BY BILLY SUTER
CHOCOLATE, someone once said, is ground from the beans of happiness. And it is one Jean Kelsey who is on record as having said that when you opt for the right kind of chocolate it is like giving your insides a hug. I’m with Jean – everyone needs a chocolate hug!
Then there’s wine. I have always agreed it is nectar from the Gods which must by drunk, because, well, it is not good to keep things bottled up, right? Also I believe that wine, like age, should never be counted.
With all this in mind it was a no-brainer that I was going to head for the Hilton Durban hotel when I got word that golfer Ernie Els’s unpretentious but sophisticated Big Easy restaurant there was running a special this month.
It’s a chocolate and wine pairing, on offer every Sunday to Thursday until April 30, at R155 a head, which has been introduced to interest people in the Ernie Els range of wines while also offering a novel end-of-dinner treat.
Of course, one can arrive and simply have the wine pairing only – four generous tasting glasses with a decadent choc to compliment each; an Ernie Els chenin blanc, then rose, then cabernet sauvignon and, lastly, a blend – but it’s a nicer idea to have a light meal and to end with the pairings.
That’s exactly what my partner, a friend and I did on Tuesday evening, that being the day the restaurant offers a special on its popular “tid-bits” menu from 5pm to 7pm – choose three items from the Bar Snack menu and get the lowest-priced one free.
Having settled in to sharing a very satisfying Ernie Els Cabernet Sauvignon on arrival, we got stuck into the complimentary cornbread served with a butter flavoured with ceyenne pepper, sweet chilli and olives. It was as good as I remembered it from more than a year ago, when I last visited this restaurant.
We then opted to share three starters which included an excellent platter of Midlands artisan cheeses (R155). It featured a mix of small slices of crunchy breads, grapes and strawberries, and a nice variety of cheeses – one slightly chilli, two lighter, as well as balls of yummy goat’s cheese. It also contained cubes of poached pear, onion marmalade and a small dish of cranberries. Nice.
We also ordered the “lamb three ways” bar snack (R75) which is a serving of three small portions of masala-spice lamb boeri with tomato relish; good lamb shoulder fritters with apricot chutney; and a disappointingly too-dry mini lamb burger with cumin raita.
We also tried the grilled, rolled pork belly and bacon (R72) which came in a sticky braai sauce marinade and a jalapeno and pineapple salsa. My table partners lapped it up.
My vote for the best, however, was the cheese platter, but the Bar Snack menu’s Smoked Pork Shank Croquette (R75) also sounds good, served with pickled red cabbage and apple, and a curried duck fat mayonnaise.
Among other options are peri-peri chicken livers on that yummy cornbread (R70), baked cheesey jalapenos in parmesan crumbs (R65), and oxtail and marrow fritters (R78) which I have had before and are excellent.
Thereafter, we were on to the main event which began with amiable Ayanda Kunene lining up four wine bottles on the table. He is close to graduating as a fully qualified sommelier after having started at the Big Easy as a waiter.
In front of each of us he placed four tasting glasses, in front of which he placed four choc truffles prettily displayed on stone slates.
He then proceeded to pour each of the Ernie Els tasting wines into the glasses, recommending we start with the chenin blanc which was light and delicious, brilliantly paired with a white-choc ganache served with tiny slivers of lime rind. It was rich in lingering flavours of lemon and lime and proved the best of the four pairings.
With Ayanda cheerfully explaining the intricacies of how each wine compliments its accompanying choc, we were then served the Ernie Els Rose, along with two pale-choc morsels accompanied by strawberry slices and tiny, pink gelatinous cubes. Also refreshing and enjoyable, if my least favourite of the pairings.
The next two tastings, of the Ernie Els Cabernet Sauvignon and Ernie Els Blend, were served with dark chocs, the last of which, shaped like a little mouse carrying a stick of cinnamon, were winners. The powder of cinnamon gave extra oomph to the ‘mouse’ choc.
We were so impressed with the chocs that Ayanda insisted we say hello and offer congrats to the restaurant’s pastry chef, Thabiso Luthuli, who was justifiably proud of his efforts.
The good news is that The Big Easy plans more of these wine-and-treat pairings, May being set aside for what is being promoted as Macaroons and Mom (remember Mother’s Day is on May 13). For a cost of R155 a head, The Big Easy will offer four macaroons with four tasting glasses of Methode Cap Classique bubbly. It will be available every Sunday to Thursday in May.
Looking forward, a special Biltong and Whisky pairing is scheduled for every Sunday to Thursday in June, in celebration of Father’s Day falling on June 17. The cost will be R155 for a sumptuous biltong platter while you swirl and savour single-malt Cardhu whisky.
Still talking specials… note that the restaurant serves a 600g sirloin on the bone, including sides and sauces, for R195 every Wednesday (but not for group bookings or tables of 10 or more) . I’m told it is well worth a visit!
The Big Easy is open from 11am to 11pm daily. It is on the ground floor of the Hilton Hotel, at 12-14 Walnut Street, and the phone number is (031) 336 8166.