When we first heard that Exclusive Books Hyde Park was opening a restaurant with well-known Australian chef, Russell Armstrong at the helm we were beyond excited. Armstrong is known for his work at three-Michelin-starred restaurants in France and the UK, including the oh-so-famous Le Gavroche so it seemed like a match made in heaven. “But what was such an accomplished chef doing working in a restaurant in a book store?” we thought. Sure, EB Social Kitchen and Bar is in Hyde Park but would the well-heeled really want to shell out to eat dinner in a bookstore? Apparently they will – the place is always packed! But, like many places in Joburg it might be the hype that keeps the crowds rolling in … for now. Don’t get me wrong, EB Social Kitchen and Bar is all kinds of fabulous but after my visit recently I’m beginning to wonder if they missed the mark a bit with this unique new concept. And it got me wondering; “Is this new eatery in Hyde Park a little too fancy pants for a restaurant in a book store?”
Walking into EB Social Kitchen and Bar for the first time is both confusing and exciting. You enter through the Exclusive Books book store, making your way through rack-upon-rack of books, past the coffee shop selling cakes and coffees to night owls and students pulling an all-nighter and then you see it; a cacophony of industrial-style metal, opulent gold finishes, and what appears to be office furniture as the dining chairs and tables. At first you can’t quite figure out where the book store ends and the restaurant starts but you’re oddly comforted by it. The beautiful space was designed by renowned architect Silvio Rech and is nothing short of a masterpiece but yet, sitting in this wondrous space you can’t help but feel a little bit perplexed when you peer over to see shop assistants packing away books on the shelves in the book store and people browsing for books to read on their Sundays off. On one end of the space you have a 40m span of glass that looks out over Johannesburg’s glorious urban forest (very Hyde Park chic) and on the other books.
Exclusive Books says the purpose behind the book store eatery is to extend the same approach to food that they do to books – “namely, that anyone should be able to find something accessible, that all are treated equally and that there is the same care and attention to detail to the customer and the experience, whatever the budget.” But here’s the problem; the prices don’t quite match the ethos of the eatery. While the food is delicious, it’s not R 140 for a small portion delicious. It’s not; “Hey, that was pretty expensive but the food was beyond amazing so I don’t mind” delicious. And, there is no way to swing it to have an affordable bite at this spot. The menu is broken up into three sections – “very small plates and jars”, “small plates” and “more plates to share” and ordering can be quite an overwhelming experience. Our waiter wasn’t able to explain the portion sizes to us so we were ordering blind, trying to figure out if the “more plates to share” were big enough for a moderately hungry adult or a ravenous Sandton housewife.
In the end our group of five decided to order two portions of the Butter Chicken (with pilaf rice, josperised naan, and salsa – R155) from the “small plates” section, two portions of the Rump Cap with Bone Marrow Crumble (crushed baked potato and jospersied tomato stew – R140), and one portion of the 72-hour Roasted Pork Rack (with coriander pea puree and smoked potatoes – R170). For dessert we opted to share a char-roasted Banana with lime syrup, and creme fraiche ice cream – R90), small cheese plate (R110) and a Lemon Tart with butter pastry, raspberries, jelly and meringues (R90). Our bill came to a whopping R1500 for 5 people and while we weren’t hungry afterwards the portions were quite small. To be fair to EB Social Kitchen and Bar it does state that most of their plates are for sharing, tapas style but at R155 for a plate one would assume the portion would be quite generous.
Sadly, the food didn’t quite live up to the prices or descriptions on the menu. For me, there’s a bit of a disconnect between the location and setting of the eatery and the menu. On one end you get this very cool, urban vibe from the decor and you imagine the space being frequented by young professionals looking for a place to see and be seen but on the other end the menu and prices try a little too hard to be a Cube Tasting Kitchen or a DW Eleven-13. Perhaps the most ridiculous thing on the menu was the small cheese plate which for R110 was nothing short of daylight robbery considering how small it actually was.
But, having said that I must mention that the baked potato with marrow crumble that came with my Rump Cap was beyond yummy. It was my favourite part of the dish and I savored every morsel. The Jospersied tomato stew that came on the side of the dish was also incredible and I could have enjoyed just a pot of it with some freshly baked bread. I also loved the pea puree that came with the 72-hour Roasted Pork Rack. If there’s one thing you can say about Armstrong and his team it’s that they know how to make good sauces and purees! I also loved that the restaurant makes use of a Josper oven (a combination of a grill and an oven in a single machine) to cook meat and other dishes to perfection.
To drink we opted for a bottle of wine (which started at R30 a glass) and some craft beers (which ranged in price from R40 – R80). The drinks and wine selection is very extensive, and the menu offers a wide range of craft cocktails, beers, ciders, and sodas. To tie into the book shop theme, the cocktails on the menu have been named after famous novels: think Breakfast at Tiffany’s; The Scarlet Letter or a Pride and Prejudice. I also loved that they offer a huge selection of high quality teas – especially great for those who want an alternative to after dinner coffees.
While the eatery still has a few niggles to work out, it is still very early days for them and it is clear that the menu is still be adjusted by the team. Go if you love to be surrounded by beautiful things and just want to nibble on something small over drinks with mates.
For more information on EB Social Kitchen and Bar say Hi on Facebook. Find them at Hyde Park Corner, corner. Jan Smuts Avenue and William Nicol Drive.