BY BILLY SUTER
THERE are two rather unusual things about the elegant and warm Royal Court Grill at Sibaya Casino, near Umhlanga – one being that many I have chatted to, including strangers in the casino the night I visited, seemed unaware it even existed, or were under the impression the restaurant was for VIPs only.
Sure, there is some signposting in the casino, near the other restaurants (the A2A buffet and more elegant Aqua), but it is hardly what I would label “in your face”. Also, the Royal Court Grill is accessible via a small lift at the far end of the entrance to the private casino space near the other restaurants. All a little confusing, to be sure.
One can also access the restaurant through the main entrance at the casino’s hotel, where it serves as a dinner, lunch and breakfast room, but not many are aware of that either.
Some I spoke to randomly on the casino floor seemed more than surprised when I told them the Royal Court Grill had been at the casino since 2004 and was available to the public as well as hotel guests.
Having finally found the place, another surprising thing that arose, on glancing at the rather posh leather-bound menu, was that there is no desserts menu. Rather odd for a plush and elegant room bathed in candelight, with Afro-themed décor, comfy dark leather seats and warm, golden-glow lighting.
A chat with our friendly waitress clarified that while puds are not on the menu, they are available, changing every so often. The current choices, my partner and I were told, were a lemon cheesecake, a strawberry black fortest, a chocolte lava concoction and the ubiquitous ice-cream with choc sauce.
But we are now getting a bit ahead of things.
The Royal Court Grill is a really nice venue and it is best to consider a table at the large glass windows that overlook the hotel and pond beside it. Great ambiance.
Wine is reasonably priced and the items on the menu, which is not overly large, are reasonably priced. There is also a nice freebie of assorted breads with a choice of aubergine, butter and balsamic-in-olive-oil sauce which was so delicious it ruled out starters for my partner and I.
I got to chat to Nokulunga Ntombela, a commis chef who has been working at the casino for eight years and has spent the past four years at the Royal Court Grill.
She loves grilling, she says, and rates as her favorite dish on the menu the roasted lamb rack with mash and roasted seasonal vegetables. I had to try it, she enthused.
So I ordered it, skipping a starter, and was greatly impressed: four perfectly cooked, juicy lamb pieces, plentiful and spiced just right for my tastes; the accompanying Brussels sprouts, green beans and carrots perfectly crisp and served with a herb mashed potato. Not too bad a price at R220.
My partner settled for the slow-braised lamb shank (R180) and it was very yum, the meat so tender it slid easily off the bone. Served on a herb mash and with a rich lamb jus, it also came with perfectly cooked veg.
Other mains choices include Cajun-spiced baby chicken with fries (R135); grilled line fish with fries or veg (R150); a duet of hake and prawn with veg (R165); porterhouse steak (R145); T-bone steak (R165); lamb loin chops (R170); and King Prawn (R195) which is a dish comprising shell-on grilled prawns with chopped scallions, diced carrots, peas, egg fried rice and peri-peri sauce.
Light meal options include a chicken herb salad (R65), and a cheese and steak roll (R95) with slivers of grilled steak, mushroom, onion, green bell pepper and mozzarella, served with fries.
There is also a lemon and thyme grilled chicken “foot long” (R65) and a seafood fettucine (R195) which includes linefish, prawns and mussels in a parmesan creamy chilli garlic sauce.
Starter picks? I was tempted by both the Avocado Prawn Salsa (R98) and the Aubergine Ricotta Rolls (R75) which has rolled up aubergine ‘cigars’ stuffed with ricotta, sundried tomatoes, fresh herb mint and parsley, infused with smoked paprika.
Mushroom Blini (R75) is perhaps another starter to consider. It has creamy mascarpone and mushrooms cooked with a hint of chili on a blini with lettuce and tomato wedges. Soup of the day is also available for R45, and there is a small kiddy menu.
And so on to puds. My partner and I decided to share the lemon cheesecake, and while it looked nice on the plate it was as bland as cardboard and totally forgettable at R45. My advice is to have an ice-cream in the casino instead.
Chatting further about the menu, commis chef Nokulung says the secret to her grilling success at the restaurant is: “Keep it simple and only use the freshest, quality ingredients.”
“My philosophy is that we are what we eat. Freshness, good quality ingredients and nutritional content should always be prioritised for full flavor, and for the benefit of your health. Meals should also be well balanced and include foods from all of the food groups,” she adds.
Asked about her approach to cooking in general, she is quick to say: “I like cooking from scratch. Ready-made meals such as pasta sauces generally have a lot of sugar and salt added to them.
“By preparing meals from scratch, using raw ingredients, you know exactly what’s going into your food, and the fresh flavours mean there’s really no reason to add extra sweetness or salt.”
In a press release from the casino, Nokulung says that her mother, Thandi, inspired her to become a chef. Although her mom was a nurse, working long shifts, she always ensured the family had a nutritious, home-cooked meal. Her mom’s speciality is curry, specifically lamb curry.
“I learnt a lot from my mom. I used to help her cook when I was a little girl, and one day I decided I would like to be a professional chef.
“My mother uses only fresh herbs and selects and mixes spices herself to get that perfect combination of mild and aromatic. She uses no chilies, as we are Zulu and don’t lean towards hot food,” adds Nokulung, who studied at the Ethekwini College’s Centec Campus, where she qualified as a chef.
While her mom was her inspiration, Nokulung has also had the privilege of being mentored by established chefs, the press release points out.
One in particular who has influenced her career is Chef Justin Maharaj, with whom she worked at Bean Bag Bahia for three years. They have remained in contact and he continues to mentor her.
“He advised me to have all my ingredients laid out before I start cooking. That way, you are well prepared, with all ingredients ready before you begin the cooking process,” she says.
Nokulung’s favourite tool in the kitchen is her whisk.
“I use my whisk for the all the usual tasks for which they were designed. like whisking eggs or sauces. But I also use it to mash potatoes. It really gives a smooth texture and consistency…no lumps. No kidding.”
Her career highlight was cooking for TV talk show host Zanele Mbokazi, says Nokulung : “I cooked my aromatic chicken and beef curry for her and she just loved it!”.
With regards to personal taste, she enjoys her meat. “When I eat out, I enjoy grills above all else.”
It is also the smell of a lamb roast that most reminds her of her childhood.
“Lamb roast cooking reminds me of good Sunday family dinners we had growing up.”
Whilst she suggests that the quickest and easiest meal to prepare when having unexpected guests would be a light pasta, Nokulung also says the most difficult, complex, thing she was ever expected to prepare was Upper Michigan Pastries.
Like everyone else, this dynamic chef also has a comfort food, although she clearly makes better choices than most of us who devour all things chocolate when we eat for comfort.
“Veggies are my comfort food because they are healthy,” she says.
This young woman enjoys eating simple food, like a good home-cooked cottage pie, and when asked what she doesn’t eat and will not prepare, her answer is prompt.
“I don’t eat prawns and I do not like preparing crab curry.”
She also has a little advice for all aspiring home-chefs not to make the common mistake of cooking beef, chicken or fish directly after removing it from the fridge. “Let it stand and properly defrost a bit before preparing it.”
Her ultimate dream is to open her own catering company some day.
…………THINGS TO KNOW………….
The Royal Court Grill times are as follows:
Breakfast: Monday to Sunday: 7am to 11am
Lunch: Monday to Sunday: Noon to 5pm
Dinner : Monday to Sunday: 6pm to 10pm.
Booking essential: Phone (031) 580 5168.