Is opening an eatery in a pandemic foolhardy or smart? Restaurateurs weigh in
The owners of two new Joburg eateries, Toasted and Embarc, give us their take as we sample their food
The intrigue of Marea Lewis's eatery, Toasted, is that it's hidden and part of the journey is finding it.
It's a gorgeous space cosseted behind red brick walls at the back of a couple of apartment blocks.
The vista is of bright yellow stairwells dripping with long trails of greenery. It's a safe haven with a few tables. Some spill outside, others are dotted around the open area where the toasties, their speciality, are made before your eyes.
A great place to eat, work and play.
"The concept came to me as a simple one, something my friends and I laughed about, the idea of only selling toasted sandwiches sounded frivolous but the more I thought about it, I realised it could be something quite great," said Lewis.
For someone whose expertise was in advising small start-ups and two previous businesses in clothing she knew what she was looking for in a venue.
This hidden nook in Parkwood, Joburg, gave her the "best feeling".
"It was like choosing an apartment," she said of securing it. "I thought, yes, I can live here and invite people into the space.
"Taking this on meant leaving my job, moving back in with my mom to start a business. I took out two personal loans ... Banks say they can't give you money because you aren't operating and yet you can't operate without the financial backing," she grimaced.
Lewis signed the lease in March last year but, because of the lockdowns, curfews and other restrictions, she opened only in October.
"It was so awful to sit and be idle," she said - but pointed out how grateful she was for "a gracious landlord's rent-free period".
Lewis collaborated with a team of women in the project. Chef Dana Bosch developed the menu. There are 10 toasties to take your pick of, including vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options. There's a salad and a dish of the day.
I love pickled fish but on a toasted sandwich and selling for R75? It had a good helping of fish, onion and spice.
My son, Matthew, a strapping man who is always ready for some good, solid nosh, chose the Philly Cheese Steak, R80, because it was the biggest. It's also one of the most popular.
They were as good as something one could make at home with the right ingredients.
Matthew was disappointed by the size; he could easily have whacked another round or two.
Though they were golden brown on the outside, we found them a little greasy. The two sauces that came with them - a vegetarian aioli and a homemade tomato - were delicious dippers.
Lewis has more ideas for the space. There's a small boardroom to one side that is glassed off and that can be hired for meetings - it seats eight - and in better times the plan is for Sunday events in the pretty courtyard.
Lewis was pragmatic: "It's very difficult to open any business at any time. Opening a food business under restrictions when the public are cautious about spending and leaving their homes has been really tricky."
Finding their feet has been challenging, yet she said there have been many pleasant surprises.
"Everyone loves a toastie," she said. "Such a simple thing."
• Toasted is located at 138 Jan Smuts Ave (entrance through the building), Parkwood, Johannesburg. Open: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday: 8am –4pm; Wednesday and Friday: 10am –6pm. Closed on Sundays. Call 072-541-3295.
"Exhausted," said chefs Lisa de Beer and Darren O'Donovan in unison when I asked how they feel since opening their fine-dining restaurant, Embarc, in November last year.
"But proud, very proud," said Lisa.
"And resilient," said Darren.
When the president announced an earlier curfew and ban on the sale of alcohol mere weeks into their new restaurant venture, little did the newbies know there was more to come.
In early January O'Donovan opened the restaurant one morning only to find it dark and eerily quiet. He discovered there'd been a fire in the electrical board - the heartbeat of the entire building - making them powerless and unable to operate for most of January.
It was a huge letdown after the high they'd experienced in the weeks after opening, and they limped through the last days of January with a mere R1,000 in the kitty.
It may be their first restaurant, but the two young chefs come with bags of experience. Both cut their teeth with chef Dario D'Angeli of Cube Tasting Room in Parktown North.
At the time of the first lockdown they were working at Aurum, a top-notch restaurant in Sandton, which closed due to the pandemic. The staff were retrenched and the pair saw it as an opportunity to open their own restaurant.
Given the low rentals on offer, they jumped at the opportunity of a prime spot in restaurant alley in Parkhurst.
The restaurant is small, seating 30. The decor is minimalist - beiges and whites - and, with big sliding windows on two sides, it's light and airy. The name Embarc is a reference to the start of their new journey.
Last Saturday provided the opportunity to enjoy their six-course tasting menu, a preview of some of their new dishes that they'd put together for the Valentine's weekend. They sing the praises of self-taught chef Mitchel du Plessis, who they met when working at Cube. It's his skill that enables the duo to move between the kitchen and front of house.
We kicked off with an Italian classic, tomato arancini with basil mayo, the risotto ball in a crisp coating of Panko breadcrumbs, deep fried, the filling warm and soft.
Their tuna tataki is a dish they've become known for, a taster portion of beautifully pink slices with a crust of toasted black sesame seeds. The watermelon and pomegranate salsa makes it refreshingly delicious.
A super-plump tortellino followed, fat with exotic mushrooms, a coating of burnt butter and, courtesy of O'Donovan, a tumble of shaved slivers of fresh black truffle over the top. What a treat.
The fourth course, the main, was pieces of melt-in-the-mouth ostrich fillet with a mango puree, a variation of the popular berry and mushroom combo. The distinct mango flavour was lost, though the colour was a good contrast.
The pud was a delectable interpretation of the old classic of canned peaches and custard made with powder, a childhood memory for both chefs, and us. This one featured grilled fresh peach slices with a homemade custard and pieces of shortbread and sponge. Yum, yum.
All courses came with wine suggestions - De Beer, who dropped out of law to train as a chef, is studying to be a wine master. You can spot her passion by the selection of local wines, a small and interesting list, although some of the prices are fairly steep. The tasting menu without wine was R650 a head.
• Embarc is located on the corner of 4th Avenue and 13th Street, Parkhurst, Johannesburg. Open: Wednesday to Sunday for lunch and dinner. Call 081-848-6480.