Travel to Cape Dutch for South African braai, hold the sides

Southerners are well acquainted with barbecue and its many regional styles.

Atlanta has its own favorites among local names serving up ’cue, including an international go-to like the South African barbecue known as braai at Justin Anthony’s 10 Degrees South. The restaurateur’s new concept, Cape Dutch, keeps South African flames alive, but adds a heap of international flavor. It’s the latter that doesn’t always work.

But, first, let’s talk about what does work. Braai is where the action is at Cape Dutch. Walk past the inviting lounge areas and the bustling bar and, as you step into the airy main dining room, look to your left, where a couple of chefs are cooking all manner of meat over a mix of hickory and oak: a 30-ounce tomahawk, a porterhouse for two, an eight-ounce center-cut filet so moist, tender and beautifully charred that it doesn’t need a drop of spicy, chile- and vinegar-laden peri-peri or peppercorn sauce, two South African braai traditions.

Also on the braai section of the menu are seafood and fish, like a Maine lobster or a whole fish that changes depending on what’s been flown in. On one visit, it was branzino, its skin crusty, the flaky white flesh hinting of lemon and rosemary. It was delicious.

A peri-peri burger, an 8-ounce beef patty topped with pickled green tomato, cheddar, bacon and a swathe of that kickin’ peri-peri sauce, was fine, but nothing to write home about. As my South African dining partner pointed out, you wouldn’t write about it anyway, because burgers don’t typically come off a braai in her native country.

Similar to a steakhouse, if you order from the braai menu at Cape Dutch, with the exception of the burger and its fries, sides are a la carte. Unfortunately, few are special. Oven-roasted butternut squash steaks were thick, midsection wheels, but barely browned and highly underseasoned. Caramelized Brussels sprouts were wet, not crispy, and likewise lacked seasoning. But a gratin Dauphinoise was comforting on a cold winter evening, the crust nicely golden and the thinly sliced potatoes creamy.

Maybe you aren’t visiting Cape Dutch for braai. What to order? Beginning with starters, make it the mussels that swim in a Thai coconut curry that’s bright and fresh with the flavors of lemongrass, basil, cilantro and kaffir lime.

Avoid the Cape Salad (tomato, shaved asparagus, carrot, daikon, Parmesan and pesto), which disappointed for its lack of dressing, focus and nonseasonality. If you get the spinach and arugula salad, let the quenelle of cold goat cheese sorbet melt onto the green leaves or risk a temporary freeze of your taste buds — and hope that the orange segments in your salad are better braaied than mine were.

For a starter of roasted baby root vegetables — delicately trimmed, stems intact, positioned just so atop a swoosh of deep-red beet coulis — the wow factor far surpassed the taste. If they ramped up the seasoning, it’s the kind of offering I’d love to see among Cape Dutch’s side dishes, not starters.

Among entrees, porcini ravioli was excellent — the earthiness of the mushrooms in perfect accord with the tender, house-made pasta. Roasted chicken was tasty, but the deftly dressed succotash (the wonders of sherry vinegar!) on that plate stole the show.

For other meat entrees — braised rabbit leg, elk chop, lamb shank — the cuts were treated lovingly and the resulting taste and texture was smile-inducing.

But accompaniments landed flat. Spinach-whipped potatoes served with the rabbit were dense and heavy. The parsnip puree, caramelized Brussels sprouts and fingerling potatoes that came with the lamb shank got a meh. And, while the combination of spaghetti squash, poached Lady apple and tart-sweet lingonberry sauce spoke of creativity for the elk, big game-wise, the dish just didn’t do much.

While Cape Dutch lacked in imagination with its veggies, the attempt at originality was more visible with dessert. Best was the almond crunch, a sweet almond tart shell filled with whipped cream blended with a touch of the Amarula (a South African cream liqueur similar to Bailey’s) topped with fresh berries and served with a pair of macarones by local pastry shop Macaron Queen.

Chocolate soup was fancily presented — a bowl of warm melted Callebaut chocolate, strips of toasted raisin bread and a little mound of crispy rice, crushed almond tart and strawberry halves all on a wooden paddle. But consuming the dessert like fondue, as the server suggested (dip the bread in the chocolate then in the rice-almond mixture), confounded since the morsels didn’t stick to the bread.

A lemon blueberry sorbet offered a wonderfully tart bent, but an ice cream trio held discordant Indian flavors of saffron, pistachio and rose water that left me wondering: Who are you Cape Dutch?

Cape Dutch is a cross between a South African steakhouse and something else. The “something else” is what I can’t put my finger on. There are so many cultural influences in South African cuisine — Dutch, British, Malay and more. But there are also numerous dishes on the menu that speak to me as simply modern, and so global as to have no homeland — such as the Cape Salad.

I wavered for some time whether to award Cape Dutch one star or two. I referred to my predecessor John Kessler’s explanation of each star when he revamped the ratings from a five-star to a four-star system in 2014. Cape Dutch has hits and misses, but those are entirely related to the food menu. Cape Dutch is more than food, as I was reminded when I reread the Association of Food Journalists Food Critics’ Guidelines, which The Atlanta Journal-Constitution adheres to.

I enjoyed taking a seat at Cape Dutch. Service was outstanding, without a single misstep from a very friendly, knowledgeable staff. Surrounded by airy, high ceilings, breezy cream-colored muslin window curtains and comfortable rattan chairs, I relaxed while sipping a glass of Boschendal chardonnay pinot noir that hails from Stellenbosch, South Africa’s equivalent of our Napa Valley. I just wasn’t sure where I was.

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