2016 Update: five hundred closed last year, when chef David Higgs moved on to another Jozi restaurant project. I have yet to eat at Higgs’ new restaurant or at the new restaurant at the Saxon, Luke Dale Roberts X.
A lot of wonderful things have happened to me because of this blog. I’ve been to amazing places and met countless fantastic people.
But one of the greatest 2Summers miracles of all time happened last week, when a generous benefactor (who asked to remain anonymous) made it possible for my boyfriend and me to have dinner at five hundred.
I’ve done a fair amount of fine dining in my life but I’ve never been to a restaurant quite like five hundred. A restaurant like this would be out of reach for me in Paris or New York or San Francisco. Fortunately I live in Johannesburg, where blogging magic happens.
Five hundred was rated the number two restaurant in South Africa (after the Test Kitchen in Cape Town) at the 2013 Eat Out Restaurant Awards, and five hundred Executive Chef David Higgs was the 2013 Eat Out Chef of the Year. The restaurant is hidden within the ultra-luxurious Saxon Hotel, where Bill Clinton stayed and Nelson Mandela once lived while writing Long Walk to Freedom.
The lobby of the Saxon. Five hundred is at the back of the hotel on the first floor, reachable via private lift.
The Saxon website describes five hundred’s food as “experimental cuisine”. I describe it as edible art. It’s hard to explain, really. Each dish contains a fascinating combination of ingredients and when the dish comes out, it never looks anything the way you expect it to. The taste is always surprising and almost always phenomenal.
My first course: “prawn and corn, cucumber gravlax, corn custard, prawn scales”. There was no visible prawn or corn on the plate, although the entire dish was infused with the essence of prawn and corn.
Ray’s second course: “Free range baby chicken, carrot mayonnaise, pistachio, tarragon, sultana”.
Five hundred will challenge you, and it’s not for everyone. My dad, for instance, doesn’t enjoy food that he can’t easily identify. He’s probably crinkling his nose right now, if he’s even still reading. Five hundred isn’t for Dad and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you’re a foodie who wants to see and taste food in a totally new way, then five hundred is for you.
This goes without saying but five hundred isn’t cheap. Hence my eternal gratitude to the anonymous benefactor.
Guests at five hundred choose between two menus: the set, six-course tasting menu (available with or without meat) and the four-course a la carte menu. After much deliberation, Ray and I chose the four-course menu so that we could pick different things. We also decided to go with the wine pairing, which means the sommelier personally selected a different wine to accompany each of our dishes. (Don’t even think of driving yourself to five hundred if you’re going to have the wine pairing. It’s a lot of wine. You also get a complimentary glass of champagne to start the meal.)
My highlights were:
1) The bread, butter and salt.
Bread and butter presented in a lacquered box.
The bread comes with three kinds of butter — salted, unsalted and smoked — whipped into creamy, whimsical sculptures and decorated with dehydrated flowers and vegetables. (Speaking of vegetables, most of the produce served at five hundred comes from the Saxon’s organic rooftop garden.) We also received a small tray with four kinds of salt: Maldon sea salt, Kalahari desert salt, pink Himalayan mountain salt, and black Hawaiian volcanic salt. My favorite combo was brown bread with unsalted butter and volcanic salt.
2) Meeting David Higgs.
I don’t have a photo of David because I was too starstruck to ask him for one. He was a really nice, down-to-earth guy and I was impressed that he personally greeted every table in the restaurant. He’s also very dreamy.
3) The fois gras.
My second course: “fois gras and deep reds, strawberry, beetroot, rasberry, rhubarb”.
I realize that eating fois gras is not politically correct, and the idea of warm fois gras surrounded by cold berry jelly might seem a bit weird. But this was one of the most delicious things I’ve ever tasted.
4) The French rosé.
I loved this particular wine and I loved Lloyd, our sommelier. He explained each wine in great detail and even though I didn’t take in most of what he said, I love the idea that he carefully considered the flavors of each dish and chose the right wine to go with it.
5) The atmosphere.
I don’t have any shots of the restaurant itself. The Saxon guards the privacy of its guests and I promised to take photos only of my own table. But the ambience of the restaurant is luxurious without being overstated. The staff is knowledgeable, friendly and unpretentious — far less pretentious than at some other high-end restaurants I’ve been to in Joburg.
6) Eating with this guy.
Ray enjoys a grain of Himalayan salt.
That pretty much sums it up.
And now, for the question you’ve all been waiting for: How much did it cost? Before tip our bill came to R2700 (about $240), including the four-course menu, wine pairing, sparkling water, and two pre-dinner drinks. The six-course tasting menu costs slightly more.
This is one of the most expensive dinners you’ll find in Joburg, and prices like this are obviously accessible only to a tiny sliver of the population. But honestly, I think the price is reasonable. A meal of this caliber in Washington D.C. will easily cost double, if not more.
Joburg skyline made of glittery powdered sugar and Turkish delight.
So if you’ve got the means and a special occasion to celebrate, go for dinner at five hundred. Just book well in advance (especially if you want to go on a weekend) and take a taxi. You won’t regret it.