• At his new Cape Town restaurant, The Showroom, Bruce Robertson skids to a pause as the spotlight falls on sauces.

    By Kim Maxwell

    “Kids, let’s get this show on the road!” Bruce Robertson is clapping his hands to attention as his personality see-saws from turbocharged bossy-boots to exasperating creator and charming flirt.

    He’ll bark an order to staff, switch to ask an opinion, and then have everyone in smiles as he cracks a joke. When the clean-shaven head is bowed, he’s rattling off decor or plating ideas with Morse-code precision. Bruce is on that high-octane energy buzz that screams A-type personality. This creative showman loves it when the stage lights are switched on. Luckily the chef now has his own showroom for culinary drama. Best known for his debut Cape performance as executive chef at one.waterfront restaurant at Cape Grace Hotel, The Showroom is Bruce’s first solo role as restaurateur and chef proprietor.

    Today we’re having a menu dress rehearsal as the last pale-blue paint is rolled onto interior walls. “I’m finished with those stories about how I moved from advertising or was cycling to Rome when I decided to become a chef. I’m a chef proprietor now, and have to worry about paying salaries, overheads and rent. The ultimate accolade now is a full restaurant with a waiting list. There are only a few successful ones in South Africa,” explains Bruce. “Hang on,” he remembers, spinning to introduce Gidi Rautenbach. “Gidi manages everything here aside from the food – from service and staff to the ordering of wine.”

    Bruce is making a stylistic leap from his award-winning playful food at one.waterfront. The Showroom dishes are simpler and less fiddled with. Techniques may be complicated but presentation is user-friendly. The focus is on options. “I want to avoid the menu stress, so no lengthy descriptions. I’m looking after locals now, so there’s not too much of that stuff that stands high on a plate.” Dinner at The Showroom is about what’s on the side.

    The menu lists 12 main-course options that can be paired with 28 sauces. “I’m trying to bridge a gap with sauces. Sauce lubricates the meal. Butter in a sauce is key. It stimulates a mouth gland that secretes saliva. Trends dictate more olive oil, thinner bases and salsas. But being a classic chef who also goes to gym, I believe in both!” he grins cheekily. “Sure, sauces can hide a lot of mistakes, so I’m creating sauce on the side. It pulls out the best in a meal if paired properly.” To add to the saucy menu debate, Bruce calls for input on the eve of opening.

    Adding his creative eye is Marc Piotrowski of DHK Interior Design, responsible for the restaurant interior. Also present is wine consultant Jean-Pierre Rossouw, who helped compile the 100 labels stacked in a wine rack covering most of a wall. The focus is smaller producers and emerging wine regions. The fourth chair is filled by Bruce’s childhood friend Robyn Lurie, who’s in the footwear industry. To sample and discuss, there are six sauces, three dinner menu dishes, and three wines.

    First up is kingklip wrapped in Parma ham (with mustard and spinach), served with a mussel alongside creamy risotto.

    Malay pesto is a good fish match for Robyn, with Constantia Glen Sauvignon Blanc 2005. She’s also keen on the mayo-style remoulade gribiche containing chopped boiled eggs. Jean-Pierre likes it with kingklip too. Bruce notes that wrapping ham around the fish with the truffle-infused Périgueux sauce adds an extra dimension, especially with the old-style Beaumont Jackals River Pinotage 1999.

    Bruce Juice Merlot 2005 is Bruce’s wine of choice with warthog ribs draped in porcini mushroom slivers, with foie gras in ginger and five-spice powder crumbs, and boulangère potato. This zany fruit-packed wine is a collaboration with Flagstone winemaker Bruce Jack as a signature label of the restaurant. Bruce Robertson’s favourite warthog-friendly sauce is Périgueux. Jean-Pierre points out that barbeque sauce is a comforting, cheaper alternative.

    Marc loves the tender confit duck, served with a scallop and scoop of leek mash, but he can’t get his head around Cape Malay pesto. “I’m used to pesto with pasta so it’s not working with duck for me. It turns it into a summer dish, while the vindaloo gives the duck a wintry edge,” he comments. Robyn loves the freshness of crushing her own pesto with crunchy cashews and lemon rind at the table, in contrast to the velvety duck. Only the choron sauce doesn’t find fans for any dish. Bruce suggests it’s better suited to grilled veal or a joint of beef. That’s the versatility of this mix and match approach.

    But back to The Showroom. Sauces are not all diners can expect. Other noteworthy factors are a chandelier above the doorway and a striking canvas series in triplicate by Philip Briel. There’s also Voss artesian water from Norway, sold in funky cylinders. Diners who look past Perspex Phillipe Starke Louis Ghost chairs – through glass doors – might spot a polished Porsche or Bentley from the adjacent Bloomsbury Investment Cars showroom. “It’s about class, darling,” says Bruce, gesticulating wildly. “I’m not classy, even though I was brought up in Sandton. But I love class!”

    • Take your time. Sauces are about temperature. Egg, butter and cream easily catch and burn, so they need to be stirred frequently.
    • In a cream or bèarnaise sauce, impurities separate or “split” easily and drop to the bottom where they burn.
    • An emergency tip to save a cream sauce if it splits: boil 100ml cream and reduce by half. Slowly add the split sauce, teaspoon by teaspoon, while whisking vigorously.
    • You can always add seasoning but never take it out. Season sauces only at the end as reducing a sauce can increase saltiness.
    • Deglazing tip: if you’re sautéing onion, garlic etc, it creates a caramelised sediment layer on the bottom of the pan which becomes your base flavour. It’s essential to use it before it burns, then deglaze with an alcoholic liquid (white or red wine, sherry etc) while stirring the bits off the bottom.
    • The secret is in the stock. Always use fresh chicken or fish bones for base stocks and don’t overboil. Remove the gills and eyes from the head for a fish stock.
    • With a red wine sauce, only simmer. If you boil it, impurities will land back in the stock.
    • If a red wine sauce seems fatty when cool, bring it to the boil quickly and throw in a couple of ice cubes. Leave them in for a few seconds and then remove them. The fat will adhere to the cubes.
    • For a red wine sauce of good consistency, use joint bones such as shoulder, hooves or shins. They hold more natural gluten and thicken the sauce naturally.

    The Showroom, corner Chiapinni and Hospital roads, Green Point (021) 421-4682. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner weekdays, and dinner only on Saturdays. E-mail reservations@ theshowroomrestaurant.co.za

    By Russell Smith