BILLY SUTER drove to Hilton in the KZN Midlands to sample the fare at the popular Artisan Cafe in Hilton Village Centre, 25 Hilton Avenue, next to the Spar. The restaurant is now under new management by a woman who, after 18 years as a music teacher, has realised a dream and has big plans for the place. The restaurant is open Mondays to Thursdays from 11am to 10pm, Fridays and Saturdays from 11am to 11pm, and Sundays from noon to 10pm. To book, or for more information, phone (033) 343 1095.
LEANDRA Carcary of Hilton in the KZN Midlands had always wanted to be in the restaurant business, following in the footsteps of her Italian restaurateur father. Until late last year, however, she had put these thoughts on hold.
“My dad always said that over his dead body would he allow his daughter to be a restaurant owner,” says the charming blonde, adding, with a wide smile, that the real reason she is only now running an Italian restaurant in Hilton Village is because she felt it was time to finally realise her dream after 18 years as a music teacher.
The restaurant is Artisan Café which originally opened some five years ago and which was bought by Leandra last October.
While operating day and night, the restaurant was renovated in the wee hours of the mornings, becoming lighter and brighter with warm touches that include burgundy walls, sections of exposed brickwork, succulents in terracotta pots on tables, and fun, quirky touches including potted plants perched on a bench hanging on one wall and on a chair hanging on another wall.
Fairylights drape exposed roof beams, mosaic tiles dominate one section of a wall, and metal cheese-graters containing tiny candles light the tables, some of which spill on to the restaurant’s outside area.
It’s a great set-up and Leandra has obviously hit the jackpot as the place was full and buzzing on a Saturday evening when my partner and I took the under-an-hour drive from Durban for a visit.
“We have redecorated completely, giving the place a new, fresh feel. I wanted a cosy space with ambience and I think we have achieved it,” says Leandra.
This is a woman constantly on the move, be she welcoming guests, helping or supervising in the kitchen, lending a hand serving food, or dealing with the many takeaway orders that come through all evening.
Leandra has 16 permanent staff and a number of casual waitrons. She is a single mum with much passion for achieving success with her new venture.
“At the moment I do everything, from designing specials and meals, coming up with new drinks, the general running of the restaurant, admin, head chef, training staff, orders, hosting… basically everything.
“I really believe that to run a successful restaurant you have to know each area of your business inside and out.
“My cooks are all wonderful and have taken to the new recipes with such ease. A friend and consultant chef, Ryno Botha, took the new dishes for the new menu and taught them to my staff. I am extremely proud of them.”
The menu is a good one, with much variety, and pizza lovers have 17 choices, in medium or large, that are fired up in the pizza oven that takes pride of place at one end of the restaurant.
I liked the sound of the pulled pork, butter chicken and the grilled steak pizza options – and also the Carne Pizza containing bacon, Italian sausage, salami, red onion and peppers (R105 medium, R135 large) – but while deciding, my partner and I opted to share the Artisan Foccacia (R85) which comes with prosciutto, grana padano shavings, sun-dried tomato pesto, fresh rocket and balsamic reduction.
Leandra was delighted we had chosen that starter, telling us she had added it to the menu only two days before. It was excellent, served with little ramekins of parmesan, chilli and garlic. A perfect starter to share.
As for mains, I settled on one of the 11 pasta selections on offer – a dish our friendly waitress said was a very popular item. The ample serving (R110) had seared prawn tails in a lemon, garlic, white wine sauce with tomato cream.The prawns were plump and plentiful in linguine, and it was enjoyable, if a just little too tomatoey for my palate.
My partner was eyeing out an attractively served 250g rib-eye steak with vegetables (R150) at a neighbouring table, and also considered trying the Porchetta (R155), a slow-cooked pork belly, pan-fried until crispy, served with polenta chips, roasted root veg and salsa verde.
However, he just couldn’t resist a pizza, and opted for another popular choice, we were told. It was the Rustica (R125), a truly yummy treat – a thin, crisp base generously topped with chicken, bacon, feta, avocado and sun-dried tomatoes.
For puds, I opted for a Dom Pedro with Amaretto (R50) and my partner chose the tiramisu (R55). Both looked wonderful but the Dom Pedro was too milky and a bit shy on liquer. The tiramisu was absolutely delicious, but rather meagre, served as it was in a martini glass.
Cheesecake, crème brulee, double-choc brownies, panna cotta, Zabaglione and cheese boards are also on the menu.
Interestingly, Artisan also has four burgers on the menu, including one for vegetarians. They range in price from R85 to R130.
Leandra says she is constantly adding to the menu, pointing out that her plan is to be able to expand and have a gelato counter (“Who doesn’t love Italian ice-cream?”) and branch into having a deli too, “as all our sauces are made at the restaurant and so many people have asked if they could buy a bottle”.
I later mailed her some questions:
When and why did you acquire Artisan restaurant – and was it always called that?
I took ownership of Artisan on October 1 last year. It has always been called Artisan.
It’s always been my dream to own my own restaurant, but I always thought it would be an impossible dream. My mum, my biggest supporter, motivator and greatest inspiration passed away the year before and, thanks to her and her determination to provide for me and my siblings, it was suddenly a dream that was achievable!
What restaurant involvement did you have before this?
I grew up in the restaurant industry. My parents owned a restaurant in Pietermaritzburg, The Spotted Dog, so for the first 18 years of my life it was all I knew. The chefs, my dad (who was also a trained chef) and my ‘Nonna’ taught me everything – from running the restaurant to cooking authentic Italian dishes.
Tell me a bit about the restaurant’s recent relaunch celebration.
The relaunch was an incredibly special evening for me. I knew from the day I took over that I wanted an event to mark the change in the restaurant, the décor, the launch of the new menu, an opportunity to celebrate with my staff, friends and community all that we have achieved.
The Hilton community have been exceptionally welcoming. When I first started talking about my vision for the night, everyone I spoke to wanted to be involved in celebrating Artisan.
We had so many offers of prizes for lucky draws and then Crossways Travel, and the lovely Mada de Beer, said “Let’s do a competition with sponsored flights to Venice”, and the idea just grew from there.
On the night we were packed out with so many people from the community, including my close friends who have walked the journey from music teacher to restaurant owner with me.
It was a festive night with live music by both my talented friends, Shelley Mclean and Gerry van Rensburg. Loads of laughter and a great sense of togetherness.
How long had the restaurant been open to the public before your time there? And when exactly did you open to the public?
It’s been open to the public for five years and I took over on October 1, 2018. It has not been closed – all redecorating was done in the early hours of the morning.
Tell me more about your teaching career
I had been teaching individual piano at The Wykeham Collegiate for almost 10 years and then also got a part-time post as a class music teacher at Cowan House, where I met singer and fellow teacher Shelley McLean. When Shelley arrived I took over Junior Primary music.
I have stopped teaching since taking over the restaurant.
I loved my 18 years as a music teacher and have loved the children I got to meet, teach and see develop into great young musicians – but I also knew it was time for a change, to take a risk, to follow my heart completely.
Music is very much a part of me and always will be, that is why I introduced Live-Music Saturdays at Artisan. We have so much exceptional talent around us and I saw this as a perfect opportunity to showcase that talent.
Tell me a why you love the restaurant.
For me, it’s pretty simple, I love community, I love bringing people together and I love seeing people enjoy a meal that I prepared.
The restaurant, for me, is a big extension of my home. Seeing people meet, seeing friendship being born, families celebrating birthdays, relationships being cherished is wonderful. It is in so many ways encouraging to not only me but to many who come to the restaurant.
I know it might be considered to be very naïve and a romanticised view, but in this day and age, where everything is rushed, where a lot of people don’t necessarily have a family to belong to, it is a privilege to see people take a few hours of their day to sit with those they care about and share a meal.
How big a change has there been with menus/food in general?
I have kept a huge part of the old menu, all the dishes that has made Artisan the place that people love to come to. I have just tweaked it, added more authentically Italian dishes and some of my favourite childhood memory dishes, as a way to honour both my mum and dad.
The addition of a bigger cocktail menu and bar snacks also stems from my memories of travelilng with my family, when late afternoons were filled with leisurely drinks and snacks until we were ready for the main event.
Where and when were you born, where educated and what else can you tell me about yourself generally?
I was born and schooled in Pietermaritzburg, and attended Voortrekker from Class 1 to matric. My family moved to my now-home in Hilton in 1985 and we have been there ever since.
I did leave to live in the UK for almost 10 years and came back to live at my family home almost 11 years ago.
I love people, music and food but most of all my teenage daughter, Ella Grace. I also have a very close relationship with my niece, Imke Botha, who has lived with Ella and I for the last four or five years. I am exceptionally proud of my girls and how they have grown through some pretty tough times. I am a mum and to me that is the best title to describe me.
I read recipe books at night and have got WAY too many, according to my girls. However. I think they are wrong. You can never have too many! I also collect craft gin and love a good whisky.
What would you recommend as a perfect three-course meal from the Artisan menu?
I love sharing food, so for me it would be a variety of many dishes. However, if I am forced to choose I’d start with the Beef Carpaccio, then go for Putanesca linguine (the way pasta should be: a coating of olive oil, garlic, lemon zest, calamari, olives and sundried tomatoes). I’d end with my childhood favourite of Zabaglione, which basically is alcoholic custard… and no one could ever go wrong with that!
In a few words what would you say to people to encourage them to visit your restaurant?
Great food in a great space, made by great people (seriously my cooks are amazing) and served by great staff ( they will remember you and you will become part of our family! My waitrons rock!) Is that too cheesy?
Eating out should be fun, it should be a spoil, it should be a time to stop and breathe. Come and do that in our space.
How many does Artisan seat?
A hundred, but we always make a plan.