The Durban Room: It’s very back-east-ish, as three former residents of Durban, South Africa, discover

Dining feature by LYNETTE BRASFIELD

Three former Durbanites, newly introduced, met last week at The Durban Room at Mozambique Restaurant to reminisce about our lives in that city several decades ago, and to taste the South African-influenced cuisine offered at this sophisticated speakeasy, complete with piano bar and lounge singer. 

“This place has a real ‘back east’ vibe to it, doesn’t it?” observed Richelle Lavin, whom I’d first met at a book launch party a few weeks earlier. I’d been astonished to learn that she had gone to the same high school in Durban North as I had, albeit years later. 

Indeed, the rich burgundy walls, the photos of Victorian architecture (I loved seeing the picture of the old Durban railway station) the highly-polished bar, comfortable upholstery and the subtle lighting does make The Durban Room feel somewhat back-east-ish, somewhat New-York-ish – a restaurant/bar lounge that’s intimate and inviting at the same time. 

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The railway station, starting point for many adventures up and down the coast

Not to mention that Durban is very back-east-ish itself, given that it’s a port city on the east coast of South Africa, located where the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama landed in 1497 on his way to India. Da Gama was the first European to reach India by sea, opening up the spice route and (unintentionally) ensuring a lasting Eastern influence on Durban cuisine.

In later years, Indians were indentured to work in the sugar cane fields. Their influence on the culinary culture has led to Durban today becoming the curry capital of South Africa (if it weren’t for London, I’d say the world). 

Add to that the influence of the Portuguese, then the Brits, the Boers (Afrikaners), the Zulu and the Xhosa who fought over the land in times past, and you’ll understand why the city is a place where the cuisine is as varied and feisty as its population.

Ah, yes, Durban curry… There’s nothing quite like it, Richelle, Barbara (Richelle’s mom) and I agreed, to bring back memories, and The Durban Room’s version is thoroughly authentic. The lamb, saturated with dark, mildly spicy sauce, fills the mouth with satisfying warmth and flavor without overwhelming the taste buds. 

There are certainly hotter versions on offer in Durban, but Mozambique’s flavorful, tender, fragrant dish is just right for many Americans. 

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Durban curry: there’s nothing like it, whether served with rice or as Bunny Chow inside a scooped-out half-loaf of bread

Not that curry was necessarily the dish of choice when we were growing up. In those days, it was the cheap option, often served in dives where anti-apartheid theatre or music played on Sunday nights. Serving alcohol was against the law on Sundays, unless dinner was provided – hence curry, which denizens of dark bars could usually afford – also known as bunny chow when served in a hollowed-out half-loaf of bread. 

We never dreamed there’d be a gourmet version.

Richelle and Barbara were in heaven, as was I, over the peri peri prawns, the peri peri sauce a Portuguese influence that made up part of the delicious and varied sampler plate that we ordered as an appetizer. 

“That peri peri sauce is the real thing, so authentic, spicy with a warm lingering aftertaste,” Richelle said. “And the samoosas! The pastry’s light and flaky, the perfect bite-size appetizer to wake up the taste buds.”

I couldn’t have agreed more. The Durban Room understands that samoosas should not be leathery pouches containing a solid lump of meat or vegetables, as is true in some Indian restaurants, but instead, the pastry shell should be closer to phyllo and inner fixings should complement each other in taste and texture, with just the right amount of crunchiness. Bravo, Chef Braulio Melo.

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Photo for Mozambique by Mike Altishin

The sampler plate is great, though I was tempted to eat only samoosas all night

The plump prawns in the sampler dish burst with flavor and were exuberantly spicy, setting up great expectations for the entrees, each of which turned out to be up to the task.

The boerewors (farm sausage) was good, nicely spicy, a little dry for me, but then I’ve never been much of a boerewors booster – however, those who do love boerewors should know that it is made daily on the premises to exacting standards.

Barbara chose to detour from the Durban theme (though she remained coastal) for her main course and she raved about her Chilean sea bass, served with asparagus and mashed potatoes. “The fish was light and fluffy,” she said. “The sauce was creamy and exceptionally tasty. It’s a new favorite for me.”

A word here about the wine list: South Africa, mostly in the Western Cape area, produces incredible wines. I’m not a sophisticated wine drinker: “I’ll take the house Chardonnay” is generally what I tell servers, or otherwise I tend to choose wine based on its name, rather the way I’d select possible winners in a horse race, so I asked for the Indaba Chardonnay, Indaba meaning meeting, which is what we were doing right then, we Durbanites, and the wine was perfect, light enough to pair with the curry, but tasty in its own right. 

Richelle, more knowledgeable than I about viticulture, confirmed that Mozambique offers an excellent selection of South African wines.

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Barbara took a detour from the Durban theme and loved the Chilean sea bass

Richelle enjoyed her Fleur de Cap Pinotage. “This is a lovely light drinking wine. However, a true treat would be the Rust en Vrede Cabernet Sauvignon,” she said – apparently one of Nelson Mandela’s favorites. 

I must mention here how conducive to conversation The Durban Room is, a rare quality in many restaurants these days where loud music or bad acoustics tend to leave one more or less speechless, unable to do much except nod or smile in response to chatter one can’t actually hear. 

On this night we were particularly fortunate to hear the accomplished Francois Dean on the piano. What a fabulous singer and musician! At the Durban Room, diners enjoy voluptuous lounge music from Thursdays to Sundays, ranging from jazz, blues, funk and R&B – the mood changing with the deepening of the night, and sometimes with the appearance of additional musicians and celebrities. That evening, Star Jones sat at the table next to ours.

So it was that our conversation covered quite a bit of ground. Barbara and I found out that we had both worked at The Three Bears furniture store way back when. We talked about the paddling pools on Marine Parade and the time the high tide engulfed them. The surfing culture, how Shaun Thomson used to come into Kelly’s Steakhouse where I worked during my vacations. 

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Richelle’s peri peri prawns were very very good 

But mostly we talked about food, from the ghastly – for example, the dry, chewy frikkadels (meat patties) my mother used to make, served with slimy overcooked cabbage – to the glorious – in my case, the fudge my Scottish father loved, my memories of those times such a comfort, recalling how at eight years old, I stood on a stool and helped my dad stir the mixture until the texture was just right. (My father would die a year later.) 

Finally, the three of us sampled the Portuguese hot butter pudding, served in a martini glass. “The sweet, warm flavor of the pudding just melts in your mouth,” Richelle said.

She also enjoyed an Amarula on the rocks, a popular South African after-dinner drink. “Sweet and creamy, this drink is the perfect sipping cocktail for after dinner, a fun dessert replacement,” she added, “or try the restaurant’s Dark and Stormy Continent coffee drink with a shot of Amarula.” 

What’s great about The Durban Room, in addition to the warm, sophisticated and yet welcoming atmosphere, and the unobtrusively excellent service, is that the menu provides a wide range of delicious choices for everyone’s taste. Certainly no diner is forced to choose a South African-influenced dish.

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Photo by Kim Hardin

The Portuguese hot butter pudding was sweet and warm 

But we three ladies, we Durbanites, we would have loved to see a few more South African favorites on the menu. Not that I expect The Durban Room to serve anchovy toast, or Marmite toast, or cheese and tomato sandwiches grilled with butter on both sides of the bread – though I’d enjoy all three – or mieliepap (corn porridge), which I wouldn’t – but perhaps more dishes with an Eastern flair, such as Indonesian rijstafel? I mean, Americans love their peanut butter…

Perhaps bobotie (minced lamb with a hint of curry, incorporating raisins and almonds, with a milk-and-egg topping)?  

Maybe desserts invented by our Afrikaner fellow-countrymen, such as melktert and koeksusters? 

Of course, many of my South African food memories are bound up with personal experiences, both happy (fudge) and sad (frikkadels), and nostalgia is not a flavor that can be added in any kitchen. 

So I’d best leave the menu decision-making to Chef Melo, who clearly knows what he is doing.

Please, do go to The Durban Room. It’s intimate, it’s inviting, the food is amazing, conversation is audible, and the atmosphere is, indeed, very back-east-ish. 

Durbanite or not, you will love it, I promise. 

Group bookings and holiday group party reservations are also welcome at The Durban Room – it seats 50 for dinner, and handles 80 in a cocktail reception format.

Mozambique Restaurant is located at 1740 S. Coast Highway. Visit the http://www.MozambiqueOC.com website for announcements of the upcoming piano lounge live music schedule.