South Africans like meat. In my experience this stereotype generally applies across races, genders, colors and creeds. Hence, quality vegetarian cuisine is scarce in South Africa and the vegetarian restaurants that do exist tend to remain best-kept secrets. I myself am not a vegetarian. I don’t eat tons of meat but I’m not willing to give up the occasional burger, chicken leg, or chorizo-laced pizza. But I do enjoy vegetarian food and I’m dismayed that it took me nearly four years to discover the best vegetarian restaurant in South Africa. It’s more than vegetarian, in fact — it’s vegan. That means no meat, no eggs, no dairy. It’s also mostly “raw”, meaning the majority of the food is uncooked or minimally cooked. The restaurant I speak of is the Leafy Greens Café.
Yummy food at Leafy Greens Café. Don’t ask me what it is. All I know is that there’s no meat in it and it’s good.
The first time I went for a meal at Casalinga, an acclaimed Italian restaurant on an organic farm in Joburg’s far-northern suburb of Muldersdrift, I didn’t even realize that there was also a vegetarian restaurant on the premises. The people I went with are meat enthusiasts and may not have known about Leafy Greens themselves. Fortunately I trekked back to the Casalinga farm a couple of weeks ago to write about it for the SandtonPlaces book. I had heard about Leafy Greens by then and decided to try it out. (Casalinga is not in Sandton. But the book will include a few “further afield” spots and Casalinga is one of them.)
Casalinga is way out in the country, about 45 minutes northwest of downtown Joburg off Beyers Naudé Drive.
It’s easy to miss Leafy Greens when you get to Casalinga. The café is hidden at the back of the garden in a grove of trees, in a small building that spills out onto a small courtyard.
The courtyard at Leafy Greens Café. It’s delightful.
I went to Leafy Greens on a public holiday so they were serving a buffet. (The buffets are normally on weekends but there is also an a la carte menu.) The buffet allows you to fill one plate with food for R105; subsequent plates cost R65. This sounded a bit steep to me so I piled as much as possible onto my plate. This is vegan food, after all. I thought I’d need a lot to fill myself up.
In the end, I couldn’t finish my plate. Sorry, I don’t have a decent photo. I couldn’t wait to start eating. And sorry that I can’t really describe the food that I ate. It was a buffet and I tried some of everything. My favorite item was the chickpea curry. The only thing that didn’t blow me away was the chocolate truffle that I ordered for dessert. Next time I’ll skip dessert — it’s really not necessary anyway.
I have no way of proving this, but I suspect that very few of the people eating at Leafy Greens that day were actual vegetarians. They were people who know good food when they taste it. And Leafy Greens’ food is good. The Leafy Greens owner, Antonia De Luca, is the daughter of Casalinga founders Peter and Jenny De Luca. Clearly this family has a knack for food and Antonia in particular can work magic with vegetables. She’s like a vegan rock star. Antonia wasn’t around the day that I went, but if she had been I totally would have asked for her autograph.
I must also mention that in addition to Leafy Greens, Casalinga has an onsite coffee roastery called the Green Bean. I thought I knew all of the Joburg coffee roasteries selling single-origin African beans, but I guess the Green Bean flies under the radar because it’s so far outside of town. I’m glad I’ve found it now though, because the Green Bean’s beans are spectacular.
Roasting beans at the Green Bean.
The Green Bean’s owner, Lee Anderson, loves talking about African coffee. She also has a really cool dog.
I was so focused on the coffee that I forgot to ask his name.
Fortunately Green Bean coffee is available at several retail stores and markets around Joburg so you don’t have to drive all the way to Muldersdrift to get it. Leafy Greens, however, must be experienced in person. Trust me, it’s worth the trip. And if you have a carnivore in your life who refuses to eat vegan, just drop him/her at the Casalinga restaurant (which also serves excellent food) and make your way across the garden to Leafy Greens. Make a reservation first because it gets busy.
You can laugh at your carnivore later for being so closed-minded.
Leafy Greens is open Wednesday to Sunday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Contact 082-882-7300 or [email protected]. I’m not sure of the Green Bean’s opening hours — call 076-469-8995.