The Test Kitchen on tour: Luke Dale-Robert hosts Mauritian pop-up
The celebrated Cape Town chef has set up a pop-up eatery at Shangri-La's luxe Le Touessrok Resort & Spa in Mauritius. Hilary Biller was there for the opening
Emerging from the labyrinth of underground passages that link the restaurants of Le Touessrok, the luxurious Mauritian resort, much-lauded Cape Town chef Luke Dale-Roberts is looking unruffled about the event set to take place in a couple of hours.
It's the opening of The Test Kitchen's six-week Mauritian pop-up at the resort's Republik restaurant on the beachfront.
He casually passes off the previous evening's practice round as "a pretty good dry run".
"A couple of snags as there always are, but I'm pretty happy with it," he says.
"Pop-ups are great, good fun and a good way of testing a new project that also kind of unlocks some new ideas," he said.
The chef is in Mauritius with a crew of 15 from his restaurant in Cape Town. More than a pop-up, the collaboration with Le Touessrok is about working and sharing with local chefs.
"The first two days are about lockdown, getting ready, briefing the local chefs," he says. "Everyone [on his team] has a local buddy [chef] who will work with them, help with prep. It's about sharing skills."
Reiterating Luke's sentiments, the resort's Sabrina Sobrayen agreed there were many benefits to the collaboration. "It's an excellent experience for the food and beverage team in terms of the training they receive - and the opportunity to work with other chefs," she says.
When first approached about the idea late last year Roberts turned it down.
"But then the whole drought thing happened and my objective when I heard they were going to switch the water off in mid-April was to shift my restaurants to places where there is water.
"I was really worried about a complete depression - and the thought that the restaurants would be empty and the possibility of making people redundant ... and, yes, a pop-up in Mauritius became a good idea.
"Just coming here and having all this water - we can't believe it," he says with a big smile.
With just hours to the first dinner, I'm curious about the food.
"I planned this menu in Cape Town with head chef Ryan Cole and came here a couple of months back and that's when we decided to use local produce and give it a bit of an island twist. That will grow as we stay here longer and go to the markets."
In preparation for savouring the feast that evening, I lapped up the luxury of Le Touessrok, starting my day by dipping into the turquoise sea on a pristine beach a few steps from my suite.
At breakfast, I restrained myself from the urge to sample everything at the Republik Beach Club & Grill.
Replete, I headed to the pool to soak up the sun, book in hand, vacillating about my next move - lunch at the resort's private islandwa Ilôt Mangénie, a short boat ride away, or a massage at the spa. Pampering won the day. I wasn't disappointed.
The evening starts with watching Sega dancers while sipping champagne on the lawn, then moving down a dark walkway, which mimicks the dark and light rooms The Test Kitchen has created for their pop-up, with music to match the mood.
In the Republik Bar, the "dark room", Test Kitchen mixologist Xolisa Dyabaza, or X as he's affectionately known, has created four cocktails for dinner.
The tapas include a yellow lentil crisp with curry leaf, atchar and sour cream, flavours reminiscent of Cape Malay.
Then come rounds of wild boar, served sushi-style, wrapped in rice and deep fried, which is different, soft on the inside and crispy on the outside.
There is a ceviche of locally caught dorado served with curried pineapple and lemongrass ice. You haven't tasted pineapple until you've eaten the very sweetest little gems grown in Mauritius.
Heading into the "light room", the restaurant, we have a breather to rub shoulders with the VIPs, savouring beautiful bread slathered with French butter. Yum.
First up is a generous slice of local tuna, enhanced by a smoky blackened crust moistened by fermented tofu dip, the smokiness the hero of the dish.
With a nod to the Mauritian/French connection, the team has used local hibiscus to cure foie gras for the next course. This comes topped with a vanilla syrup, pistachio paste and salted meringue. Full of different textures and flavours, it is so Luke.
This is followed by my favourite course, slow-cooked pork belly, blue cheese and honey, which seems like a very rich combo but no - the richness of the meat is mellowed by the blue cheese, finished off nicely with the sweetness of the honey.
The next course is a plump wood pigeon flown in from France. It is served with a local cacao, beetroot and liver stuffing. Quite gamey, but tender, the cacao and beetroot is an inspired accompaniment. Not so sure about the bird, though.
Sweet endings? Toasted brioche, panna cotta and toasted vanilla ice cream - matched perfectly with De Wetshof Edeleos, a natural sweet wine* - doesn't quite have the Mauritian feel I was expecting, but knowing Luke, in his own inimitable style, will incorporate the abundance of local tropical fruit he'll find in the markets.
* The Test Kitchen's Mauritius pop-up is on until May 26. All dishes have the option of being served with a selection of South African wines, at a cost, matched perfectly by Test Kitchen head sommelier Tinashe Nyamudoka.
• Biller was a guest of Shangri-La's Le Touessrok Resort & Spa.
WHAT CHEF LUKE PACKED FOR HIS MAURITIAN POP-UP
Everything including the kitchen sink?
"I did bring some new knives," says the celebrated chef. "I needed to treat myself to a brand-new set."
Although he's careful not to share the brand.
"I got them from a guy on Instagram who comes to the kitchen and brings a selection to choose the ones you like."
"And my swimming costume ... although I don't know if I'm ever going to be able to use it or not. Wait, we're off on Saturday; I can't wait. We're heading off the private island, so maybe it's a yes.
"And lots of chefs uniforms," he laughs.