The Restaurant: Voodoo Lily
Sue de Groot visits an oddly named restaurant where the Caesar salad does not compare to a summer's day
There are two strange things about the Voodoo Lily Café, a deli-bakery-restaurant in a suburban strip mall near the Wanderers Club in Joburg.
One is its name. I didn't know what a voodoo lily was, so I looked it up. Turns out it's a flower that smells - depending on who you believe - like death, putrefaction, the carcass of a long-dead mouse or perfume for zombies. Zombies, according to fiction, are decaying corpses, but apparently some don't smell enough like decaying corpses and need help to lure other zombies from distant places. The real-world purpose of the flower's stink is to attract flies to pollinate it, but this isn't generally a big priority for restaurateurs, so the name is a bit puzzling.
I'm happy to report, however, that the Voodoo Lily Café does not smell at all like rotting mice. Not even a whiff of a severed tail. There wasn't a fly to be seen either, only patrons clustered tightly around tables in a julienned piece of shade carved by the glaring afternoon sun. It's probably better in the morning, or after sunset - and there is plenty of seating inside, where the space might be described by certain reviewers as airy and minimalist - but if you want to lunch outside, wear a hat.
The other strange thing is the baker, who is described by the café's website as a "troglodyte". In my book (the dictionary, which is hopefully your book too), a troglodyte is either a cave-dwelling member of a prehistoric race or a modern-day hermit who lives in a mental state approximating that of a cave. Since the first no longer exists, one must assume the baker heats his oven stones in a subterranean chamber beneath the Voodoo Lily. Either that or he's just not very sociable. I didn't see him to ask him.
The menu has nothing to do with caves, mice or malodorous flowers. It's a pleasant mix of fairly standard bistro dishes, with the selling point being the restaurant's ethos: "organic and sustainable wherever possible". The coffee is fair trade, the tables are made from recycled materials, take-home meals are packed in biodegradable boxes and vegetables come from the Food Garden Foundation in Soweto, a growing self-help scheme that provides excess produce to the service industry.
A colleague eats here regularly and says the shakshuka (poached egg in spicy tomato salsa, R64) from the breakfast menu is beyond compare. The Caesar salad I ordered (R77) was also beyond compare, but not in the same way. It couldn't be compared to, say, a Caesar salad, which is a pile of juicy gem lettuce awash with the classic anchovy-based sauce, usually with a soft-boiled egg somewhere in the mix. This one could more accurately be compared to a bowl of bacon mixed with chicken strips, garnished by four leaves of indeterminate species and with no dressing that I could discern. Maybe it was the unsociable kind of dressing and had decided to stay in the cave with the baker.
My friend chose more wisely. Her chicken and haloumi salad (R74) came on a properly salady bed of greens with tomato, cucumber, carrots and sprouts. The chicken was tender, the haloumi was nicely grilled and there was even a dressing, but one strangely devoid of taste. Perhaps it was the dresser's day off.
You can't damn a place because the first thing you try isn't quite what you expected. Someone at the table next to us had a tower of aubergines with creamy buffalo mozzarella (R79), the real deal, scooped on top of the vegetable stack like ice cream. I also saw a voodoo burger (R82) floating by on a tray - a big fat beef patty with caramelised onions, two types of cheese and shoestring fries - and wished I'd ordered that.
The voodoo is working in one way: at weekends the café overflows, and not with zombies, unless zombies have suddenly learnt to dress well and wear designer fragrances. More of that voodoo magic could be directed to the kitchen, but I'll still go back. The menu changes often, the service was brilliant, and part of the price of every main course goes to a feeding scheme. Trying another item might be a happy surprise, but even if it isn't at least I'll be helping a good cause. And next time maybe I'll find the troglodyte baker.
VOODOO LILY CAFÉ
64 ST ANDREW STREET, CORNER WRENROSE AVENUE, BIRDHAVEN,
JOHANNESBURG 011 442 6965