Marble Restaurant – an all new experience
01 January 1970
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Jenny Crwys–Williams : I’m sitting in Johannesburg’s newest restaurant, possibly the prettiest restaurant in town, certainly the one with the most spectacular view. I’m not sure what the temperature is outside, maybe 29 degrees. But inside, if you go past the life fires, I guess it’s about the same inside, near the fires, as it outside.
But people are flocking here, 150 a night, something like 250 when it’s absolutely packed. One of the owners is sitting next to me and that is Chef David Higgs, no stranger of course, to Johannesburg. How did this come about in the first place, I thought you were going to be at the Saxon forever.
David Higgs: No, thanks Jenny. It’s interesting when talking about restaurants and especially your own place, your own ventures. Most of the time somebody would approach you to open a restaurant and sort of leave it all up to you. I’ve always been very wary of that. I feel that if you’re putting your money in, it’s best you’re involved as well.
How Marble came about
Gary came into my office one day after, probably just over a year ago and presented me with this Marble concept. Not only the concept he presented me, but the whole package, the name, literally everything. Obviously we’ve tweaked things since and we’ve done things and Gary’s wife, Irene, has done all the interiors for us. It’s really taken on this incredible animal that it is today.
Gary presented me with this thing and he said to me that the only thing I don’t have is a venue. I said if there’s anything I can bring to the party, I think I know of somewhere. That really was the beginning of the Marble journey and it’s been a hell of a journey since. It’s been eight years…it feels like eight years, it’s been eight months of building and fine-tuning and fixing and tweaking. We’ve been open for about three weeks now and it’s been a hell of a learning curve for me, I can tell you that much.
JCW: What do you think, for you, is the biggest learning curve?
DH: Cooking on fire, live fire cooking. We opened the restaurant about three weeks ago and I’ve actually changed the menu about four times since, within the first week. We’ve stabilised now and we’re pretty much happy with where we are.
But cooking on live fire is an incredible challenge. It’s very rewarding, but it’s very unforgiving. Because you’ve got to get your temperatures right and so forth. But also it’s extreme heat and the guys are working under extreme heat. We’ve actually got them these ice gel vests and all sorts of things to just make sure that we look after them. Because obviously that’s what we’re based on, is around our staff and our team.
JCW: I’m not surprised, just standing there watching them work. They must be exhausted at the end of a shift.
DH: Absolutely and it’s a tough shift anyway. That’s been the biggest thing.
JCW: What are the expectations of people who come here when they sit down? First of all, they’re blown away by the way it looks, I’m sure they are.
JCW: If they come at night, it’s just all diamonds isn’t it?
What expectations do people have?
JCW: They sit down, do they expect kind of a menu, is that what people are expecting?
DH: I don’t think that, but I do think that, unfortunately or fortunately, I don’t know how we’d put it. But with my background with fine dining and so forth, I think the expectations are high, which is fair. You walk into an incredible space and so forth.
But the one thing that people have said when they walk into the space is that they feel it’s comfortable, they don’t feel it’s pretentious. It’s sophisticated, it’s beautiful, the finishes are incredible, but it’s comfortable, you can just relax. The majority of the people that have come have just said the food is exactly the same. It’s comfort food, soul filling, comes off the fire, it just makes sense.
JCW: There’s a huge difference is there not, between comfort food and nursery food. I sometimes think they’re confused. So comfort food, what would people expect to see?
DH: Obviously meat is a huge seller, we’re talking 80-85% of what we sell every night is a steak. Really, I spoke to Steve from Local Grill, the boys, Solo and the guys up at the Grill House and there was talk amongst ourselves of competition and everything else. I really didn’t see that as that when we opened, that was never the plan.
The bottom line is that people migrate, they see the fire and they migrate to meat. The fish is the most incredible thing off the fire. We get the most brilliant rave reviews on fish and vegetables off the fire. Vegetables cooked in the wood burning oven, it gets that beautiful black, blister, but that sweet inside. So I guess it’s an understanding of what we’re doing, that will take a bit of time. That’s really just what it is.
When we talk about comfort food, we’re talking about nice portions of food, tasty and not overly simplified. Like a steak house would do for instance. Like I said, we’re surrounded by the best steak houses in the country. We’re certainly not out there to compete against them but it is what it is. People come and they eat meat.
A born and bred understanding of fish
JCW: Talk to me a little bit about your Namibian background because I keep reading people say: Of course, he’s got the fires because he cooked on a fire for the first part of his life, just settle that?
DH: Essentially I’m from Walvis Bay, myself and my dad used to go fishing almost every day of our lives –
JCW: So you understand fish.
DH: I understand fish. I understand how good fish. Fresh fish is on the fire. Literally you know, when those fisherman, basically we make a fire on the side of the beach. The first one you catch you cook and eat and the rest is for the week. My mom always used to have a heart attack when we used to get home with all these beautiful cob. That’s what we did, she used to make fish cakes for lunch and dinner we’d braai more fish.
Walvis Bay is a simple little town and we ate simply. My dad had a little vegetable garden in the back, a hydroponic vegetable garden because obviously we’re in the desert. So it was always really about food and fires and cooking and fish and so forth. That’s really the background of Namibia really, it’s the place where my heart is at really, it always has been.
JCW: So you can go and stand close to the fire and pretend you’re on a beach or something like that.
DH: Absolutely, without the beer unfortunately.
JCW: Well, I’ve just looked at your cocktail lounge and I mean whether it’s a cocktail lounge or a bar, it’s absolutely gorgeous.
DH: It really is a lovely space.
A stunning location
JCW: And I love sitting outside as well. So for anybody who hasn’t seen the restaurant yet, you look straight out over North Cliff hill. The old hills that used to be covered with elephants, they did, and giraffe and veld and whatever. Now it’s built up, so literally as we said at the beginning, it’s diamonds at night. It’s absolutely exquisite.
DH: The view literally is from Jo’burg Jen. All the way through West Cliff, North Cliff, all the way to Sandton, it’s that 180, it really is incredible.
JCW: Just while we’re still talking about food and simple food, but beautifully cooked and with the taste of wood. A bit of that burny taste that you’ve got, do you use different woods?
DH: We don’t use different woods. What we do use is alien, so we burn Sekelbos, Sekel wood and Wattle, we use Wattle coal. So it’s a combination of wood and coal. I would have loved to, from Namibia we use the Kameeldoorn, which is beautiful. It’s a hard wood, it’s got an incredible flavour.
But we do have a special basting that we use, we have a special board dressing that we base the, basically we cook on fire which gives it a lovely unique flavour, it then comes off the fire onto what we call a board dressing. Which is olive oil and lots of fresh parsley and a little bit of chopped herbs. We literally just drop it onto that and then onto the plate.
While we’re cooking, we also use a basting of animal fat, olive oil and butter, equal parts, with a little bit of herbs and some black pepper. The flavours that develop, and we use a herb basting brush, we make our own basting brushes out of herbs. As the fire flames and everything else, it just, everything adds to that flavour.
Sampled hundreds of wines for Marble
JCW: I am going to be speaking to your sommelier a little bit later on, but I want you to take me through your particular wine journey. What was it that you wanted to have in that cellar that you could spend a lot of time going through the different bottles you’ve got.
DH: Absolutely. Myself, Wikus and Ronnie actually spent, it’s probably the thing we concentrated on the most. Because it’s one thing we could do, we didn’t have the kitchen, we didn’t have the grill, we couldn’t really, we didn’t really have much time to do much else.
So other than building here, we used to taste a lot of wine daily. I had the Burger family in my house, I had Andrew Gunn at my house, all sitting around my dining room table tasting wines. Those are special memories.
We tasted probably between 500-1000 different wines and from that we could then earmark what we liked. How we could differentiate in price. It was a lovely process that we went through. I’ve only done that once since, well, I’ve only done that once before.
It was at Rust En Vrede where I sat down with Jean Engelbrecht, with Coenie the winemaker, with Louis from Ernie Els and we did exactly that. That process rung through again with Marble. We’ve met with all of these winemakers, we’ve met with all of the wine farm owners. We’ve tasted most of their wines and we’ve developed these relationships with them now. We’re very happy, we’ve picked up some gems and very happy with where our wine list is.
JCW: David, what is this about a hundred wines?
DH: Basically I had just come back from Sydney when we started tasting the wines and we were trying to decide how many wines we were going to have on the wine list. Started off with a hundred red and a hundred white. I’d been to Neil Perry’s place, the Spice Temple, which I absolutely love, I don’t know if you’ve been.
DH: It’s just the most incredible, it’s a big restaurant, busy and burly. I’m not talking about fine dining or anything else, but just incredible Asian food. Anyway, there he had a wine list and it just said The Hundred Perfect Wines. It literally was 50 red and 50 white wines, beautifully listed. You can see the way we’ve listed it as well, it’s quite similar.
A very clear and simple way of reading the wine list and understanding it. I just brought that back and I showed Wikus and I said to him let’s look at that and it really has worked a treat. Wikus is just an absolutely superstar, I don’t know how the hell I landed him, but he’s an absolute superstar.
A wine and food relationship is important
JCW: It’s really interesting how suddenly it seems to me wine has just come. I don’t think it was in the shadows before, but something has happened, has it not? With wine and food in South Africa.
DH: Without a doubt. I started cooking in this country 28 years ago, I think, 1989. 1989 I worked at a little hotel in Cape Town cooking breakfast. Essentially everything from chocolate mousse to the Caesar salad was garnished with curly leaf parsley and iceberg lettuce and tomato roses, that’s literally where we started.
I’ve seen all the fancy lettuce come into play, all these specific organic suppliers, I’ve really been part of this journey of South Africa and it’s been quite special. What is that now? The last 27 years has been absolutely incredible when you look at product and growth of food in SA alone.
But then start looking at the wines and when did wines start playing a bigger role in restaurants and sommeliers have a large part to play with that. I really do believe that restaurants sometimes underestimate the value of having someone who knows what they’re talking about. It doesn’t need to be a sommelier, it doesn’t need to be that title because sometimes that title also come with a bit of a snooty side –
JCW: A certain presence to it.
DH: And there’s no need for that, there’s no need for anybody, no chef, no sommelier, no winemaker, there’s no need for any of that. So to find someone like Wikus is quite refreshing. Who can just talk to people genuinely about wine. If it’s a young couple that you can see are spending some big money on a night out, you can recommend something within their price range. Just to understand the customer and instead of trying to push big wines and be ridiculous.
That’s where Wikus has come into play and again, that’s where wines, since somms have become more evident on floors in restaurants, wine has definitely picked up. People are also experimenting a little bit more, it’s not all the normal run of the mill stuff, almost supermarket wines that the guys are drinking.
JCW: I think anything but, to be quite honest with you and with a guiding hand and I can’t emphasize how important wine by the glass is because then you can have –
Important to have good wine by the glass
DH: And I just want to touch on that, myself and Wikus, you can look at our wine by the glass options here, these are great wines by the glass. We have a big restaurant here, we know that the wines will sell. So we said, okay, let’s put good wine by the glass. I just see Iona Sauvignon Blanc, these are almost iconic wines. The Reisling, the Thelema, any of those wines there are top end wines. There’s a price range again, there’s a price range for everybody. If you want a really good glass of wine, just by the glass, then the option is there.
There’s a restaurant at Heathrow in Terminal 5 or 2, Gordon Ramsey’s Plain Food. The one thing I love about that is you can actually go there and you can drink a proper Bordeaux. You can drink a proper Rouen blend, but it’s all by the glass.
Obviously they have a high turnover, it’s an airport and everything else, so you can do that. But I love the fact that I could actually go in there and drink a beautiful Alsace or a lovely champagne by the glass, something unusual. We’ve catered that to a certain extent as well.
JCW: If you decide to do a three course meal or whatever it is, you could quite happily do a different wine and something you’ve never drunk before.
JCW: And I think that’s part of the excitement of what’s beginning to happen in SA with wine by the glass.
DH: If you look at the Leopard, for instance. I don’t know if you’ve gone to the Leopard recently –
DH: Their little wine list, I think it’s something like five whites and five reds –
JCW: It’s so quirky though.
DH: It’s bloody perfect, honestly, she nails it. I know the lady down, I’m terribly embarrassed, I’ve forgotten her name, who did the wine list for them. She’s down in Blue Bird Center –
JCW: Corlien Morris.
DH: Corlien did the menu for them and it’s well done and I love that kind of thing. It’s just really great wines.
Pairing wine at Marble
JCW: Let’s do one thing where you put just a lovely course together for me, give me a first course, your main course, I don’t mind what it is, and give me wine by the glass because you’ve tasted them all.
DH: From a starter point of view, our first courses, one of my favourites is obviously the blackened octopus sells madly. The beautiful hot smoked trout off the coals is delicious, but for me, just a simple thing like the asparagus. They’re not blanched, they’re literally just rolled in a little bit of olive oil and then put onto the fire.
We do it with crackling that we make into a little powder and cured pork fat that we slice very thing. So as you put it on, it just melts. It’s this asparagus off the fire with this cured fat and this crunchy top. It really is quite spectacular. We do that with a bit of ash mayo and that’s lovely.
For mains, it depends what fish it is, but generally the fish off the fire is incredible. You leave it on the skin, crisp and beautiful, it’s got that lovely fattiness. It gives lovely texture as well, so you sort of crunch through it and you’re into the soft flesh. The line fish is great.
But again, two of my favourites are the Harissa pumpkin and the wood fired beets. As you take that pumpkin and those beetroots out of the wood fired oven for instance, absolutely delicious, great flavours with a lovely fresh dressing, that again is a favourite. Probably the one that stands out the most is the chicken dish.
We do it on a rosemary skewer, on the rosemary stick. then we do a Harissa sauce with all the peppers roasted on the fire. So a lovely Harissa sauce and we do aubergines that we confit. It’s something I saw in New York in a restaurant, it was a French/Vietnamese restaurant.
They gave me baby aubergines that they’d confit in lemon zest and olive oil and fresh ginger. They just leave it overnight at a very low temperature and it literally melts in the mouth. We took the ginger out and we’ve just got this beautiful lemon aubergine with the chicken and the Harissa. Then just beautiful fresh green veg off the fire.
JCW: Give me a wine to go with that.
DH: With that specific dish?
JCW: Why not.
DH: If you look at the wines by the glass for instance, the first thing straight off the bat would be the Spioenkop Chenin. Spioenkop has been going down an absolute treat. Riesling for me is a great food wine, I love Riesling with all sorts of food. But if you’re talking that dish, it’s quite big and everything else, so I would definitely go for a Chenin. It’s nice and full on the palate as well, so that will be my choice.
JCW: It’s the coming wine isn’t it, coming varietal.
DH: Without a doubt and I do love it. It’s buttery, but it’s not a Chardonnay and it’s not a Sauvignon. It’s not too acidic and too green, so yes, that would be my choice.
JCW: Final question for you. Tonight is Thursday night in Johannesburg. How many people have you got coming and are you going to be able to rest in between?
DH: There will certainly be no rest in between, I think we’ve got 175 booked, so it’s going to be a big night. Also tonight is what they call ‘First Thursday’ –
JCW: The full moon as well.
DH: It’s the whole open street party tonight downstairs, so big night.
JCW: 2000 people they estimate.
DH: There you go!
JCW: Don’t sniff at success.
JCW: Thank you very much indeed David Higgs.
DH: Thanks Jenny.