DINING: Gosto: Obrigado for the music, a fist-bump for the calamari
If you’d blindfolded me, bundled me into a helicopter, flown me for hours and then pushed me, still blindfolded, through the front door into Gosto, I would have thought I was in a super-cool, insanely vibey and ultra-hip restaurant in the Big Smoke. Joburg or Cape Town, maybe even Hong Kong or London. But Clarens? No, not even the Swiss one. Clarens, Orange Free State.
Now this is not to cast nasturtiums at that province. The southern Free State is utterly beautiful. Magnificent mountains, fabulous greenery. Fresh cherries to sweeten your drive. Diverse and lovely bird life. We’re so used to our comfort zones – the usual, obvious destinations/ the beach/ the Winelands/ Addo/ Kruger – that we’re missing out. We had no dining plans when we arrived in Clarens, that verdant village centred on a square and set between mountains a breath away from Lesotho, and so sauntered along one side of the square and into Gosto, a Portuguese eatery which gives no hint, from the street, of what lies within. Through the door and you’re into a medium-size room and then to the right, you stroll into a massive dining room with an insanely high A-frame ceiling, and everything is decorated in bright, whimsical colour and sundry eclectic decorative stuff. The lighting adds to the very cool mood and the place is a-hum with weekenders, Clarens being a popular getaway for the Joburg crew. In a corner of the smaller room, a muso is playing Hallelujah, Asimbonanga, Dark Side of the Moon and the theme from Game of Thrones. Not on guitar or piano. His name is Denzl Keenan and he’s alternating between violin and panpipes. I know, I know... I can’t stand panpipes any more either, ever since Gheorghe Zamfir first got stuck in all the world’s elevators. But this guy is a treat for the ears, and the repertoire is, well, not so much lift music. More often than not, when a place is as big and as vibey as this, the food is crap, the menu too broad (a fairly sure sign that things will go wrong on the plate) and the overall experience a matter of “cool place, pity about the food”. Not so. You know how humdrum calamari can be. Or how chewy. How overcooked or underdone; too much lemon, not enough sear. These were Falklands calamari tubes flash-fried in lemon or garlic butter (I chose garlic) and I wrote this note: “The best calamari I’ve eaten in years. So tender and so subtly delicious. Correction: I’ve NEVER eaten better calamari. Ever.” (Yes, Cape Town – even at the Chapman’s Peak Hotel.) Okay look, I’d had a Jack or two and was in a great mood. But even so, sublime calamari. Starters: best deal here is to order any four starters for R150, to share between two. Otherwise, starter prices are R50 to R85 apiece. Choices include gizzards (braised in white wine with cumin, paprika and garlic), clams (steamed in white wine, garlic, green pepper, onion and butter), and Fig Mozzarella (baked preserved fig wrapped “in our locally produced mozzarella”) and phyllo pastry. I’ve no idea what my wife started with; I was too busy slavering over my calamari to bother. When you sit down, by the way, you’ve served a complimentary small Portuguese roll. I always pay attention when people say “when you go to X, you must try the Y, it’s superb”. And at Gosto, this is said to be the Black and Blue Steak. So naturally I ordered it. It’s a 300g fillet topped with blue cheese, avocado and biltong. Now I normally want my steak to be a fairly naked affair. Just a good piece of nicely marbled, well-aged meat that has been shown the flame and is pleasingly charred at the edges and blushingly pink at the centre. Don’t drown it in your ubiquitous “steakhouse sauce” (we MUST stamp out this contagion!) and the most I’m ever likely to ask for is some garlic butter, preferably with a hint of burn in the butter. Other than that, please hold the sauce, especially if it’s a gloopy, flour-bogged mushroom one that wouldn’t fall out of an upside-down pot. (Mushrooms, butter, cream, garlic, fresh herbs, seasoning, what’s so difficult about that?) While I didn’t go weak at the knees at the “Black and Blue” it tasted really good, the steak was cooked perfectly and the knife just glided (glid?) through. Other than that, there was avocado, blue cheese and biltong on top. Not quite sure I got what the rave was all about but the meat was perfect. My wife thought her full portion of “baby peri-peri” chicken way too much, and I saw what she meant. That was some Big Baby. The menu offers the full “baby” at R130 or a half at R95. I’d said, well, for another 35 bucks you get the whole thing, right? That’s how I see things anyway. But I had, in my mind’s eye, pictured it as a really little bird. But, not being one ever to say there’s too much food, I was happy to help her out once I’d tasted to discover that the chicken meat was succulent and the peri-peri deeply flavourful yet not overly hot. Ignore the inane “reviewer’s” comments on the ghastly TripAdvisor (“The peri-peri was very hot!”). You don’t want hot? Don’t order peri-peri. That’s like saying the sea was “very wet” or “too salty”. It’s the sea! Talking of which, there’s plenty of seafood too (dorado, sole, kingklip), and desserts which include Affogato (wish I’d spotted that – ice cream with nuts and honey, and a shot of espresso poured over) and “ice cream surprise” which the menu boasts cannot be removed, it’s that popular. Not long before we leave, I’m singing along at top pitch to Denzl singing Asimbonanga, and a waiter sashays by the table singing it too. We lock eyes, smile, up the volume and smash our fists together in a moment, the kind of moment we all should have, every day, so that we all get to know each other and get along, one fist-bump or high-five at a time. Obrigado, Universe. DM