A stylish half-century for one of Johannesburg's favourite restaurants
Linger Longer in Sandton, Johannesburg, celebrated its Golden Jubilee last month. Hilary Biller speaks to owner/chef Walter Ulz, who has been in the engine room for 35 of those years
Chef Walter Ulz has served many people in his time. He tells a story of the late Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton on their visit to South Africa in 1975 - "their second honeymoon", he recalls. During their stay at the five-star Landdrost Hotel in Johannesburg, Taylor had requested the room service manager to send a chef to her suite to prepare a breakfast of scrambled eggs with smoked salmon, chives and rye toast. As the only one on duty, it was assigned to Ulz, then a 20-year-old only recently arrived from Austria.
"It was my honour to fulfil her request," he says. Pressed for more juicy details, the ever discreet Ulz remains tight-lipped. Many believe this trait is what really keeps a chef in business.
A year later, Ulz found himself working at the Linger Longer restaurant in Braamfontein which first opened in 1961 as a tearoom in the front rooms of a boarding house in the Johannesburg suburb. In 1964 two Germans, Bonsack and Maier, acquired the business and converted it into a restaurant. Tragically both men were killed in a car accident in 1968.
Over a lunch, the restaurant was bought by six people from Jackson Advertising company. It turned out to be a disaster. "What do six advertising men know about running a restaurant!" says Ulz dismissively.
Luckily the restaurant was later saved by a regular, Bill Jackson, and his wife Peg. Under their ownership it flourished and expanded - they bought the piano shop next door. Ulz describes his erstwhile employer Peg "as one formidable lady".
The Jacksons retired in 1979 and the restaurant was bought by Ben Filmalter, who went onto to become one of the country's finest restaurateurs, and his brother John. They laid the foundation for the successful Linger Longer as it is known today. With Ulz in the kitchen, Linger Longer became known as one of Johannesburg's fine dining spots.
Sadly, in 1993, following the trend of the time, the restaurant moved out of the city centre and followed business to Sandton, marking the end of fine dining in the city centre.
"I think we are one of the oldest surviving restaurants in South Africa," said Ulz. Three other restaurants are not far behind, though - The Wooden Shoe, one of Cape Town's oldest steakhouses opened in the same year as Linger Longer; La Perla the Italian eatery in Seapoint came later in the sixties; as did another Italian legend, Durban's Roma Revolving Restaurant, which opened in 1967.
In 2006, Linger Longer's manager Carlos de Freitas and Ulz bought the restaurant from Filmater.
In an unpredictable industry what is the key to success?
"Consistency," says Ulz without a moment's hesitation, "and, of course, the food." Ulz also enjoys interacting with guests and many have become good friends over the years.
But, like fashion, food trends change and many consider Linger Longer's menu old-fashioned, stuck in the 1970s. Some items have been on the menu for decades - even stretching back to Ulz's first menu in 1976, with prices to match. Avocado Suzie Wong, Ulz's take on Avocado Ritz (R2.95 in 1976) is one such dish, as is Sole St Germain (at R5.25 it was the most expensive item on the menu).
Avocado Suzie Wong, Ulz tells me with great pride, is what he prepared as a starter "with lots of extra chilli" for a lunch for Nelson Mandela. Purportedly his first meal in a restaurant after his release from prison, Mandela was dining with the then British High Commissioner, Lord Renwick.
So why all the "old" items? "There are certain things we just can't take off the menu," Ulz says, "like our rack of lamb, Sole St Germain and the duck special. Customers even ask for another classic - not on the menu - Vienna schnitzel."
Filmater once described an eatery as tables, chairs and kitchen equipment. What makes it a restaurant, he said, were the people who work in it, from the cleaners, managers to the owners.
Linger Longer's best-kept secret is its staff - and their loyalty. Many have been there for decades. Service is always slick and professional, something many new venues can't get right. Sous chef Chris Nkomo, Ulz's right-hand man, joined the restaurant in 1984 and the faultless sauces and soups - velvety and rich - are his trademark.
After decades of preparing food for others, what takes Ulz's fancy?
"I must be the only chef who does not enjoy offal," he says. "I don't really cook at home as there is little time for that, but I do enjoy things with a unique taste like truffle oil and porcini mushrooms. Over pasta, they're delicious."
- Linger Longer Restaurant is offering a special Nostalgia Menu until the end of May. Two courses for R195; three courses for R250. Bookings essential: 011 884 0465
ULZ'S TOP THREE DISHES FROM HIS NOSTALGIA MENU
AVOCADO SUZIE WONG (Serves 4)
- 2 large avocados, halved and peeled
- 1 cooked lobster tail, chopped
- 4 cooked prawns, peeled but whole
- 4 cooked shrimps/scampi
- 4 crab sticks, sliced
- 250ml (1 cup) mayonnaise
- 45ml (3 tbsp) tomato sauce
- 15ml (1 tbsp) brandy
- 5ml (1 tsp) horseradish
- 6 drops Tabasco sauce
- Salt and pepper
- 4 prawns for garnish
- Fennel and chives for garnish
Slice the avocado thinly without cutting through at the stem and fan to one side of a serving plate. Add the lobster, prawns, shrimps and crab sticks.
For the sauce, combine the mayonnaise, tomato sauce, brandy, horseradish, Tabasco sauce and seasoning. Use ¾ of sauce for the seafood mix.
Pile a heaped tablespoon of seafood next to the avocado on the plate and top off with a prawn. Spoon remaining sauce next to avocado. Garnish with fennel and chives and serve chilled.
SOLE ST GERMAIN
4 soles, 250g-350g each and split in the middle
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt and white pepper
1 extra-large egg, beaten
4 crab sticks, sliced
100g mussels out of the shell
30ml (2 tbsp) butter
30ml (2 tbsp) flour
375ml warm fish stock
Salt and white pepper
A squeeze of lemon juice
1 egg yolk
45ml (3 tbsp) cream
4 extra large egg yolks
200g butter, melted
50ml (1/5 cup) lemon juice
Salt and pepper
Cooked prawns for garnish
Start with the filling by combining prawns, crab sticks and mussels and set aside. Make the veloute sauce by melting the butter and adding the flour. Pour over the stock and stir till thickened. Season and add lemon juice. Combine egg yolk and cream and add to sauce, stirring over a low heat until it has thickened. Remove from heat and add sauce to seafood.
Squeeze lemon juice over soles. Season with salt and white pepper. Spoon a tablespoon of the filling into the split on the sole. Dip into flour and then into egg and flour again. Deep-fry in hot oil and cook until just golden brown.
Make the hollandaise sauce by dropping yolks into blender and slowly pour in hot melted butter with the machine running. Add the lemon juice and seasoning.
Top the soles with a spoonful of hollandaise sauce and heat through in the oven. Dress with more of the seafood and sauce and serve with mash and vegetables.
BLACK FOREST PARFAIT
6 extra-large eggs
500ml (2 cups) cream, whipped
4 tots of Kirschwasser
250ml (1 cup) chocolate chips
100g marzipan, flaked
100g red glace cherries, chopped
Mint and extra cherries for garnish
Whisk the eggs in the top of a double boiler until frothy. Add the Kirschwasser, chocolate chips, marzipan and cherries. Fold in whipped cream and freeze overnight.
Serve spooned in brandy snap baskets and garnish with mint and extra cherries.