Durban Spice and all things nice
A South African chef has started serving sell-out pop-up supper clubs from his house in the middle of Wheatley. So what's all the fuss about? Waiter, my napkin please!
Take forty years of restaurant experience, add in the exotic and largely unknown cuisine of South Africa (Chakalaka sauce anyone?!) and throw in a pinch of the casual supper club vibe. The result? Durban Spice – a weekly, Wheatley-based supper club run by, former Durbanites, Shabir (Shabs) and Sarah Ally.
This culinary couple have worked in hospitality for 20 years, with self-taught-chef Shabs managing events at The Ashmolean, Blenheim Palace along with Saturday Kitchen’s James Martin no less, and the well-connected connoisseur is currently working on dates for famed Indian chef Atul Kochhar to come and sample the fare at Durban Spice. So it’s safe to say this is no rookie endeavour.
South African food is a bit of a mystery in the UK, especially the exciting and varied cuisine specific to multi-national Durban so things have moved fast for Shabs and Sarah, who only launched in the New Year. Bookings and plaudits have come thick and fast.
A small South African flag marks the entrance to the couple’s modern home, down a quiet side street in the village of Wheatley, just a few miles out of Oxford. We are greeted at the door by super-friendly host, Sarah, and are ushered through the couple’s brightly coloured sitting room – complete with safari themed cushions – to the kitchen, where Shabs holds the fort. We take our seats in the sophisticated conservatory area, which serves as a dining room.
If you ever had any misgivings about supper clubs being a bit awkward (you know, being in a stranger’s house and having to make forced conversation at a communal table etc.), you needn’t worry, as the space is kitted out like a mini-restaurant. The tables (plural) are set with chilled water (it’s BYOB), peach roses are displayed in jam jars and South African ornaments decorate the walls.
A party of hearty South Africans sit beside us, giving the whole experience an extremely authentic feel. And, although you can’t be guaranteed such luck (!), it is worth noting that this group travelled all the way from West London to sample Shabs’ fare – good news travels fast.
Nationality aside, the set up favours an unusual dinner out with a group of friends. The vibe is more relaxed than a restaurant, although it somehow feels more indulgent – a bit like having a private chef. And the service…no the entertainment, is utterly fantastic. Sarah takes each table on a culinary journey, explaining the historical and cultural significance of every course, which makes for a truly educational (in a fun way) experience.
Essentially, the small, elegant conservatory is not really the place for youngsters, although Sarah assures me that they do cater for children aged 12+. The less formal Bunnychow (an amazing casual South African favourite, cooked in a loaf of bread) nights and soon to be announced BBQ evenings may be more suited to a family outing.
SCOFF & QUAFF
So, we begin with maize-based Mielie Muffins and Biltong Butter. Ever heard of Mielie Muffins? No, us neither – there are a lot of strange and exciting dishes on Shabs’ five-course tasting menu, so come with an open mind. After the spongey muffins and rich butter, comes a simple mug of Chicken Dahl Gosht, a lightly spiced chicken soup, made with Shabs’ own blend of Garam Masala (I ask for the recipe and am denied – delicious). This popular dish is served in tin mugs, as it would be in a traditional Durban setting.
Up next are the samoosas – and no that’s not a misspelling, but more a South African twist on the Indian samosa. We are presented with these moreish parcels with Boerwor (a spiced South African sausage) and cheese, and potato and spinach fillings. The hearty meat samoosas are served with ‘Monkey Gland Sauce’ (an unfortunate name, but fortunately nothing to do with monkeys, or glands), and the Cape Malay style potato and spinach style with a fantastic, sharp and spicy Chakalaka sauce – made from blitzed pickled veg. There have been many requests for the couple to start selling their samoosas at the fantastic local butcher, Cricks.
The main event is Shabs’ light, fresh Durban Beef Shin Curry, served with Saffron Rice, Green Mango Pickle, and Monkey Nut Chutney (Monkeys seem to feature highly on this menu), which is tender and delicately spiced. It’s a Poiky – a slowed cooked dish where the meat and vegetables are layered and cooked in a Poiky dish, another great culinary fact for you.
Even the cheesecake we are served for pudding teaches us a thing or two – heard of Granadilla? Us neither, but this passion fruit like delicacy is a delightful discovery, and is paired with Rooibos (one I finally know) flavoured pineapple in this moreish dessert.
Seafood nights, Bunnychow evenings and Braai (BBQ – you know that one!) events are scheduled over the summer; take a look at the website/active Instagram page for more info.
OUT & ABOUT
Wheatley is a lively, friendly village and a good starting point for a long, looped walk over the Shotover Estate, before heading over for your booking at Durban Spice.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: An unusual dinner with a group of friends, but with the supper clubs booked up until the beginning of July, you better get your reservation in fast.
Not for: Young, active children or anyone on a diet (the menu on offer is five courses).
The damage: Shabs’ Durban taster menu comes in at £37, which sounds a little steep at first glance. However, given that the menu is five courses and, of course, the BYOB saving, it amounts to a reasonable evening out.
Words: Sophie McIntyre