IT'S TIME to tell the truth. I go to Durban about twice a month. Every time I do I have lofty culinary ambitions. I tell people that I will give them a call, that we will go out for dinner, that we will sample this or that restaurant. I mean it, too. Sometimes I check out the websites of restaurants that people have recommended. I even write a neat to-do list.
Then I arrive in Durban, check into my hotel, and inevitably things fall apart.
The truth is that whenever I visit the city I get an overwhelming desire to sink my teeth into a prawn and chicken curry. Sometimes I do lamb, but that curry is a thing of beauty.
What’s really wonderful is that you don’t even have to travel to get to it. No need to go to a fancy, famous restaurant. No sirree. In Durban a good curry is available even at the hotel. Yes, I can see some of my snobbish friends rolling their eyes, grabbing at the old cliché that mass-produced hotel food is terrible.
The theory holds in general. But in practice, in Durban, it does not. I have had my fair share of Indian chicken and prawn curries in a range of hotels since I started going there in the 1990s, and let me tell you, the Durban hotels make you want to hum with enjoyment.
So, most of the time I will fly to Durban and start losing my resolve to go out while driving into the city. By the time I have checked in and thrown myself on the bed, I am finished. Within an hour of agonising about how much weight I might put on I am dialling room service and ordering a curry and two chilled beers. Happy days.
This time I made a mistake. I went for a run. Returning, full of righteous glow and adrenaline, I told myself that I would not be having any curry. I had broken the habit. Then I passed the hotel restaurant and caught a whiff. I knew that I was a weak man, but I never thought I could be undone so easily.
Fortunately, as I headed purposefully for the hotel restaurant I saw a discreet sign winking at me. It was my old Johannesburg Japanese favourite, Daruma, at the Elangeni Hotel. I haven’t been to Daruma in ages, and this Japanese establishment holds a special place in my heart.
Before you could say “what about the curry!” I had hopped into the place and asked for a table. It was 9.45pm, and they close at 10pm, but the waiter told me to come in and make it quick. I did.
It was still packed, though. There was a table of about 10 men, clearly partners in a business (I wondered whether they didn’t employ women at their firm). They were tucking into various teppanyaki (grilled dishes), noodle and rice dishes. At other tables, couples were dotted about. A famous rapper was downing sake.
Though it’s at a hotel, Daruma is very much its own place, with lovely Japanese décor and an intimate atmosphere. It’s still as attractive as it was during its days in Sandton, and the quality of the food is still as high.
Service was swift. I ordered a whisky (apparently that’s the Japanese way), some salmon and tuna sashimi, and enjoyed the patrons. A man was there with his five daughters, dipping into the teppanyaki. The businessmen were making a noise and were having food thrown into their mouths by the teppanyaki chef. The staff bustled about, pouring more wine and delivering drinks.
It felt warm and right with the world. What a place.
My sashimi was fresh and tasty. My egg fried rice with extra prawns (they called them shrimp, like the Americans) was the wholesome and filling dish I needed to replace my pining for Durban curry.
I left the place feeling wholesome and happy.
I promise to be more adventurous with Durban next time.
Southern Sun Hotel Elangeni,
63 OR Tambo Parade, Durban
Tel: (031) 337-0423
***** Pravin Gordhan
* Jacob Zuma