I’m guilty of celebrity chef idol worship. I admit it. Ever since I got hooked on Masterchef and started searching the slim pickings of fine dining offerings in Jo’burg all those years ago. The Test Kitchen was always on my dining bucket list, but living in the city of gold and potholes, I kept forgetting to book 6 months in advance and no amount of chance-taking worked when I got to the Mother City. Then Covid closed the Test Kitchen and I heard about Luke Dale-Roberts’ Fledgelings, and of course the Test Kitchen found its way back onto the must-do dining list once again.
This visit was a real treat – my son was visiting from the UK and he took me (and I took the rest of the family), and what a treat it was. Test Kitchen Fledgelings is a training ground for chefs, giving people who wouldn’t have had the opportunity to pursue a career in food the chance to do so. Trainee chefs are given a full-time paid position in the kitchen and they learn on the job from the best chefs that SA has to offer. It’s another wonderful upliftment initiative (see my article on Urban Playground).
B So what I’m getting at in the prelude is that although it’s top notch fine dining, there are going to be some “teachable moments” – when you go, so expect some mishaps, don’t go all three-year-old-in-the-high-chair if something goes wrong. Your presence there is helping someone learn a skill and create a future.
There’s a real vibe when you walk in, and the place has energy and a wonderfully bright atmosphere. The noise levels increase as the place fills up, infused with the sounds from the open kitchen.
We opted for the tasting menu with all the bells and extra whistles. The menu itself is accomplished and satisfying but you get the option of adding an extra course before the main as if the menu itself wasn’t enough to begin with, and you can slip in a round of oysters too as a pre-pre-pre-starter. So many dishes, and all were absolutely gobsmackingly delicious.
We had a few can’t-have-this tastebuds at the table, and the staff were more than accommodating in replacing some of the items on the tasting menu with what they called KFC from their regular menu – it stands for Korean Fried Chicken, and I had a taste – it was absolutely banging. The portion size is triple the size of the dish it was supposed to substitute so those with taste bud impediments had eyes like saucers when their substitutes arrived.
Of course a review from yours truly wouldn’t be a proper review of a place like this without a little wine. Most of the paired wines came from Paul Cluver Wines, so it was the LDR-Paul C show. They started off with a cider to pair with the tuna tataki, which worked really well. Then came the wine of the evening – the Elgin Chardonnay – OMG, it was a showstopper. We took advantage of the slow service to ask for a mercy refill, which the staff were more than happy to accommodate to keep attention away from some of the fledgling kitchen fudges. The Secuters Syrah is also in the mix, which I enjoyed.
My only whine about the wine was that the reds in the pairing mix included two different Pinot Noir’s from the same estate, and I expected something with body and a little more oomph to accompany the mains. Perhaps a little more effort into the wine pairing would elevate the impaired pairing.
Desserts were fantastic. There’s a little surprise that comes with the chocolate fondant, and they also allow you to choose from their other desserts on the a-la-carte menu.
Then a few negatives – well, for me, anyway, if the guys at Test Kitchen are reading this review, hopefully it helps. Nobody likes to be seated facing a brick wall which opens onto the toilet, especially when the price tag is as high as the Test Kitchen. Rearrange tables or forewarn people if you’re giving a guest (me) literally the worst seat in the house. If that’s the only table available, give me an option to rather book another time, or to spend that amount of money somewhere else. If there are others out there who feel the same way, raise your FB thumbs up. Second, I know the guys in the kitchen are learning, and some of the front of house staff are too, but when someone tells you they carry the unfortunate gene that makes coriander taste like stink-bug, pay attention. Three dishes contained fresh coriander – one had to be sent back and one just featured coriander as a garnish which was easily removed, and one was correctly prepared coriander-free. If you’re going to go to the trouble of asking whether there are any food allergies at the table, pay attention to what people tell you and put a system in place to make sure someone does a check at the pass before the dishes arrive at the table. And finally, if your service is slow, as ours was at times, make sure the wait staff are over-attentive. When you book a table for 7pm, you don’t expect to leave the restaurant close to midnight. Some slip ups are forgiven, but when you’re offering a 7 course tasting menu, surely a lot of that is prepped in advance so that service happens quickly once the first round is fired up. Three hours is great for dinner. Close on 5 hours is stretching things a bit. Your staff should be aware of who’s been waiting excessively so they can push things through the kitchen when necessary. On the plus side, our glasses were kept full, – those of us that did the wine pairing. But the water wise amongst us didn’t get the benefit of another glass of Sorry-for-the-wait.
All in all, Test Kitchen Fledgelings is definitely a top favorite of mine, partly for the quality and creativity of the food, partly for the gees (for the foreigners read vibrant atmosphere), and partly for their story. People who invest time and money into developing others get my vote.