The passing of a great restaurant, or even one that one was just mediocre, but had a couple of good things on the menu, is honestly like a death to me.
This is of course because my best friend is a biscuit, and so ‘places that feed me’ is just about all I’ve got to cling to these days.
From a food perspective there are few worse sensations than pitching up at your favourite place, expecting to be tucking into that thing that you order every time with the usual greedy, piggy-face, to not only find that the restaurant isn’t there any more, but that now it’s a shop that sells toilets.
It feels like getting mugged, and then having the mugger kick you in the shins because they’re also communists and you confess to not having read Das Kapital – and I’d know. I’ve been mugged a lot. And even though I claim I’ve read Das Kapital, I haven’t really.
My very, very first experience of this kind of thing was with a place in Grahamstown, which is where I grew up, that my mom used to take me to called Davenports. In reality it was probably a stuffy old-school type tea-room filled exclusively with old ladies who thought that putting a flower arrangement on their head constituted ‘being a progressive about hats’, but in my mind it was The Best Restaurant In The World (aged 4) because it was the first time I was allowed to have an Appletiser. Which was a big deal in those days.
It promptly closed down and became a Spur, which is still there. The ladies who wear hats are not.
Also in Grahamstown was a Bavarian grill-house which was called Tiny’s, because no doubt it was run by a jolly and usually quite sweaty, fat man called George Gruber (which is totally the best fat man’s name ever) and back in the 80s, no one had yet gotten tired of that joke of naming something its opposite. Of course, you can’t be called George Gruber and not be a jolly, big guy who runs a steak-house with his dumpy wife – it goes against nature.
Gruber’s favourite thing in the world was to flambé a steak at your table as an excuse to hold forth on the wonders of Austria for as long as it took to burn your face off with flaming Kirsch, but it was a proper ‘grown-up place’ and the rare occasion when my parents decided on a night out at Tiny’s, it was always a ridiculous highlight to go there. It was also the first time I was introduced to the idea of monkeygland sauce, which let me tell you, provided an endless source of debate for an 8 year-old and his dumb mates; mostly revolving around exactly how many monkey-glands went into making enough sauce for a burger, and did Vervet monkey-gland taste different from, say Baboon or Bonobo?
Sadly Gruber died and the restaurant closed, and for years no-one could make anything else work in the space. At one point someone tried a rip-off KFC-style chicken joint called Southern Fried Chicken, which closed almost immediately after the first person actually tried something off the menu. Today however it’s the legendary and institutional Rat and Parrot, which is the pub equivalent of getting kicked in the face by a pack of talking dingoes in party dresses. Again, I would know.
I’ve long suspected that the Burger Quality Debate Index is the primary indicator of a high standard of living. This must be the case, because apparently it’s the only thing anyone in Cape Town, that dear fishing village by the sea, has any time for – since they’re always super-quick to laconically declare how awesome both they, and their standard of living, are. It seems that the energy of every single person in that city is bent towards a permanent, in-depth, absurdly passionate debate about Who Makes The Best Burger, where if you dare to suggest it’s Royale (as opposed to Hudsons or Clarkes) then you clearly have the taste of a dust mote or a goat-rapist, or you’re from Johannesburg, in which case they pat your head you’re a retarded child who, shame, can’t be expected to know any better.
The reason they’re all wrong, and are about to be robbed of seemingly the only point to their lives, is that the best burger in the world used to be made a lanky vulture-like woman who was the owner/proprietor of a ridiculously-named fast-food joint called Bambi’s. And yes, there was totally a giant picture of Bambi painted in the window – which if you think about it, raises some very odd thoughts about exactly what was in those burgers. Years after she’d retired from fast-food, I actually went and tracked her down at her house, determined to get her to fix me up one last burger, which – incredibly, she did. Because it was that good. Enormous and dinner plate-like in its roundness, the Bambi Burger was a secret-sauced, pickled-up burgerous marvel in a soft white bun – and to this day I’ve never had one to match it.
This ‘passing of a favourite’ thing also happened more poignantly with the first restaurant I ever developed a meaningful relationship with after moving to Johannesburg. It was an Italian place called Lucci’s in Westdene – owned and run by, of course, old Mr Lucci (no such naming cleverness for the Italians – a spade is a spade, and a restaurant run by a Mr Lucci, is called Lucci’s).
Lucci was a clever fucker, because he knew a good thing when he saw it, and he saw quite a lot of his own fine Italian daughters (not in that way fuckos). And as a result, most of the time you were waited on by one or several of those fine and exotic women. That meant that as a teenager I spent a lot of time trying to hide unfortunate boners with a napkin while trying to eat mushroom Risotto.
It was one of those places where you instantly knew that it was run by a real Italian, because instead of stupid faux-Tuscan brickwork and stock art of grinning fat men holding loaves of bread, the walls were covered with the only things truly close to an Italian’s heart – pictures of Ducatis and Ferraris. Of which Lucci had many. There was also a picture of him posing with Pavarotti, and if a guy has fed Big Luciano, then it’s totally okay for him to feed me. It was the first time I’d encountered pesto made properly, and a man who point-blank refused to serve decaffeinated anything in his restaurant and who also probably felt more distraught about Saltimbocca being poorly-made than he did about baby seals being clubbed to death by Japanese people.
It’s an estate-agency now.
The thing about this dirge-like list of places that I used to eat at which don’t exist any more, is that it happened again recently. It’s funny – I’ve written about Lapa Fo on this blog before, and paradoxically enough, it was to complain about their rather cynical pricing of a particular bottle of wine. But it was like one of those relationships where although someone did something shitty to you, you can’t stop seeing them because the sex is just too good to ever sanely give up, and so you just keep on going back and back. Which was the case here, and oddly enough it wasn’t even for the thing they were famous for; because for a place whose speciality was (incredible) pizza, my favourite thing on their menu was the meatballs.
I know right? Fucking meatballs?
Well, I loved the shit out of them, and it was rare that I’d ever go there and order anything but. Well, now it’s gone and I’ll never have those balls in my face again. And so, in an attempt to not let this piece of warmth and nostalgia die completely, I went home the other night and tried to recapture the essence of my favourite thing of theirs. And so, here is my commemorative Lapa Fo meatball recipe, in a sad and probably meaningless tribute to a thing I liked.
There is a greater point to all of this – and that is (duh), don’t take these places for granted. Because one day they won’t be there, and you’ll never have that particular thing, in that particular way, ever again (Yes, it’s a metaphor for life. Get over it). There’s something magical about the alchemy that goes into the creation of a signature menu at a favourite restaurant – and that special combination of ingredients, suppliers, techniques, chefs and kitchen atmosphere will never come together again. Don’t just assume that it’ll be there forever – because it won’t, and then you’ll be one of those people that starts conversations with “Remember that whatever that so-and-so used to do at blah blah blah, back in the day? I wish I could have it one last time, we never went there enough.” And then you’ll get sad, and then maybe go home and be cruel to your children and/or plants. And that’s how M Night Shyamalan movies happen.
A generous glug of olive oil
2 tins of whole, peeled tomatoes
2 bay leaves
1 tsp brown sugar
1 splash of sherry vinegar
For the meatballs
500g of minced beef
40g of breadcrumbs, some extra for dusting
A goodly handful of grated Parmesan
175 ml milk
2 teaspoons of minced garlic
A handful of finely-chopped parsley
1 tsp dried organum
1 tsp of coriander seeds, crushed into a fine powder
2 large eggs
A generous pinch of Chilli flakes
What to do
Combine all the meatball ingredients in a large bowl, and gently mix them all together until loosely combined. Season well with salt and pepper, then coat your hands with olive oil and gently pack into smallish balls, not pressing them together too tightly. Dust each one with some breadcrumbs.
Rub a roasting tray with olive oil, and get the oven grill onto about 200 degrees Celsius. Pack the meatballs onto the tray, giving each one a bit of breathing space, and brown them on both sides in the oven – it should take about 20 minutes or so.
Then get either a casserole or a cast-iron pot and add the olive oil, tinned tomatoes, bay leaves, sugar and vinegar, then season generously with salt and pepper. Gently break up the tomatoes a bit with a wooden spoon. Toss in the meatballs, pop on the lid and put it back in the oven for another half an hour.
Serve with pasta or as part of a meal with salad and crusty bread.
Cheers Lapa Fo, you will be missed.