Food thinker and grower Dario de Angeli’s bewitching new eatery

Posted on June 06, 2024

Here I am in Rosebank, at Sec. I’ve followed chef Dario de Angeli since he was in his late teens at a restaurant called Soho Square in Orange Grove. He was a food phenomenon then and is now.

He’s the South African chef with a gift for running way ahead of the pack and we’ve him to thank for those Yum restaurants that won award after award for his bistro bravery, which woke us up to what stupendously good food it could be. He also put us on to fine dining tasting menus, as he had them at Cube. Cube was booked out four months ahead then, by an eating public agog. Great chefs were hatched there, one of my favourites being Darren O’Donovan, now of Embarc. So, when Dario does yet another thing out of the ordinary, I like to know.

De Angeli took the Covid years in his stride, golf club in hand, playing the links of less restricted countries. I suppose what’s always made him such a leader type of chef is that he’s a brilliant thinker. A food thinker. A food grower too. He’s that person you want to talk food with because he knows all about who’s doing what around the world, why and how they’re creating it, however outlandishly.

My Sec meal starts with a surprise shot of chartreuse coloured liquid, thickish, like a smoothie. (He knows that I’ve just had my bag, phone, world stolen, and my bank barring access to my own money.)

“This one’s for you. They’re not all the same but everyone gets one at Sec before they receive a menu. Everyone’s stressed and it’s no way to start a meal. I want people to eat again for true enjoyment, to be happy about it, to take a delicious break here for their own good. Bolting down meals at speed just stresses you more.”

Mine has a beguiling, slightly bitter pique, in swirling creaminess. If I had to design a cocktail for myself it would be something like this, not silly-sweet but grown-up in a herby, ginger-spicy way and moreish as hell.

“Tell me that doesn’t make you feel good?” I’m smiling. “Seaweed, turmeric, ginger in dark chocolate oil and soy milk.”

The not-so-common combination of tastes on the Namibian crab plate makes for wild joy. (Photo: Supplied)

The music is gentle, the light is diffused, the scent of my ex-shot is lingering and I change my mind about what I was going to eat because this time I’m reading the menu properly. I do now want Namibian crab. These dishes are all smallish plates (no, they’re not tapas) and that appeals to me. I can have two or three. Now I’m looking carefully at the detail, the ingredients on the menu when I order. There’s promise of interesting and unusual marvels within these.

My plate’s crab flesh is coolly combined with soft apple strips tasting a little of sushi or rice vinegar, along with juicily fresh fennel and ginger. There’s a smidge of sesame, fine red onion, lovely interior pairings like our own balderjan or wild longleaf mint, with sweetish wakame kelp. There’s a splash of sambal oelek over the top and it’s bewitching. The not-so-common combination of tastes makes for wild joy in my previously ‘hmmm’ mouth.

Apart from the likes of crab and kelp, Dario’s growing as much as he can for this and other dishes, in the gardens around the little Clico boutique hotel that houses Sec. He’s quite the farmer. Knowing about the plants’ beneficial effects on our digestion and dopamine levels, their antioxidation properties but especially what their tastes contribute to his dishes, are things we can benefit from. Or we can just delight in them.

I’ve recent inside information about this because I’ve accompanied Dario de Angeli on a trip to our wonderful food resource, the Future Africa gardens, on the eastern campus of Pretoria University. He was meeting the gardens’ curator, Richard Hay.

I love the place. Richard has said he doesn’t know why more chefs don’t make as much use of the gardens as they could. Dario is doing so and I overheard Richard saying he’ll grow herbs, vegetables and even fruit especially for Sec. I left them to those details but wandered up a path of many strange and different melons at the end, distinctly hearing Dario saying, “Kei apples for the pastilles”. Richard is making these gardens viable in other ways too, apart from science, producing seeds for Living Seeds, the South African heirloom seed provider.

Our wonderful food resource, the Future Africa gardens of the Pretoria University. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

Future Africa’s plants are very often originally from Africa, especially of southern Africa, but the project does reach further around the world, to produce resilient crops and plants for people here to grow, for their food and health. That last bit is where it fits especially with Dario’s food at Sec.

The diverse bromeliad section includes edible pineapples as we know them but also berries, flowers and even seed pods of other bromeliads. (Photo: Dario de Angeli)

Some of Future Africa’s plants are being diversified by Future Africa, like the citrus section and the waterberries and figs system. A demand for Future Africa’s enormous range of edibles and the knowledge embedded here can only be spread through more use and understanding.

Richard and Dario joke about all the pick-me-ups there are underfoot, like the roots of Mondia whitei. For both men it’s lots more than fun, though.

A vegetarian plate I order, primarily of my favourite beluga lentils, as a tartare. (Photo: Supplied)

So, when I see blue African sage on a vegetarian plate I order, primarily of my favourite beluga lentils, I’m not surprised. The lentils are plated tartare fashion, held in mascarpone and surrounded by strident and surprising flavours to draw into the centre, as with a tartare, like black truffle, brightly bursting yuzu pearls, tomato fillets intensified in ponzu, and that wild sage and fennel. Crisped bits of leek and red onions crunch in my mouth every now and then, part of a variety of contrasting textures and tastes. I’m finding it very exciting eating this, a surprise food experience.

For three or so years in his chef life, Dario became vegan, just so that he could limit himself to the actual tastes and preparation of vegetables, in particular. We comment on the strange fact that most, or at least very many, real vegans don’t like vegetables much. I did the same thing for only two years, armed with a rather old-fashioned weighty tome of international vegan cookery. I’m just as pleased I did that because of how very much I learnt, especially about taste and tasting.

The thought of salmon pieces loitering in a little white-miso broth clinched it. (Photo: Supplied)

I think my third smallish plate might be daunting because salmon can be quite filling but the idea of salmon skin crackling was what sold me. I’m a pushover for fish skin, especially crisped. And the next thought of salmon pieces loitering in a little white-miso broth clinched it. That was before I realised I’d also find some squid ink aioli involved.

Now I’m finding more treats like garlicky Tulbaghia violacea in it, wild sourish sorrel as a herby counterpoint and some lemon verbena for good sweet-lemony measure. There are confit small onions as well as crisp tempura wafers of nori. This dish is turning into another experience of many delights. How could it also be good for me? Dario mentions the various antioxidants abounding.

I shan’t have pud now, no matter how small the plates, but I do notice that one choice is a very dark chocolatey construction of many parts, one a citrusy fridge cake that includes limoncello, no doubt of a superior sort, also Indonesian style pancakes. And then there is a dessert of mainly groundnut, coconut oil bombes with nut brittle and butterscotch — and the fruit pastilles. At present, they’re made of autumn berries, but I’m confident now there’ll be some somewhere as the menu changes, featuring that Kei apple.

I know everything is made here in this kitchen, even the morcilla sausage of which chef Dario is proud and for which I’ll return, inter alia. Dario also loves cooking with game meats and there is gemsbok on the current menu. It might, given my choices, seem as though the menu is mostly fish. I’ve also noticed cow heels on the menu.

One of the five ingredients may well be mood elevating turmeric. (Photo: Dario de Angeli)

Dario de Angeli almost invented tasting menus in this country and, instead, he has different, special ‘pantry’ ideas for the future that are centred on guests choosing five ingredients, all local (and I’m pretty sure Future Africa features in there) because he sources even his olives and butter as close to him as possible. He always rushes around personally in his car, choosing and picking up his fresh things.

Fish of course comes from responsible catchers. Once, I was having coffee with Dario when he quickly stood up, said, “Oh forgive me — please excuse me — I ‘ve got to go and see a man about a fish.”

When the pantry evenings come about I’m sure there’ll be even more emphasis on the happiness element of eating at Sec, the feel-good food or mood-improving fare, which is present here already. It just tastes so fantastic, it’s not immediately obvious.

I know where and whom to thank for the fact that my everything-awful, disastrous week from hell is ending in a heavenly way. 

This article first appeared in Daily Maverick on 24 May 2024.

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