Concealed in the plainclothes of an apartment block of northern Johannesburg, Epicure by Chef Coco is a superhero of African cuisine. Capturing the culture of the continent in his cooking, celebrity chef Fathi ‘Coco’ Reinarhz has taken African food to the fine-dining level it deserves.
The treasure hunt of finding the extraordinary in an ordinary place is what makes travel so addictive. Couple that with incredible food that speaks of your destination, and that’s the X marks the spot moment, right there.
From that hidden ramen shop in a dead-end backstreet of Kyoto to a boisterous cantina in an outskirt suburb of San Diego, that turn-around feeling from doubt to joy as you walk through the dark little doorway is palpable.
That’s how it was as we parked up in what we first thought was a residents-only car park somewhere in Morningside, an affluent yet uninteresting commercial suburb in Jo’burg’s north.
But beyond the apartment block lobby, through uncharacteristically ornate doors, the world changes from non-committal condo to seductive, sophisticated restaurant.
This is Epicure by Chef Coco.
Flavours of Africa by a global citizen
Chef Coco approaches our table, which is in the midst of the restaurant.
Giant pendant lights hang like fruit from woven platforms surrounding the building’s pillars, reminding us of the acacia trees of the savanna.
Seating is upholstered in a soft midnight blue velvet, while the walls and ceiling are a warm copper colour.
The result is welcoming and subtle, much like our host.
Explaining the menu, Chef Coco points out that these dishes are all expressions of Africa. He has pieced together the essence of many countries of the continent with culinary skills he has learnt from years of working and studying around the world.
Chef Coco is originally from Burundi, though he credits much of his passion for food to his grandfather, who was Belgian and who passed his knowledge to Coco’s mother. Her teachings inspired Coco to move to Belgium to learn all he could about the art of cooking.
Flair for the theatre of food, deep knowledge of fine-dining and an intelligent interpretation of traditional ingredients from across Africa have given Chef Coco something truly unique.
Three courses from across the continent
The entree platter, which comes on a large, white board, is like a compass of African morsels.
Chef Coco has called it ‘NEWS of Africa’ as it points to North, East, West and South, with dishes based on food from across the continent. With a twist of course!
Moroccan-spiced lamb samosa, Ethiopian-style berbere chicken, calamari char-grilled in Nigerian suya, delicate chotlo beef in petal-like bowls… it’s a journey for the table.
Main dishes are just as varied.
My curiosity feels obliged to try the ostrich – ‘Exquisitely Oudtshoorn’ – which is grilled South African style and served with butternut mash and Pinotage jus. The meat is succulent, served quite rare, and tastes somewhere between game meat and turkey leg.
Christina tucks into the elaborate Seafood Matadi – a Congolese inspired medley of calamari, prawns and cassava in a ‘liboke’ – a way of cooking in a banana leaf wrap traditional to the Congo. But the star of the show is the soft-shell crab, crispy, tender and utterly delicious.
Our travel companions also order the ‘Cape Quacker’ – slow-cooked confit duck leg and breast with gooseberries and Rooibos compote on sweet potatoes, ‘Diaspora Africana’ – picañha, feijoada, cauliflower purée, short rib samosa, butternut mash and garlic confit, and a range of perfectly cooked steaks.
Dessert comes and it’s a further testament to the artistry of Chef Coco. The platter of all sorts – from tiny profiteroles to ice cream to a wonderful chocolate lava cake.
Of course, the wine list is more like an exhaustive catalogue of South African wines with an interesting run-down of the various regions here.
We stick to the Pinotage and find the Boschendal 2016 very much to our liking.
Pinotage is a single-grape varietal peculiar to South Africa. It’s a portmanteau of the grape types that were bred together to make it: Pinot Noir and Cinsaut – once known as ‘Hermitage’.
We also discover at the bar area, there’s an excellent whisky and rum list available with some impressive cocktails on offer too.
I’m also excited to see there’s a well-stocked humidor here, where you can choose a cigar to enjoy in the open-air lounge hidden around the corner. There’s even a shisha pipe menu.
Epicure by Chef Coco isn’t just a memorable meal, it’s an expression of culture that cannot be overlooked.
It’s clear that Chef Coco has aimed his impressive skillsets and considerable cooking knowledge at creating a dining experience. It’s a pan-African journey, with the finest flavours from the four corners of Africa.
But Epicure is not only a food highlights reel of these broad lands, but a tale that tells of the continent as well.