Experience sensory theatre at Dusk

What’s in a name? In the case of Dusk, the fine dining establishment on Stellenbosch’s Plein Street, the name is a clue to the experiences inside. By Magriet Kruger

Dusk is the time after sunset but before it is fully dark. That’s when the light is so dim that objects become somewhat hazy. Before artificial light, dusk was when people would gather to eat, their daily rhythms far more attuned to nature. It is also a liminal time – neither day, nor night – associated with magic. And Dusk, the restaurant, is all of these: enchanting, connected to the earth and atmospherically dusky.

Entering the restaurant, it is quite dark, more like the lighting at a theatre than other dinner venues. But although the space isn’t brightly illuminated, it is well lit, because sleek black downlighters cast a spotlight on each table. At our place settings we find the menu: folded like an old-style letter and sealed with wax. It is with a sense of anticipation that we open it to discover the seven-course spring menu that awaits.

Alchemy of food and wine

To begin, there’s a welcome glass of Graham Beck bubbly and bread to nibble on. This is a preview of how Dusk does things differently. The beautifully glazed brioche is made with Japanese rice flour, so it is light and airy. And thanks to an encounter with the kitchen’s Diablo smoker, the butter has a savoury flavour. It is clear we are in for an evening of fine dining, so when sommelier Bafana Zondo asks if we will be doing the wine pairing, there is no hesitation. 

Another intriguing option is the Pandora’s Box signature pairing. Diners can join Bafana in the cellar to choose one box out of eleven curated ones. Each box contains three wines considered masterpieces which Bafana has selected to complement the menu. The appeal lies in discovering which wines are inside your box. To add to the experience, there are even different waters from various parts of the world paired with the courses.

It should come as no surprise that Bafana recently won the 2023 Eat Out Woolworths Wine Service Award

for his skill as sommelier. An award that pairs beautifully with Dusk being recognised as one of the top seven restaurants in the country by Eat Out. 

For us, it is a treat to be out on a date night and Dusk is the perfect setting for an intimate evening. The lighting means the rest of the restaurant recedes in darkness; our table is all that exists for us. So we sit back, relax and surrender to the alchemy of food and wine.

A fresh take on fish

When the next course – a line fish ceviche – arrives, it is pretty as a picture. Presented on vibrant scallop shells set amid other seafood shells, the dish calls to mind salt spray and ocean jewels. The yellowtail is cured in a lime and chive sauce and is served in a delicate broth of coconut, apple and lime. Ponzu pearls and black lumpfish roe add bursts of flavour and texture. Lemberg’s Lady, which features the Hungarian grape Hárslevelü and aromatic Viognier, is a brilliant accompaniment. 

“Second-hand shellfish” is not a combination of words that would enthuse most diners, but at Dusk it’s part of the magic. Server Tendai Mjekula explains that the restaurant uses prawn shells that go unutilised by other establishments to give the bisque accompanying the pota squid its depth of flavour. The Lothian Chardonnay stands up to the layered flavours of the dish, which includes smoked red peppers and barigoule mushrooms.

Wild boar tortellini is something my husband has recently made, so when we see this course on the menu, we can’t wait to see how it compares. From the way the pasta is presented, it is clear this is a refined dish. Sitting on a parmesan custard, bathed in a café au lait sauce and topped with crispy jamon, the tortellini transport us to a European forest in autumn. Although we love cooking, we don’t have the skill to conjure up a sauce as deep and silky or layer flavours so effectively. Bafana’s wine pairing, the Emma Pinot Noir by Creation, is spot on: the red fruits elegantly matching the game meat.

Given to experimentation 

At Dusk the chefs seem happy to experiment and therein lies part of the restaurant’s appeal. “Wash your mouth out with soap” is a witty take on a palate cleanser. The wood sorrel sorbet is shaped like a bar of soap, with milk foam creating a convincing impression of lather. It’s zesty and refreshing, recalibrating taste buds ahead of the main course.

Then it is kingklip’s time to shine: the fish pan fried and served with a spring pea and citrus velouté. The accompanying salsa of broad beans, pine nuts and raisins is fresh and flavourful. The zesty notes of the Plaisir de Merle Chardonnay enhance the dish’s citrusy tastes while the wine’s medium body doesn’t overpower the fish.

As the evening wears on, my eyes adjust to the light and now I can appreciate the walls clad in marble. I also notice jars of fermented goods lining the chef’s station. In the Dusk kitchen there is a strong focus on making the most of produce, trying out preparation methods and preservation techniques to limit waste. 

Sweet endings

The dessert course is stunning: chocolate in the shape of a fan coral resting against a fermented brandy pear and elegant pastry. From the hazelnut shortbread through to the chestnut crème centre and the bitter coffee ganache on top, every element is delicious. Pairing well is the honeyed Lothian Noble Late Harvest: lush but not overly sweet thanks to good acidity.

Before we settle up, there are some last sweet surprises: mini canelé pastries, handmade chocolates and little bites called SCOBY Snacks. Not Scooby Snacks, but cured SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast), which is layered with caramel and chocolate ganache. The whole mouthful is enveloped in hand-pulled sugar, a winsome riff on cotton candy. SCOBY is a key ingredient in fermenting sugars, creating not only rich flavours but also probiotics. Another example of the intricate efforts behind every element and the commitment to conscious cuisine.

The meal has been exquisite, every course a medley of flavours and techniques, heightened by the astute wine pairings. And while we came for dinner, we’ve come away with a complete experience – thought-provoking and enjoyable. 

Find Dusk at 43 Plein Street, Stellenbosch. Email reservations@duskrestaurant.co.za.