We've been invited to check out The Big Easy, South Africa's world-famous golfer Ernie Els' new restaurant in Durban, located at the Hilton Hotel in the city. The city? What! Normally us country folk only frequent eateries in the wooded outer suburb. However, if there's good food, I'll go anywhere!
I'm surprised at how quiet the roads are at 6:30pm as we glide effortlessly into the city, over the new bypass. Within 10 minutes of leaving Westville we are parked in the Hilton Hotel's undercover parking. That was easy...
The regal splendour of the Hilton greets us as we head to the restaurant situated on the ground floor. As we enter I am immediately attracted by its layout. Unlike many cavernous restaurants I've experienced, the Big Easy has created several smaller, cosier dining spaces. There's an elegant bar area adjoining a lounge with a TV and then there are several dining areas, including, as the waiter shows me, a lovely outdoor area for fine evenings or day visits. Photos and memorabilia relating to Ernie Els are also tastefully displayed on some of the walls.
We settle down next to a window that comes alive like a cityscape with the reflected wine display, and are welcomed by Simon our waiter. His beaming smile and warm welcome resonates with the obviously South African styled fare on offer at the Big Easy. Led by chef Janine Fourie the menu is a fascinating weave of reimagined South African food plus a selection of regular favourites.
I like wors and pap, just like the next oke, but normally I reserve that for around the braai with my mates. As such I've never really been attracted to South African food at a restaurant. My bias is about to be challenged, but first we need to select a wine.
Eric, the sommelier talks us through the options. To me it's obvious. We are at Ernie's place so we need to have an Ernie wine, and so we order his Sauvignon Blanc which immediately sets my mouth singing with joy..."Daar kom die Alibama..."or something traditional like that. It's refreshing grassy nose is delivered in a beautiful smooth taste...unlike the eye-scrunching, spine-tingling sharpness of many Sauvignons. Easy...very easy!
We sit back and enjoy a tasty corn bread and coriander butter pre-dinner snack while settling into the experience. “I’d recommend the Pork belly and bacon skewers and the Oxtail and marrow fritters,” Eric suggests. I’m all for going with insider trading when it comes to restaurants, and so we go with Eric's intel. We're not disappointed. The pork belly and bacon skewers are a soft, explosion of flavour - a carnivores dream, while the oxtail and marrow fritters are delivered as crispy on the outside with flavour-rich marrow inners. We’ve hit the first course well down the fairway, and looking good as we consider our approach to the green.
From where we sit we can see the hive of activity in the kitchen. I enjoy being able to see into the kitchen, and I’m encouraged by signs of fresh herbs growing in pots around the kitchen. For the main course I’ve been drawn to my favourite food, a bunny chow! I’m especially attracted as this is the first time I’ve heard of a lamb shank bunny. That sounds like a combo of two of my favourites. How will it be?
The generous portion arrives, reaching out olfactory tendrils even before it’s landed on the table. My eyes begin to water with anticipation, and I begin to respond like a conditioned Pavolvian dog. Eric narrowly misses me biting his hand as I grab a piece of tender lamb combined with curry-soaked bread, and pop it into my mouth. I hear wedding bells! It’s the marriage I'd hoped for. It's gastronomic heaven - the tender succulence of the lamb combined with the flavour-full explosion of Durban spice. My only warning for those seeking this heavenly combo, is come hungry. Thankfully with my full-loaf bunny pedigree I have no problems eating every morsel while the wedding bells continue to chime.
Nicky orders a rump steak with gorgonzola sauce and veggies. This succulent rump has been waiting for 30 days for this exact moment and it's as tender as a princess's feet. Smothered in smoky gorgonzola sauce and accompanied by fresh al dente veggies, I can see from Nicky's dreamlike gaze, that this is another perfect hit. Of course this dreamlike gaze may be because she is enraptured by her elegant dining partner. However I daren't interupt her tranquil reverie, in case it's the former!
The main course has been hit true and straight, leaving us lying perfectly on the green, with just a final putt ahead - desert! While pondering our options, Janine, the chef pops by and chats to us. I can see where the passion in the food's taste comes from. This well traveled young chef bubbles with enthusiasm as she talks about her food, locally sourced ingredients, and excitement with being involved in this venture. There’s no getting away from it - a good chef means a good experience.
As we consider our final putt, I look down at the assortment of dessert options. In true South African style there are old favourites like melktert, koeksisters, and hertzoggies in Amarula. Words that would most likely leave many foreigners wondering if they’d stumbled upon the writings of an ancient civilisation.
We decide to go for the creme brûlée, and the baked lemon meringue cheese cake. It’s sweet heaven! I'm a savoury dude, so I felt a little like a bee in a Hulette’s factory - over-sweeted, but glad I did it. If you’re a savoury person like me, you can easily share one of these delicious desserts, but if you’re unsavoury - meaning you’re the type who eats dessert before mains…then order your own portion, and enjoy!
It's exciting to see Durban get some great restaurants again...why must Cape Town get them all? The Big Easy is just 10 minutes drive from the western suburbs, even less from the Berea, and you drive straight into the Hilton’s undercover parking, and before you know it you're sipping good wine and eating South African food that will make you proud to say "Ima Souf Afwican!'
It's in the hole!
This meal has certainly hit the spot. In golf-parlance, The Big Easy has scored well below par…well done Ernie, Janine, and team!
To find out more or book, check out The Big Easy, Durban here!
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