The Other Side of the Fine Dining Coin

Bad dining experiences are a good thing, or at least they can be, from a certain point of view.

Located at the lovely Vineyard Hotel & Spa in the shadow of Table Mountain, Myoga is the third restaurant opened under the direction of award-winning chef Mike Bassett, who’s enjoyed considerable success in Cape Town with Ginja and Shoga. With a menu that focuses on “contemporary, global cuisine that entices the mind, excites the eye, and tantalises the taste buds to new extremes”, Myoga has certainly followed in its sister restaurants’ footsteps in racking up the accolades since opening late in 2007.

Conde Nast named it one of the Top 100 New Restaurants in the World, saying Bassett’s “global brand of cooking continues to wow” and calling the service “helpful and informed.” Fodor’s effused that Myoga “has all the makings of an über-hip, foodie hot spot, minus the hipsters”, while Food24 loved the “clean Asian flavors with classical undertones”, while calling the reasonably priced six-course tasting menu “the deal of the season, and perhaps the century.”

When Dinner Disappoints

We were lucky to score a same-day reservation for 8:30pm on a Friday night, and when we arrived the 100-seat dining room was absolutely heaving. Here in Cape Town’s affluent Newlands suburb, the crowd was evenly balanced between the obviously wealthy and the obviously on their way to being wealthy, with sweaters tied around every other neck and wine glasses indiscriminately filled and refilled like tap water.

We were seated at a small candlelit two-top, near one of the tables with playful, oversized chairs that could have been plucked from the set of a Tim Burton flick. Decorated in the common trappings of so many contemporary fusion restaurants—think metallic silver ceiling fans, subdued orange lighting, vintage tables and chairs—Myoga has a distinctly New York feel to it, right down to the bloated, overpriced wine list that’s long on bottles and somewhat short on glasses (especially reds).

Myoga, Cape TownPriced at just 150 Rand, the winter tasting menu seemed like an excellent option for sampling a variety of food; for an additional R135, it could be paired with a selection of wines chosen by sommelier Carl Habel. We passed on the wine and, in the absence of any recommendations from our aloof, always-preoccupied server, instead chose glasses from vineyards we’d visited during our three-day stay in Stellenbosch, before later finishing with a bottle of rosé which, at 115 Rand, was the most affordable one available.

With three options to choose from for each course, we appreciated the diversity but feared that tasking the kitchen with preparing 18 different dishes well might prove overly ambitious, and unfortunately, on this night at least, we were right.

It wasn’t just that one or two platters were off; they all were. Nothing stood out as bold or inventive, everything (except the dessert) needed salt, and though we were as patient as possible given the crowded house, no meal should be involuntarily dragged on for 2 ½ – 3 hours.

The first course— lasciviously dubbed the “Mouth Tickler”—was a comically small, bite-sized pastry tart made with Healy’s cheddar. Served on a tiny, white porcelain altar and complimented with two micro dots of berry sauce, I half expected a little cartoon mouse to pop up with a miniature knife and fork and pull it off my plate.

While our server busied himself with the rich couples seated directly behind us (couples who by the end of the meal were sloppy drunk and fashioning turbins out of their napkins), we waited, without apology, for 35 – 40 minutes for the second course, a watery, tasteless potato and leek soup with puzzlingly mismatched chunks of teriyaki salmon.

Next was a bland, mealy plate of baked spinach and ricotta dumplings with mushroom ragout and roasted olives… or at least that’s how it was described. I saw the mushrooms, and I saw the spinach, but somehow didn’t taste either of them—just dough. The passion fruit sorbet, served in a tall shot glass, was a welcomed cleanser after these misses.

The main course, described as as “herb and mustard crusted white fish, with Mediterranean steamed potatoes, charred leaks, and asparagus”, shouldn’t have left the kitchen. The fish was overcooked and rubbery, while the “crust” was more like a terrine and slid right off the meat, like a gelatinous glob of goo, when I dug in. The potatoes were undercooked, and again, the mustard sauce was flavorless and sorely in need of salt. I asked our disinterested server, whom we had to ask twice for more water, about the fish:

“Can you remind me what sauce is on the fish again?”

“It’s a crust.”

“Are you sure? Because the sauce…”

“It’s a crust.”

And That was That

We polished off our tasty, if uninspired final courses—mine was a milk chocolate pot de crème with a caramel foam—then asked for the bill and waited another 15 minutes for it to come. Our server ended up getting a slightly bigger tip than he deserved, because after nearly 3 hours I didn’t care to wait any longer for him to bring back the change.

Obviously, our experience wasn’t a great one, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a memorable, educational one. The food and service were both unacceptable, but they sparked a lengthy discussion afterwards as we tried to make some sense of what just happened at this, one of the trendiest and most popular restaurants in Cape Town. Was Myoga skating by on Bassett’s good reputation alone? Maybe, or hey, maybe it was just a bad night while the boss was on vacation.

It gave us a reference point to compare and contrast our experiences at other four- to five-star restaurants in the area, like Terroir, Delaire Graff Estate, and the Table Bay Hotel’s Atlantic Grill. We left all of those places gushing about the food, the ambiance, and the service, and sitting through the polar opposite at Myoga allowed us to see the other side of the coin, and helped us better define what, exactly, constitutes a well-executed meal at a high-end eatery… and what doesn’t.

We need to eat bad food at gourmet restaurants, and suffer through poor table service, and just generally be disappointed from time to time. We need to ride the culinary pendulum in both directions, because otherwise there’s no constant for comparison, only variables.

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