There is energy at Africola. It blasts from the charcoal grill at the heart of the kitchen. It radiates from the brightly coloured modern art hanging on the walls. It is irresistibly passed on by the bar staff who work cheek by jowl with the kitchen crew. You can taste it in the modern South African émigré food of chef Duncan Welgemoed that hits you like a wall of flavour while wrapping comfortably around you like a hug from a favourite aunt. A brilliant mix of youthful exuberance and respect for culinary traditions makes this East End Adelaide restaurant one of the hottest in the nation.
Africola is housed in one of the city’s glorious old double-storied stone and brick pubs, just a Cooper’s stubby throw from the Botanic Gardens. The interior has a décor that blends cartoonish elements of colonial South Africa appropriated by the incumbent multicultural creatives. The walls are lined with artworks by global painters like Jonathan Lasker while the cane light fittings look as if they were woven by African artisans. This engineered anarchy, developed by the artist/designer James Brown, Welgemoed’s business partner, has the feeling of a world turned on its head. Brown will continue to evolve and change this interior.
We love dining at the bar at Africola. It is dinner and a show. While there are comfortable seats and banquettes at bare wood tables throughout, the bar’s proximity to the cooking gives you an insight into the technique and philosophy at work. Africola is a celebration of pan-African ingredients and ideas put through the filter of a man who, although born in South Africa, trained and perfected his skill in the Michelin restaurants of the UK. His signature dish is the Tea Sandwich – pieces of crisp golden chicken skin, dripping in hot schmaltz and slathered in chilli mayo sidling up to shredded lettuce bookended by soft white bread.
Second this with a serve of slices of eggplant softly and deliciously encased in light batter, topped with Moorish spices and funky soft goat’s cheese. This could be followed by a dish of charred peppers. Long green peppers are carefully cooked until the skin is dark and charred and the flesh collapsed and unctuous. Topping this, a smooth and light tarama-like accompaniment of whipped cod roe adds a salty, creamy deliciousness to the mysterious blackness of the veg.
While veg is king at Africola there is room for chook. Welgemoed’s peri peri chicken is a dish of legend and something he grew up on, cooked by his dad and a godfather from Madeira. The chicken is soaked in aromatic brine then marinated in peri peri sauce, cooked over glowing embers then smoked to finish the dish. That is typical of the layering of flavour that goes into so many of the dishes.
Sitting at the bar we watch the young apprentice brush radicchio leaves with a dark liquid mushroom ketchup from a fireside pot then lay the leaves over the gently glowing embers. Shortly he removes them, brushes them once more then returns them to the grill. The result is a mix of bitter-sweet, umami, and salty. We are not allowed to leave until we have tried Africola’s Boom Boom hummus, served with crisp chickpeas and sumac. It’s a perfect foil for the spiced lamb but we love the roasted cauliflower more. It’s called a steak and is as meaty and delicious, slathered in a sauce based on tahini, enriched with brown butter and given crunch from pepitas and a fresh tang from chives.
The kitchen quietens as the flurry of services eases. The kitchen team gathers around a new dish. Everyone from Welgemoed to the apprentice has a taste and their say. It is a very collegiate atmosphere, which leads to the other remarkable point about Africola: respect. Respect for the produce, respect for each other and respect for the customer. Dining here can be a heartwarming experience.
4 East Terrace, Adelaide
Tel. 08 8223 3885