Marble offers a celebration of meat and fire
Even the vegetables at Marble in Rosebank have a smoky flavour
Given David Higgs’s pedigree as chef of the year, it did not seem wrong to ask if his new spot, Marble in Rosebank Johannesburg’s Art Mile, is a fine-dining establishment. "No chance — it’s not f***ing fine dining by any stretch of the imagination. It is food everyone can recognise. Hearty portions," he says.
"When you order a dish with us it comes with everything. The dish has been thought out. It’s a restaurant that celebrates that."
Higgs is also asked frequently what defines authentic South African cuisine and has a ready answer. "Whatever the culture, we all — black, coloured, Indian, whatever — we all love cooking on the fire and we all love meat," he says.
While there are interesting vegetarian options on the menu, Marble is about meat and fire.
To have the open kitchen is a little bit of theatre ... people need to be entertained in one form or another
"The name is a play on the marbling of the meat [the deep-vein fat that adds so much flavour] and the marble counter tops and big marble wall so it’s about us as meat enthusiasts," says Higgs.
"Sometimes, when you walk into a restaurant and you sit down, it feels like the interior and food are two different things. Here the front of house and back of house are one by design, with the kitchen in the centre of the restaurant.
"To have the open kitchen is a little bit of theatre. The experience is a big part of eating out. People need to be entertained in one form or another.
"It also makes Marble feel like a place that doesn’t have to be too hushed and silent — the clang of the pots and pans lets people relax."
I start with the soup of the day — flame-roasted tomatoes and peppers. The dish is a bright rust colour and the overnight cooking of the vegetables directly among the coals has intensified their flavour and added a lovely smokiness.
There is a hint of heat that gets pretty intense by the time I have finished that is offset by the heady green from fresh oregano. I thought R95 was costly for a tomato soup until I tasted it.
Higgs explains the process: "At the end of the night we have all this residual coal that we want to utilise, so we put vegetables directly into the coals for overnight cooking. By the next morning, the tomatoes and peppers have good flavour from the fire," he says.
The restaurant also uses ovens and other techniques such as sous vide in which vacuum-packed cuts are cooked in a water bath at a constant temperature. "The pork belly and baby chickens first get sous-vide cooking as you get a better texture on the meat when you cook it slowly and finish it on the fire," says Higgs.
The pork belly at Marble is a revelation. The meat is softer than I’ve ever tasted, but not cooked to death. The success of this dish is that it cuts like soft butter, but the eating experience is like sinking your teeth into a caramel toffee that retains its shape in your mouth for a moment before offering itself up entirely for your enjoyment.
"I really give the chefs carte blanche on what they do. The pork belly [R195] is Tash’s dish," Higgs says.
"Pork is one of our most popular dishes on the menu — the barbecue flavour you get from the fire makes you think salty and sticky, which we achieve by basting with a teriyaki-type sauce at the end.
"We’re driven by what’s in season. At the moment, it comes with kohlrabi, black radish for freshness and an Asian twist."
At The Saxon Hotel, where Higgs worked before as executive chef, it was reported that the average per-head food spend was R1,600.
Although he will not say what the spend at Marble is, it is likely under half what people paid to eat his food previously.
The portions are healthy enough so you can happily eat a single course and feel you’ve had a good time out. Some of the critical online comments focus on the value-for-money aspect of Marble.
I did think twice about ordering the R275 rib eye, but as many items are around R250 a plate mark, I bit the bullet. The value of perfectly cooked meat with a thick coin of oven-roasted bone marrow is in the pleasure of eating quality meat that is respectfully cooked. This quickly replaced the parsimonious taste in my mouth.
The dish comes with one of Higgs’ favourite sauces: potato, cream and truffle; with chips and fire-roasted onions, topped with crispy onions for texture and blackened green beans.
Although Higgs understands the low-carb diet, he replaces the starch on my plate with a side salad at an additional R25 charge but, disappointingly, leaves the potato sauce.
With 250 seats that have been chockers since opening, it is understandable that careful attention to every plate, and its diner’s idiosyncrasies, is a challenge, but this is the only obstacle Marble needs to overcome.
There is no question about the appeal of this vast temple to fire — upscale and elegant interiors and elevated views over Rosebank that stretch to the mountains. The bar area (cocktails around R125 each) is swish and the outside lounge area appealing, especially on a balmy Johannesburg evening.
Higgs says there are typically 15 chefs in a shift sending out 550 plates a sitting — "About three guys in the cold kitchen, two in pastry, two on veg, three on the pass, four grillers, two on the bread oven."
We sat at the central kitchen counter, despite reserving two weeks ahead. I resented not being seated at a table but, truth is, unless it is a private chinwag you are after, the counter seating is the best in the house — front-row seats to the action.
Although Namibia is Higgs’ spiritual bolthole when he needs to get away, he is not using its famous camel-thorn wood in his grills but alien species such as black wattle and Kalahari Christmas tree (sekelbos) — about 50kg a day along with 22kg charcoal.
"If you look at food over the last five years, it has gone from one extreme to the other — from molecular gastronomy to the absolute primitive style of foraging," he says.
"In many top New York restaurants, there are elements of fire and we have a grungy, rustic, primitive cooking method that imparts incredible flavour and looks, and a really sophisticated city look to our plate and restaurant. It is a contrast that works incredibly well.
"The plan in the beginning was to open more Marble restaurants, but we have opened a gem here and people really love this space and the team that is here — not just myself and my business partner Gary Kyriacou.
"So we’ve decided, for now, that we’ll have our own butchery downstairs and a couple of other bits and pieces in the pipeline that I can’t talk about yet, that the opening of other stores is off the table."