Parkhurst’s Batuke quickly became one of my favourite Joburg eating haunts when it opened a few years ago. The consistently high quality of the East-African inspired food put similarly influenced restaurants like Moyo to shame. I could always expect – and in fact was always given – the best ostrich fillet in town by Janine and Maro.
It was a shock when it closed down following a rumoured dispute with the landlord and it was ignominiously replaced with The Attic. Not that I have a problem with The Attic mind you, but did it have to come at the cost of losing Batuke?
Around nine months ago, the ladies returned to the restaurant scene with Salsa in Illovo. Placed in a hidden spot next to the Thrupps Shopping Centre on Oxford road, they had their work cut out to make themselves visible. Luckily, they had a loyal and eager (and very gay) fan base to bolster their new venture.
The look is quite different from Batuke: Rather than the earthy African feel we had come to love, Salsa is all clean lines, crisp white with chic red highlights and mural sketches. The months since its launch have, however, seen a little welcome warming-up of the decor and ambiance. The diverse retains a Portuguese flavour and several highlights from the Batuke repertoire.
You can still look forward to Janine’s famous Can’t Walk Straight Soup (R55) – a prawn and crab bisque, Ostrich Steak (R95), the memorable fillets (Olive, Roquefort or Coffee Pepper: R105 – R110) and their seafood dishes – such as the Beer and Queen Prawns (130), the Lemon Butter Calamari (R65) and Line Fish (R90).
My companion and I had arrived at 2.30pm for lunch and were happy to hear that the kitchen was still very much open. The only downside of lunching so late was that a few ingredients were understandably in short supply. We were however surprised to be told by our waitress that Sauvignon blanc by-the-glass was not available. We queried this with Janine – who happened to have stepped out of the kitchen – who explained that this was a simple miscommunication and we were promptly served with two glasses of Villiera Sauvignon blanc.
When it came to the food, I started with the Coconut Mussels (R45) in a coconut and coriander sauce served with roasted baby potatoes. The sauce was quite moreishly rich but perhaps a little over-sweetened. The potatoes were perfect little creations and worked remarkably well as an accompaniment. My only complaint? The portion of mussels was a little on the skimpy side – even for a starter.
My companion chose the Salmon Martini (R50); raw salmon marinated with vermouth on a bed of cucumber and dill served in a martini class. She said it was a little bland, but it was exactly what I expected: Clean, crisp and light – almost a palate cleanser. Pleasantly refreshing, but ultimately nothing to write home about.
Also on offer in the starter menu is the Steak Tartare (R50); raw minced fillet with egg, onion, garlic, parsley, capers, anchovies and cognac. If you’ve never tried this before, Salsa’s version is one of the best around. It’s this kind of offering, interspersed with traditional favourites that give Salsa something of an edge.
You can also try the Marrow Bones – another Batuke favourite – roasted with red wine sauce and toast (R39.50), the Salsa Meze Platter for two (R95) and the ubiquitous Peri Peri Livers (R39.50) among others.
There’s a lunch menu, available till 6pm, with lighter dishes such as Trinchado (R45) with chips, Beef Espetada (R50) with chips and salad, Salsa Wraps (R37.50) and the Spicy Chicken breast with fried haloumi, tomato salsa and salad (R45).
It’s from this menu that my companion chose her main: the chicken Prego (R45) served with chips and salad which was simply irresistible: the halved fresh Portuguese roll dipped in the light peri-peri sauce and the chips presented in a homemade crispy style. She remembered this from the Batuke days and swore that it remains just as good as it was.
As it was a brisk autumn day, I was in the mood for comfort food; and so I settled on the sautÃ©ed Veal Escalopes (R100) in a redcurrant and cream sauce served with linguine. The veal was tender and the sauce delicious. It was filling and decadent and I enjoyed every forkful.
We finished with a shared dark Chocolate Frangelico Mousse (R37.50) topped with nut praline. My lunch mate was entranced, but I felt the chocolate was not dark enough and lacked a touch of bitterness – rendering the dessert milk chocolate sickly sweet – not helped by the sugary praline. When it says dark, I expect to taste the cocoa edge; something missing here.
The wine confusion aside, the service was friendly and efficient. Maro, who focuses on front of house, is always engaging and effectively interacts with guests. And knowing that the restaurant is more than gay-friendly makes a distinct difference in feeling at home. It could easily become another regular haunt.
I admit; I still miss Batuke. Salsa, however, successfully continues the reputation begun by Janine and Maro. You can expect great quality bistro style food with the occasional twist that ensures that it stands out from the competition but won’t offend the most conservative of eater. It’s consistent, reliable and always tasty – and, in these tough times, not unreasonably priced.
Salsa is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday to Sunday and is located at 198 Oxford Road, Illovo, Johannesburg. Call 011 447 3868 for bookings. Ask them about their vibey Salsa Sunday afternoons which feature a live performance.