Chef James Diack has mastered the art of fine dining with an organic conscience at Coobs.
Rest assured that if an ingredient listed on the menu is not available, then it is either not in season nor is it fit to be served at Coobs. James boasts a broad smile as he says that he would sooner substitute an ingredient than use anything that wasn’t organically grown and sustainably harvested.
I get the impression that it’s a challenge he looks forward to presenting itself in the kitchen as it would challenge his culinary prowess to create spectacular dishes on the last minute whim of his harvest.
Harvest his own produce he does; 75% of ingredients come from his family’s organic farm ‘Brightside’ in the Magaliesburg, as James enjoys having his hands thick in the (organic) dirt where he takes pleasure in knowing where his food is coming from. Anything that he cannot source from Brightside is sourced from reliable local suppliers he trusts.
We play by God’s rules with regards to what ingredients we’re able to use and if we don’t think we’re able to do a certain dish well, then we just don’t do it.
Chef James Diack | Coobs
One minor inconvenience of relying upon Mother Nature for sustainable produce is that she can be equally temperamental and inconsistent with her bounty, less convenient than a 24 hour supermarket that sells bags of iceberg lettuce 365 days a year, and she’s not always going to deliver on demand. Like most mothers, Mother Nature gives you what she’s got, and you will either like it or leave it.
Chef James invited #DineJoziStyle to preview his new winter menu menu at Coobs.
Slow braise suffolk lamb shoulder served with a truffle infused arancini, minted broad bean puree and radish and micro leaf salad.
Coobs Bouillabaise – monk fish, prawns, mussels, and a crispy calamari served in a tomato pernod and fennel bulb ragu.
Crispy coated creamy polenta served with chared aubergine puree, tahini yogurt pomegranate, swiss chard and pine nuts.
Chicken liver parfait served with port braised red cabbage, candied watermelon, warm chutney and a homemade melba toast.
Carbonara served with free range deep fried, confit egg yolk, crispy wild boar bacon and freshly grated parmesan.
Confit pork belly served with roasted apple, pomme anna, craft beer battered onion rings, bacon crumble and a brandy jus.
Porcini crusted slow braised lamb terrine served with pumpkin puree, kimchi, chared baby onions and a minted, sherry jus.
Turkish style roasted aubergine served with crispy fried, masala dusted tofu, tomato and onion garum sauce and a micro salad.
Chocolate plate – chocolate mousse, warm chocolate brownie, toasted marshmallow and choc-chip nutella ice-cream and dulce de leche.
Lemon curd brulee koeksister ice cream and candied citrus.
This is a preview of his early winter menu which is lighter than his late winter menu.
Starters included braised lamb shoulder, bouillabaise, or chicken liver parfait. Vegetarians had a polenta dishes available to them.
I ordered the chicken liver parfait because I have a weakness for anything dippy with something crispy. The parfait was a delight as it married the richness of pate with the lightness of mousse without being overtly liverish. Chef James served port braised red cabbage, candied watermelon, and warm chutney as playful complements or contrasts to his chicken liver parfait. The astringency of the cabbage brought vibrancy, the chutney added spice, followed by the sweetness of the candied watermelon to take your taste-buds full-circle through the flavour wheel underpinned by a delicate parfait that stood its ground as the axis of this culinary roundabout.
Melba toast serves two functions alongside pate; both as a serving vessel and a textural element, but I preferred to eat my chicken liver parfait at Coobs with a fork to fully enjoy the texture and flavours without the earth shattering crunch of the toast. It was sublime.
Don’t be intimidated to order a parfait off a savoury menu as it is a finely strained pate, often milder in flavour, smoother in texture, and very refined.
You could also enjoy the accompaniments in any order according to your personal taste. It’s a clever dish in its playfulness.
If you’re morally opposed to eating candied watermelon, like I am, just add a drop of the syrup to appreciate the sweeter side of the liver parfait. I did.
Between the ten of us dining #JoziStyle, we all ordered an even selection of the starters without any complaints and silent appreciation which I always think is a good sign that the food is too good to be ruined by conversation. The slow braised Suffolk lamb shoulder would have been my second choice for the evening; not least of all because of the minted broad bean puree and radish and micro leaf salad, but I thought it was the best looking dish of all the starters. The Coobs Bouillabaisse with Pernod and fennel sounds like a flavour combination that deserves a return.
I generally avoid carbs- to the best of my ability, but the fact that the polenta was crispy ‘n golden made me wonder if I could be tempted… but probably not, but I could be sorely tempted by the combination of pine nuts, tahini, and charred aubergine.
#DineJoziStyle is usually a collaboration between the restaurant, their PR, and myself, to create the ultimate opportunity for #DineJoziStylers to experience what the restaurant wants to showcase. Usually I prefer a selection of starter portions to sample a wider selection of dishes, but Chef James preferred a more relaxed approach that allowed everyone to order their choice of mains to eat whatever appealed to them most, and experience his portions, and relax – it was a dining experience, not a expo.
We all (mostly) ordered the confit pork belly served with roasted apple, pomme anna, craft beer battered onion rings, bacon crumble and a brandy jus.
Pork, brandy and apples are trouble just waiting to happen in the kitchen, add some bad-boy beer battered onion rings with some bacon crumble … you know this is not going to be a dish for the faint-hearted. #DineJoziStyle likes trouble, so we all ordered it!
This was not pub & grub fare: expect an elegantly executed pork belly that was more pork than belly.
Chef James rendered a lot of the fat out of the pork belly to produced a meaty dish that was succulent without being fatty – in fact, I thought that the pomme anna was richer than the pork so that one appreciated the full flavour of the pork positioned against the richness of the potato. I love when chefs turn the expected into the unexpected.
Pork lends itself so well to fruit because it is sweeter than most meats; and because it is fattier too, the acidity of fruit adds contrast and balance. Add some brandy to the mix and you have a dish that combines richness, depth and flavour.
Chef James adds a few cheffy touches by serving the pork crackling separately on the plate and an upright beer battered onion ring. Neither flourishes are entirely necessary, but he’s demonstrating his creative flair and technical skill – and who said sustainably sourced, organic food couldn’t also have some savoir faire?
I think everyone was so caught up with their crackling that nobody noticed if anyone had the carbonara with confit duck and egg yolk wild boar bacon, Porcini crusted lamb terrine or the Turkish style roasted aubergine. It was, to quote a poor turn of phrase, finger licking good!
Of the two desserts to preview from Chef James’ new winter menu: the chocolate plate was an instantly accessible, crowd pleasing exploration of chocolate flavours and textures through a mousse, brownie, toasted marshmallow, dulce de leche and ice-cream – but I opted for the road less traveled, and opted for the lemon curd brulee, koeksister ice cream and candied citrus.
I don’t know why, but I decided that if Chef James was going to push the culinary envelope, why shouldn’t I?
Firstly, in my opinion, there is only one way to make a creme brulee, and that’s simply with vanilla and cream. Keep it creamy, velvety and simple to showcase the subtly of the ingredients. Combining creamy and citrus is easily one of my least favourite combinations. Factor a coarse koeksister into a smooth ice-cream, and I assumed I was about to experience the kind of dessert that wasn’t going to go down without some objection.
My initial taste confirmed my skepticism. It’s not the kind of dessert that is going to appeal to every palate. It’s not a crowd-pleaser, nor does it pretend to be, but it’s not a random assembly of conflicting flavours that have been assembled without forethought. The creme brulee is neither sweet nor tart but a velevety smooth lemon creme. The caramelised topping was easily overlooked as it as a razor thin sugar crisp – not a thick wedge of caramelised sugar, but a truly wonderful testament to how sugar should be caramelized on top of a creme brulee.
Personal Aside: The caramelized topping of a creme brulee has never appealed to me as I’ve never enjoyed the juxtaposition of hard shards of sugar against the smoothness of the custard. I loved the razor crispness of James’ creme brulee as the caramel melted in your mouth on a second’s notice.
The candied citrus provided a fruity explosion of acidity and sweetness that was mellowed by the creme brulee. It’s not the combination of flavours that appeal to me personally, but it is a wonderfully wicked dish of deliberate contradictions that somehow work. It’s probably too technical for its own good as a dessert, but one cannot deny that it is a clever construction that warrants intellectual consideration. It reminded me of a quote that a theatre director once made: Theatre doesn’t happen in the theatre, it happens when you leave. A month later, I am still trying to get my head around James’ lemon curd brulee, koeksister ice cream and candied citrus. I may need to return to try it again.
The koeksister ice-cream? A wonderfully smooth ice-cream that was reminiscent of warm spices that held its own against the acidity of the fruit and added a sweeter note to creme brulee.
James paired his dishes with a selection of wines that he complemented his dishes; namely, Lovemore’s Haarlem to Hope, Eenzaamheid’s Cinsaut and Gabrielskloof’s The Blend. I started on a dry local MCC, Le Lude, which I stuck to with all my courses. Moira de Swardt shares more information about the wine served at #DineJoziStyleCoobs.
Being a self-sufficient restaurant means I can educate my customers about respecting the ingredients.
Chef James Diack | Coobs
Dining at Coobs is a magical experience. It is certainly indicative of its eclectic chef’s personality who likes to add a mischievous twist to his menu. Food is plated artfully and generously without being pretentious – Chef James keeps his menu rustic to reflect his source but adds a few creative flourishes to remind you that real food deserves fine presentation.
Chef James Diack joins me in studio at Radio Today Johannesburg.
Our #DineJoziStyleCoobs event was made extra special by Chef James Diack because he gave us an exclusive preview of his new winter menu but additional highlights included the surprise arrival of popular TV & radio presenter, Jen Su, who also shared copies of her book ‘From Z to A-Lister’, award winning photographer, Johnathan Andrews, created a short movie of #DineJoziStyleCoobs, and #QMSMediCosmetics generously contributed a voucher for a facial at Acorn Lane Guest Estate for all the bloggers.
Listen to Jen Su’s review on Cliff Central. (Starts at 2:00)
Join our next #DineJoziStyle.