Restaurants: Idlanathi, Pepper Club
Richard Holmes finds good views in Camps Bay and even better value at Pollsmoor Prison
I've never been a fan of eating on Cape Town's Atlantic seaboard, imagining it filled with gold-bedecked Mediterranean-types in convertibles, hitting on scantily clad tourists. Most tourists flock to Camps Bay for the views, not the food, and whenever I've dined on this side of the mountain the feast for the eyes is usually deemed more important than what's on the plate.
But Camps Bay on a rainy midweek morning is a shadow of its former self. The waves are gunmetal grey rather than cobalt blue, and the famous sands beneath the palms are all but deserted. Drizzle wafts along pavements usually thronged with aforementioned tourists, and the curio sellers huddle for shelter beneath their umbrellas.
For a change, all eyes would be on the plate and chef Scott Hendrie would have his work cut out for him.
Pepper Club on the Beach, a seaside outpost of the inner-city boutique hotel, is cut from the same cloth as most Camps Bay eateries: a stylish yet usually deserted interior leading out to a large terrace filled with sea-view tables. Pepper Club goes one better with its setting above street-level: no car fumes, buskers or panoramas of passing traffic.
Views aside, Hendrie's new summer menu makes Pepper Club worth a visit. It's as globe-trotting as the crowd, wandering from Asian-inspired salads to Cape Malay chicken livers, well-crafted sushi to a classy take on good old fish and chips. Heavier choices include the usual culprits: lamb shanks, sirloin and fillet medallions.
But on this visit the lighter choices impressed most: an Asian duck salad with a tom yum sauce that perfectly balanced sour and spicy, and pan-fried kingklip with crab crust and velvety prawn bisque sauce were the standouts. Desserts were equally good: a generous chunk of toffee brownie cheesecake and a textbook-oozy chocolate fondant. To drink, there's a predictable focus on cocktails and bubbly, a limited selection of wines available by the glass and a considerably more interesting list when ordering by the bottle.
It's a step above a casual bistro, but not pretending to be fine dining. Upmarket yet relaxed, and with mains starting at just R85, the value of the food is, for once, almost as good as the view.
Pepper Club on the Beach, Victoria Road, Camps Bay, 021 438 3174
As restaurant welcomes go, Idlanathi's could do with a little polishing. A burly guard stalks up to my window and the boot of my car is given a once-over to ensure there's nothing - or nobody - untoward inside. Tyre-puncturing spikes rise from the tar lest I attempt to drive in before they're done with me.
It's an unusual reception, but then this is no ordinary restaurant. The barbed wire will give that away the minute you drive into Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison, the most notorious jail in the Western Cape. Its address in leafy Tokai does little to soften the towering walls of razor wire, groups of sullen men in prison garb, or the bleak windowless façade of the high security wing that holds the Cape's worst criminals.
But Idlanathi - "eat with us" - isn't quite the canteen buried deep inside the prison you might expect. Set in the large recreation hall serving the guards and families that live at Pollsmoor, the clientele is a mix of curious locals and hefty prison warders.
But it's not the patrons that make Idlanathi worth visiting: it's the staff. Run entirely by inmates serving time, with just a few warders to keep an eye on things, it's intended to offer real-world experience and on-the-job training to low-risk prisoners on the downhill to being released. Peek through the kitchen doors and you'll spy cooks in orange jumpsuits whipping up your lunch.
It's a mildly odd place to come for a meal, but then there are few eateries in Cape Town where a convicted felon shoots you a smile and explains he'll be your waiter today. Gareth (not his real name) copped six years behind bars for poaching abalone. He's a friendly, chatty twenty-something with six months left to serve; a far cry from the tattooed "Papa" I was expecting. I have to confess, I was almost disappointed.
Gareth is only too happy to tell his story before taking our drinks order - no alcohol is served, but my Iron Brew seems an appropriately metallic choice for a prison restaurant.
And the food? Well, it's not fine dining, but it's not prison slop either. Large portions of simple dishes keep the warders happy, with grilled chicken, hamburgers and fried fish the biggest sellers. Daily specials include tripe curry and stews, but "avoid the beef," whispers Gareth conspiratorially:"it can be a bit tough."
Not so my enormous chicken schnitzel, served with a huge portion of chips and a steal at R34. You'll struggle to pay much more for your meal, which is just as well given the unlovely ambience of tiled floors, plastic tabletops and paper napkins. With a tip, lunch for two didn't come close to R100.
Is Idlanathi charming? Not especially. Good value? Absolutely. Perhaps the most unusual place to eat in food-obsessed Cape Town? Undoubtedly.
Idlanathi, Pollsmoor Prison
Steenberg Road, Tokai
021 700 1270, Mon-Sun 7am-2pm