If I hit replay on the best meals I had in the last year, strong memories of dinner at Africola in Adelaide keep resurfacing. Sure, I’ve been lucky enough to have dined at some of the “lifetime greats” in the past 12 or so months (and have the scorch marks in my bank accounts to show for it) – there was Noma Australia in Sydney, then I made it to Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York and finally Den in Tokyo before 2016 flamed out. They’re big-deal restaurants that come with the anticipation levels that are just off the charts, they live up to their megawatt reputations and, accordingly, there is a bit of balance-sheet justification you need to endure before you decide you can actually go. And maybe because there’s been a lot of high-powered spotlight on culinary superstars lately (with the World’s 50 Best Restaurants circus blazing in and out of Australia), but I’d been thinking more about Africola because its awesomeness doesn’t come prepackaged with hype and all that in-built maintenance – it’s on the plate and in the room. You don’t have to plan six months in advance to get there. You don’t have to start up the savings plan the summer before you go. Like the hot-off-the-grill urgency, loud music and animated service that powers Africola – it’s direct, in your face and designed to instantly activate your “hell yes, let’s have some fun” senses.
The kitchen is run by head chef and co-owner Duncan Welgemoed (also, one of the best guests to have ever appeared on The Mitchen podcast), and last year, he flipped Africola’s focus from South Africa to the continent’s north. With this switch came a spotlight on grains and vegetables; when we visited, Duncan joked that he’s now the “Morgy McGlone” of vegies.
A standout example of his next-level treatment of vegetables: the Cabbage Hearts ($17), which is hands down one of the best dishes I’ve eaten in the last 12 months. The cabbage hearts are slow roasted and served with smoked butter, salted plum powder and “crisps” made from the outer leaves of the cabbage heart that have mutated into ultra-addictive salt and vinegar chips. As Duncan says, the dish is like “nose-to-tail” cabbage.
There’s also the ridiculously good Mejadra (“like North African fried rice,” said our waitress), the Pumpkin, Chermoula and Butternut Tahini and also the logs of Eggplant ($15) that have been time-lapsed into a flavour delivery system of cumin, chilli and shallot sauce, and rained on with curls of fermented sheep’s milk cheese. I’d be happy to soapbox about how great that eggplant dish is forever.
I’m not exactly breaking highly classified news by talking about Africola’s standout nature – it’s forever been attracting good reviews and buzz, particularly since its recent metamorphosis (cue raves from The Australian, The Advertiser and so on). And it doesn’t really need me as a booster. But if you get a chance to go, take it. It’s a flat-out blast.
Africola, 4 East Terrace, Adelaide SA (08) 8223 3885, www.africola.com.au. Follow Africola on Facebook.