Restaurant: Tried and tested

Rugby fan Rian Malan scrums down at the Springbok Cafe
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Indy Lifestyle Online
A word of advice, if I may: tonight might be a good night to avoid the Springbok Cafe, a Chiswick eatery that may well be the closest thing to Boer habitat in the northern hemisphere. It is, for a start, done up in the orange, blue and white of our old national flag, a colour scheme that evokes deep nostalgia in your average reactionary rugby fan, along with furious longings for such essentials as boerewors, Castle beer and some Englishmen to beat up on. Do not be fooled by the portrait of Nelson Mandela which hangs on a wall en route to the toilets. This is not a shrine to the brotherhood of man. It is a shrine to meat, potatoes and rugged white manhood, a place to get shitfaced on brandy and coke and pick fights with members of rival sporting tribes...

Alas, I jest. The Afrikaner is a mild and deracinated creature these days, and the Springbok Cafe is actually very civilised. On the night of my visit, the tables were full of young and beautiful people with perfect teeth, slender bodies and hair tied back in pony-tails. They were speaking Afrikaans but looked Italian: so sophisticated, so cosmopolitan, and so glamorous in comparison to the drab socialist refugees of the apartheid era.

As for the food, it, too, bore little resemblance to the hearty helpings of stodge and flesh into which we Boers once tucked with glee. It was cuisine as reinterpreted in Cape Town and Melville and now dished up in Chiswick with all sorts of flourishes entirely alien to our culture of lower middle-class philistinism. The ostrich souffle was "twice-baked", no less, and the wild mushroom sauce was presented as a "farci". And the portions, darling! So fey! Your average prop forward could consume two just for starters, as the Jo'burg expression has it.

Such quibbles aside, the grub was excellent. I began with the morogo fritters, morogo being a spinach-like plant that flourishes in smelly swamps at the far end of French drains in rural Africa. Most whites regard it as a weed, so it was very nice to see it here, tarted up with shavings of Parmesan cheese and accompanied by baby asparagus and roast peppers. The Botanist opted for the aforementioned ostrich egg souffle, followed by the roast saddle of springhaas (literally, jumping hare) with marula jelly and sweet potatoes, all of which she pronounced excellent.

She was less certain of my entree of ostrich kidneys with button mushrooms and crispy bacon. The avian organ was like a huge and bloody placenta, and very oddly textured, as ostrich tends to be. I found it very tasty, but it was a little too outlandish for my dinner partner's fastidious eye and palate. The desserts, on the other hand, were less intimidating: wild fig and mealie-meal crumble with home-made ice-cream and Van der Hum-soaked apricots with creme fraiche and crisp brandy snaps.

Replete, I sat back with a coffee and KWV brandy and studied the menu, which changes monthly but always features several old favourites from grandma's kitchen - a bobotie here, a bredie there, with springbok sosaties in hunting season and the occasional star turn for gnush, a stew of samp and beans classed by State President Mandela as his favourite meal. These are the greatest hits of South African cuisine, born for the most part of a felicitous blend of Dutch peasant cooking and oriental spices taken to the Cape by Malay slaves, and the culinary adventurer will find them fascinating and delectable.

I, on the other hand, was a bit dubious of the menu's many claims to authenticity. Was the Karoo lamb a real Karoo lamb that had once ranged the vast semi-desert of the Cape interior, grazing on fragrant shrubs of the fynbos kingdom? Were the figs and mushrooms really wild? As for the springhaas, trade in its flesh is largely unknown. If a Boer wants a springhaas, he has to go out on a lonely road under cover of darkness and attempt to crush one under the wheels of his pick-up truck, which is not very easy, believe me. Was I to believe it was one of these same wily creatures that now lay roasted on my dinner partner's plate?

"Yes," cried Peter Gottgens, co-owner of the establishment and chief chef. Young Mr Gottgens learned his chops at one of Cape Town's finest restaurants, and then did an apprenticeship with Marco Pierre White, from whence, no doubt, the poncy flourishes. Overcome by homesickness, Gottgens and his wife, Chantelle, opened the Springbok Cafe about 18 months ago, conceiving it as a tribute to all they'd abandoned when they left the beloved country. So, yes; everything on the premises was indeed authentic. The game was provided by specialist wild-life butcheries. The elephant garlic was harvested in the desert after once-a-decade rainstorms. Even the mineral water was the genuine article, hauled all the way to our table from the village of Caledon, Cape Province.

Do we buy this? Actually, yes, we do. I wouldn't know elephant garlic from its Tesco cousin, but I do know a good South African wine list when I see one, and Gottgens has invested love and integrity in his selection. We had not one but two bottles of the superb Mulderbosch Faithful Hound, a delicacy entirely unobtainable in the old country now that foreigners have discovered our plonk and taken to outbidding us for the rich, dark produce of our own vineyards.

Sadly, the Faithful Hound is in short supply in London, too, which means Gottgens's allotment may have sold out by the time you get there, but fear not, there is plenty to fall back on. Try the Meerlust Merlot, a rallying point for all true South African patriots, or the house pinotage, made from a varietal of our own invention, a marriage of the pinot noir and hermitage. Also of interest to oenophiles are the Pongranz Brut, a crisp methode champenoise developed in the Cape by an eponymous Hungarian vintner and the 10-year-old KWV brandy, both good value for money in comparison with their French competitors.

South African rugby fans in the UK for today's clash against England should note that there are several Springbok nightspots in the phone directory. The Springbok Bar in Covent Garden is OK, but they don't do food any more, and the Springbok Pub in White City is full of battle-scarred heavies in black leather jackets. So hit the one in W4, OK? The graze is lekker, you won't get hijacked on the way home, and the orange, blue and white decor is a bittersweet reminder of the way it used to be

Springbok Cafe, 42 Devonshire Rd, Chiswick, London W4 (0181-742-3149). Dinner for two came to pounds 74, including two bottles of Faithful Hound

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