Coastal pitstop

A KwaZulu-Natal roadtrip can turn into a culinary adventure

Coastal pitstop

And the winner is … the LivingRoom. It wasn’t exactly unexpected, but Johannes Richter’s win that warm November evening in the Cape last year changed things not only for his restaurant in the Summerhill Estate near Pinetown in KwaZulu-Natal, but also for the region’s gastronomic aspirations. Winning Eat Out’s Restaurant of the Year will do that for an area. The first non-Cape establishment to earn the coveted title in years, LivingRoom’s win has helped put Durban’s other food offerings on the map, the touch paper igniting a newfound sense of can-do. This then is an impromptu road trip to some of the best tables in the province.

The journey starts in uMhlanga where two year-long celebrations are on the cards. Southern Sun’s Beverly Hills Hotel marks its diamond anniversary in 2024, 60 years as the neighbourhood’s gem in the sand. There wasn’t much north of the city’s Golden Mile back in 1964, but Sol Kerzner knew a thing or two about forward thinking. Today the metropolis – anyone who hasn’t visited in five years won’t recognise the place – heaves with Dubai-style malls and new hotels. Set apart from the urban noise, however, uMhlanga’s pink grande dame sits aloof on the beach. It holds the record for the longest retention of a 5-star rating, hung on to as much because of the food as anything else; key to Kerzner’s old adage ‘good enough never is’ was the cuisine.

So it is today – the Sugar Club, a member of the Paris-based Chaîne des Rôtisseurs gastronomic association, trades in fresh Mediterranean fare (sea-based, naturally) as well as – happily – unconventional desserts. Enter the plush restaurant and it’s immediately obvious why executive chef Nathania Wasserman’s spot is so popular. Views of the warm Atlantic, rich aromas, a bustling energy. Sunday lunch is probably the restaurant’s biggest drawcard, famous across Durban, a sumptuous spread worthy of the trip out from the suburbs. It was delicious – and intriguing; Wasserman likes to play with tradition, witness her pulled slow-roasted brisket lasagne. Outstanding.

There’s no need to fuel up the car for the next stop on the food tour – the Oyster Box is right next door. uMhlanga’s oldest hotel, it opened in 1954. Once a bungalow and restaurant, the Oyster Box hotel combines elegance with design bravery; the flamingo wallpaper, the bold South Sea vibe lends it the atmosphere of a Bond destination on some exotic island. Art too is important and tells the story of SA’s journey through the years. It’s a genuinely intriguing collection, a Cecil Skotnes likely around the next corner. Then of course there’s the food.

Current owner Bea Tollman had her first date with Stanley Tollman at the Oyster Box way back in the ’50s. The couple bought the property in 2006 with the promise that they’d keep good food at the heart of the Box’s appeal. So it is; high tea in the Palm Court offers stiff competition to the Beverly Hills version over the road, and the formal Grill Room is known for Bea Tollman’s own recipes, often prepared and plated at the table. Most popular of all, however, is the hotel’s curry buffet on the Ocean Terrace, a spread of never fewer than 11 curries, reflecting not only Durban’s curry heritage but also the wider SA influence. The most popular? It’s still the Durban lamb curry, for years the Oyster Box’s signature dish.

From the Oyster Box, the food trip takes a route through to Durban Central, to the harbour itself. Durban’s recent priority has been to link the working harbour and Point area with the established Golden Mile area. The first phase is nearing completion; a kilometres-long promenade all the way to the Umgeni river mouth is world-class, southern Africa’s Copacabana. Mixed-use residential and business parks have been established in the previously derelict Point area and tourism encouraged through the creation of navigable canals, eateries and water sport activities.

Next on the list is the rejuvenation of the harbour area itself, anchored by the new cruise ship terminal, which will ensure healthy numbers at most times of the year. It’s here that 9th Avenue Waterside is making a big splash. Under the watchful eye of head chef Theo Chiloane, the venue’s offering has expanded from conventional seaside fare to more adventurous cuisine. His fusion bistro-cum-haute cuisine approach has attracted a faithful following, diners keen on the balance between fine dining and accessible meals. A good example is his sesame chicken, which ticks all boxes for Joe Average but also excites the gastronomes who – look closely – appreciate the roulade stuffed with porcini mushrooms, spinach and grilled baby marrow.

The restaurant design take full advantage of its singular surroundings – Durban’s working harbour sprawls just beyond the picture windows, a double-story, double-volume space as intriguing as the menu.

From the harbour area, the next stop is towards Pietermaritzburg up the N3 to Cowie’s Hill near Pinetown. It’s here that Johannes Richter’s now-famous LivingRoom is located on the Summerhill Estate.

It’s not easy to find, but you get the idea that’s the point; restaurant, staff and chef all work hard to downplay their reputation. It’s intimate, far smaller than its renown might suggest, simple and, like its star chef, wholly down to Earth. It feels a little like popping by at friends who’ve upped sticks and moved to the country, plenty of nipping out to pick ingredients, family helping with front of house, a general sense of relaxed unbotheredness. The food is, of course, deadly serious, or at least the preparation is. Richter’s style – ‘subtropics meets the Midlands’ – means local produce carefully prepared and combined in interesting ways. The Midlands bit is a reference to some of the organic fare coming in from higher, less tropical climes, because the coastal humidity plays havoc with local produce gardens. The seven-course offering is for special occasions while the equally inventive five-course evening is excellent with the optional wine pairing, which makes use of some intriguingly adventurous blends. Dishes are difficult to describe as they change often, depending on what’s been foraged and prepared. It’s fine dining, detail cooking, but with a refreshingly down-to-Earth approach. The area’s mushrooms are a staple, and indeed Richter’s true genius is with vegetarian fare; his ‘ordinary carrots’ are anything but.

The final leg of the coastal food tour heads up the coast beyond uMhlanga to the hidden community of Westbrook, just before Ballito. And hidden is right – Spice overlooks the Indian Ocean, loved by those in the know, offering both an outside terrace separate from the main restaurant, or a beautifully appointed space inside. The food is a combination of easy and adventurous, good for lunch after a drive up the coast or a special evening out.

As the name suggests Russell and Linda Burger’s place emphasises the curry traditions of the Durban area, but the menu extends to other local flavours; fusion is the key approach. But most of all it’s the view that wins friends and brings people back. It’s quiet too, just the roar of the ocean, far from the malls and strip developments of the greater Ballito and Zimbali area.

The Dolphin Coast’s culinary offerings have come on in leaps and bounds since COVID, a blossoming of talent and inventiveness. It’s happily not all about the Midlands anymore, visitors and locals alike have the opportunity to range up coast to find memorable meals. And with the development of the North Coast region back up to speed, things can only get better.

By Peter Frost,
Images: Gallo/Getty Images, The Oyster Box Hotel, Beverly Hills Hotel