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Spicing up Greenside

What used to be a wave of good food in Greenside a few years ago has dwindled to a trickle. And I can hardly remember when a restaurant last offered a decent South Indian menu in Johannesburg. Ever optimistic, I arrived at Spiceburg hopeful of a reversal of both these dry spells.

At 141 Greenway, where Jaco Welgemoed’s Circle once cooked up a storm (before it was replaced by an embarrassingly inept purveyor of bogus and extortionist fine dining), Spiceburg proclaims itself as an exponent of Dravidian cuisine. This term refers not to India’s star batsman but to cooking of the southerly provinces of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, whence hails Ravi, the restaurant’s owner.

The simply configured restaurant comprises a large rectangular space and a smaller side room that can be sealed off for private parties. Blue Regency-striped wallpaper up to waist-high wainscoting matches blue checked table-cloths (plastic but scrupulously clean) on comfortably separated tables. There’s also a curved bar and a semi-alfresco wooden deck accommodates smokers.

With typically oriental hospitality, a complimentary appetiser is served. Ours was a plate of onion fritters in chana dal batter, coloured bright red with Kashmiri chilli. Again, don’t confuse these onions with English bowler Graham Onions. He was nowhere to be seen, but I admit my mind strayed to wondering how many other edibly named test cricketers there have been. Clive Rice comes to mind, but only his cousin Basmati was here.

I’d brought my own Kanu Chenin as insurance, but found that Spiceburg’s criss-cross wine-racks carry an adequate choice of wines. For most styles, they offer a choice on either side of a buffalo bill (R100) and cultivars best suited to Indian cuisine (chenin, viognier, gewürtztraminer, shiraz) are represented. An intelligently compact list.

The menu is much longer and structured into soups, starters, mains, rice, breads and desserts, segregated into southern and northern choices. As most city slickers know Moghulai food better than Dravidian, it makes business sense to serve both, but aside from token mushrooms (pleasantly stuffed with spiced paneer cheese), we headed resolutely south.

We weren’t disappointed – except when we saw dosas being carried to other tables. These rice and lentil pancakes looked irresistible, presented as vertical cones. A definite for next time, though our Malabar paratha bread was also divine, rich with ghee and a subtle sweetness.

Hot vindaloos apart, most southern Indian food accentuates spice flavour above heat. It is also a bonanza for vegetarians and wheat intolerant folk, with starters like Vadai (lentil fritters) and Urulaikilangu Bonda (spicy potato fried in chick pea batter).

Muttai Baggie – boiled eggs, deep fried in chick peat batter – were nothing exotic, but our main courses were memorable. The chicken curry named after the city of Kozhikodi will appeal to lovers of the North’s mild Navratan curries. Using a gravy of coconut and potato instead of cashew paste, it’s somewhat lighter.

Kulambu curries (prawns, chicken or, as we chose, lamb) are done in the style of the historically rich Chettinad region. The preparation is a superb balance of co-mingled spice flavours, tang and mild-to-medium warmth. What it totally lacks is the oiliness you so often find in restaurants that mass-produce and freeze their basic sauces.

Service was courteous but not particularly organised. Five people attended to us, more or less randomly. The chap who brought papadums and lemon pickle mid-meal omitted to mention they were meant to accompany the special rice dish we had ordered. And the waitress hadn’t told us that all curries come with basmati rice (which was excellent), so we ended up with a surfeit of low GI-starch.

The extra rice dish was Thayir Soru, which Spiceburg proudly tout as being proclaimed to be the most balanced meal in the world by the WHO. I couldn’t find confirmation of this claim, but its enjoyment was enough for me, unusual as this treatment of rice is to a western palate.

For afters, we ordered another Chettinad dish – Payasam, a milky lentil flour pudding – and an old favourite, Gulab Jamoons – dumplings made mainly of milk solids in thin syrup. Both were served hot and their sweetness was restrained, not overwhelming.

Finally to the MCC: again not cricket but my Masala Chai Check. Many restaurants stoop to using spice bags. Spiceburg’s chai brewed real spices and had body and aroma. And as befits the southerners’ penchant for coffee, they take this beverage seriously here and have a Gaggia machine.

I was getting bored with the Indian “me-too” restaurant culture. Here at least is a place that offers something different and does it well.

 

Victor Strugo  15 Aug 2009
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Shop No 1,Greenside Quarter
10 Gleneagles Road
Greenside

 

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