and are strung from the ceiling. White chairs are arranged around cold granite tables. In a corner near the Harley shop is a glass table with a chrome engine block beneath.
It’s a celebration of macho biking culture, the cutesy Harley pictures in the loos notwithstanding.
But I’m more interested in what’s on the plate, than the place.
And Gray doesn’t disappoint: Philippe’s menu features grass-fed, not grain-fed, beef (which we see far too little of), organic produce, artisanal cheeses, beer from a micro brewery, only four wines (blended specially to match the food) and coffee from sustainable sources.
Unlike his previous venture though, you’re not likely to find creepy crawlies on the menu – Philippe has a fondness for mopani worms and the like – but there’s lots of meat.
In fact, Gray is really an upmarket steakhouse. Philippe’s not in charge of the kitchen either; his protégé Raymond Kokota is.
On Sundays, though, there’s a four-course set menu only, which we didn’t realise (costs R195). We started with a glass of quality sauvignon blanc (Creation), water and a weiss beer. All wines by the glass cost just R35, beers R20 to R25 – excellent value.
Two breads arrive (onion and a plain roll), followed by a tiny half spring roll – the amuse-bouche. The bread’s insipidly white, the spring roll cemented in commercial quality sweet chilli sauce. Not great.
Things perk up a lot when our set menu announces itself. My tomato soup, topped with a chive mascarpone, is sharp and a bit salty. My husband’s spicy Cajun chicken salad, with generous handfuls of micro greens, cubes of mango and a hot mango dressing (once again, a restaurant that serves fruit out of season), has quite a kick. Then, our entrées: my risotto with deboned oxtail and mushrooms is exceedingly good, while his duck breast (with goji and youngberry jelly cubes, greens, gnocchi and beetroot puree) is cooked juicy and pink. The presentation’s unfussy and the flavours quite generous, but too much salt once again.
Mains, a springbok medallion with a berry jus, is pretty good though: very juicy, the slightly tart berry sauce a wonderful complement, but I’m not crazy about the sides: cooked-to-death ratatouille, creamed barley and smoked creamed cauliflower, although my husband laps both our cauliflower up with his rump steak which is served with a wholegrain mustard sauce and a pea puree. We pair these respectively with a glass of shiraz (Weltevrede) and a stout.
As I expected, dessert would be underwhelming. Although the slice of tiramisu satisfies, the banana vanilla rolled goat’s cheese is dreadful – even more so, accompanied by a dry, unsweetened banana and nut bread. The espressos are very good though.
Service is competent, but the food’s slow to arrive and our menus are dirty when presented to us.
The thinking behind Gray – to paraphrase, that in life, there is no black and white, only grey – rings true, although inconsistent food isn’t a drawcard for me. Even at such reasonable prices.
Especially since it’s quite a drive from just about everywhere.
For it to be worth it, I not only need to be assured of quality on the plate – which they undoubtedly provide – I also expect flavours to be sound all around. But Philippe’s venture into Boksburg is probably not quite the gamble it seems at face value: after all, there’s a lot of money in Ekurhuleni, and fans of his won’t mind the drive.
Best they give the set menus a little more consideration.