Words: Chris Zacharia
Reputations can be misleading.
South Africa, for instance, is known more for the quality of its wine than for its food. Judging by the dishes on offer at High Timber, a classy South African restaurant on the shores of the Thames, that isn’t the whole story.
As maître d’ Neleen tells us, the food itself is actually of British provenance: no sense in shipping grub halfway around the world when British produce is so good. But with an impressive cellar stocked with over 40,000 wines, a dedicated cheese and biltong room, and an eloquent menu which does justice to the country’s favourite food, High Timber can nevertheless claim to be a true bastion of South African cuisine in the UK.
When we arrive on a sunny Tuesday evening, the place is packed. Inside, every wall is covered with bold, eloquent South African art. Almost every table is taken, and it doesn’t get any quieter. It helps, then, that the waiting staff are a cut above. Alongside the indefatigable Neleen, High Timber’s crew of sommeliers, waiters and bar staff are uniformly knowledgeable, passionate and friendly.
Still, it helps to have a view this good. A front-row view of the river lures diners to sit on the tables scattered outside the restaurant, soundtracked by the lively hum of businessmen and barflies. We sit down right in the middle for a perfect view of the setting sun.
The day might be ending, but it’s hot out here. As a refreshment, we order two glasses of a South African sparkling wine – Graham Beck 2011 Brut. It makes for a good start: the crisp, citrusy spray of bubbles rejuvenates and restores.
Glancing at the menu, the starters sound like your usual pre-steak roster of familiar names. Yet these dishes are united by their creative nods to the home country. Each plate carries a little bit of South Africa. Biltong croquettas, crisp on the outside and a promising earthy brown within, deliver the promised molten meatiness. A maroon peppadew ketchup adds notes of sweetness and spice.
A heritage tomato and crab salad (£9.95) is a real zinger, the kind of salad which can hold its own on a table of big hitters. Green, yellow and red tomatoes leak into pools of white balsamic and feta, with shavings of tender crab meat adding a sweet inflection.
Seared foie gras and beef carpaccio (£12.50) is even better: a heap of fleshy umami, galvanised by trickle of truffle oil and a shower of Parmesan shavings. Every morsel of it is magnificent: it’s shovelled down joyfully.
Other starters are less successful but valiant nonetheless. Rooibos tea smoked salmon (£11.50) is decent but the red bush is practically undetectable. Amongst the abundance elsewhere on the table, the accompanying rye bread feels parsimonious.
The wines have just as much character than the food. Accompanying our starters is a glass of Jordan Stellenbosch Sauvignon Blanc 2014. A big right hook of green pepper floors us – it’s an intense, spicy wine, with a strong herby nose.
Anticipation is building. High Timber are known, foremost, as specialists in steak, and if the hefty slabs of meat on the table next to ours are anything to go by, it’s a well-earned reputation. You can order sirloin, rib-eye or fillet – if you want rump, it’s time to re-examine your life choices.
All the meat is aged for twenty-eight days, with each slice cut to order from the bone. Like any serious steakhouse, it’s done by the gram. A promising black and teak char coats my rib-eye; tear it open with the knife, and there’s a raspberry pink blush within. Rivulets of fat, coalescing in little ribbons threading through the meat, bring bursts of umami flavour.
Is it a good steak? Undoubtedly. Is it better than Gaucho and the like? I’m not sure. You won’t find a bad cut at High Timber, but neither does my rib-eye blow contenders out of the water. Lingering over each mouthful, I’m enjoying every bite it has to offer. Yet I find myself reminiscing over the creativity and joyfulness of those starters.
As ever, our sommelier has an excellent wine pairing for our steaks. A full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon, another Jordan wine, proves an able companion to the meat. Aged for eighteen months in barrels of French oak, giving it a ruggedness well suited to these flavours.
Beyond the wine, a smattering of side plates enhance our main course. I’m not usually one for sauces on my steak, but High Timber’s bearnaise is a worthy addition to the table: rich without being cloying, buttery yet sharp,everything we can get our hands on gets dipped into it. Chimichurri brings a welcome zingyness (not quite as good as CAU’s version, but not bad at all) and the peppercorn sauce verges on confectionary, it’s that addictive. There’s delicious buttered spinach and the High Timber chips are that ideal combination of crispy on the outside and fluffy within. Like everything else on our table, they’re quickly demolished.
For steak sceptics, High Timber have got more in store than just pub grub. A shrt and sweet list of alternatives includes a Ras el Hanout grilled pork loin and five-spice duck breast with pistachio yoghurt. Clearly, they’re not resting on their laurels.
Since there’s no chocolate fondant left (“It’s so hot today, it literally melted” Neleen explains), the chef has whipped up a special in its place. A fluffy white chocolate mousse with raspberries, raspberry sauce and a crunchy biscuit base is a more than adequate replacement. It also makes for a refreshing finale to such a hearty meal.
But we can’t leave without sampling the cheese. Not when High Timber have a dedicated cheese and biltong room. The pick of the bunch is a gloopy Munster cheese, with the rich consistency of custard. Clinging to your knife convincingly, it delivers a beautiful volley of creamy tartness. Plum-coloured biltong releases the depth of flavour more commonly associated with blue cheese.
By now we’re watching the lights glitter on the water beneath Blackfriars bridge, contentedly sipping the last of our wine, reliving our meal. I’ve never been to South Africa, but High Timber has a reputation as a great restaurant. And it’s well-earned.
8 High Timber St
Tel: 020 7248 1777