Charango is the new hot spot on the hottest street in town, Bree. You don’t need to pay a fortune-teller to figure out that this is going to be the place to be in summer. With wide open frontage and plenty of outside seating on the broad pavement, this bar-restaurant will easily entice any and all who wander nearby. Situated on the corner opposite the old &Union (I don’t even know what it’s called anymore) and over the road from Birds, Charango might be the perfect option for those who like the energy of Bree Street but are wanting something more sophisticated than the current options (apart from Chef’s Warehouse, that’s awesome except it closes early, you can’t book and the tables are ridiculously narrow).
I don’t usually review places so soon after they have opened. I like to give them time to settle in. But the offering at Charango is already at a high level so it will only get better, I’m sure. Any negative points I note will probably also be ironed out over time. Please let me know about your experience in the comments below, that will help us to determine if it’s improving or not.
Those who have eaten at Chotto Matte in London will feel right at home, which is a good thing because Chotto Matte is fantastic and you can have a similar experience for a quarter the price at Charango. That’s not to say that Charango is inexpensive, no siree, but Chotto Matte is very expensive on the Rand (or on the Pound for that matter). Charango is a beautiful restaurant. When you walk in the door your eyes are instantly drawn to the swan mural by Faith47 the Cape Town artist that is now super famous and in huge demand all around the world. If you haven’t had your mind blown in a while, do yourself a favour and click that link to her website. It’s a stunning mural and below it are red leather banquettes married to contemporary styled tables with matching chairs. Contemporary, industrial-esque light fittings hang over the tables illuminating the stainless steel cutlery carefully tucked into blue-grey cloth serviettes. It’s a setting that practically compels one to take a seat and order food. Lots of it.
But it’s not time to talk about the food yet. I’m not done with the interior. Interiors of this beauty cannot be given only one paragraph. We need another, maybe two to do it justice. When you’ve finished looking at the mural (you are never really finished, you just take a break now and then before staring at it again), a glance to the left will reveal cosy two seater tables by the window. Actually, they might be 4 seaters, but we were two and it was great. Turning the other way and looking past the tables in the immediate entrance, the visual feature is the pass which offers a glimpse into the kitchen. Walking over that way reveals a beautiful 10 seater table. I don’t know if this is meant to be a chef’s table or not, but it’s right by the pass and it’s semi private with no other tables around it. If it isn’t a chef’s table, it should be! This table is going to be in high demand.
To the right of the entrance is the bar. The switch from the parquet floor to the mosaic tile in the bar area are a subconscious call to loosen that tie and order a cocktail! The bar meterage is not enormous but thankfully service orders are handled via a separate access to the restaurant. What will be interesting to see is, when it gets very busy, if they will take orders via the window leading to the side patio. That could be useful. The bar is called ‘Pisco Bar‘, pisco being the famous Peruvian spirit used to make pisco sours. There are several different pisco sours available, along with a selection of other cocktails. We tried 2 out of the 5 pisco sours cocktails available and they were both good. But the El Gringo Margarita we tried on another visit turned out to be frozen and a bit bland. The menu neglects to mention it is frozen. What I like about the bar is that it’s almost separate from the restaurant. It has it’s own separate entrance and then it connects to the restaurant inside (where the mosaics meet the parquet). I’ll be interested to see when it gets very busy if people start overflowing from the bar into the restaurant because that will not be great for the diners. But that may not happen, let’s see.
Right, can we talk about the food now please? The restaurant interior is great and the bar is cool, but the food deserves some attention too. I know I’m already at 725 words, but I have to first give you some background to the cuisine that is served at Charango. Peru is a country with a long and interesting history and the cuisine of the country reflects that. Charango is not trying to introduce people to the various influences, nor is it trying to be true to the traditional staples. Charango is focused on a specific cuisine called Nikkei. It’s a fusion of Peruvian and Japanese elements brought about by the fact that Peru has the 2nd largest Japanese population after Brazil. The cuisine is not new, but it is certainly trendy around the world right now. In fact, those who have dined at Nobu at the One & Only will have been exposed to Nikkei cuisine already. The cuisines of the two nationalities fuse well as fresh fish is a common element in both.
The menu at Charango is quite focused. There are only 5 mains to choose from and they are preceded by 8 starter dishes and 4 ‘snack’ dishes. There is a focus on seafood, about half the menu items contain seafood. The balance is divided between vegetarian and meat dishes. There are also 3 desserts to choose from. I’ve eaten at Charango 3 times, twice under invitation, and I think I’ve tried nearly everything on the menu. Seeing as there are not that many dishes, I might as well step you through the menu. Each dish comes on a plate of different size, shape and colour. It looks very funky when they are all on the table together.
Para Picar, the snack menu, has 4 options. I haven’t had the Flamed Edamame (R45), which is the only vegetarian option. The Prawn Tostado (R65) is great, but 2 out of 3 times I had it there was not enough prawn. It’s still great, but it’s even better when they put enough prawn on it. The Dirt Rubbed Tuna Taco (R85) is fantastic, 4 tacos per portion each containing a sizable piece of fresh seared tuna. A touch more spice would work, but they are delicious. The Prawn Taco (R90) is the winner though, it reminds me a bit of prawn cocktail minus the avocado pear but with other ingredients including apple for freshness and crunch, all wrapped in a soft taco.
The Ceviche & Tiraditos section has 6 options. The vegetarian option is a Button Mushroom Ceviche (R55) which I was not particularly excited about, but then again, I’m not a vegetarian. I’m just not sure button mushrooms are the right mushrooms for this dish. There is another vegetarian dish, Courgettes & Cucumber (R60) with shitake, mint, garlic, chilli & miso. I haven’t tried it. If you do eat fish, there are 2 other ceviches to choose from. The House Ceviche (R65) includes butternut and corn, which sounds a bit weird but it actually works well. The New Style Ceviche (R70) has grapes and crispy rice in it (among other things), which also sounds weird but again, was actually pretty good. I’d recommend either. Seabass Tiradito (R85) and Tuna Tataki (R80) both fantastic, but delicate (read small).
Then there is the Peruvian Style Beef (R80), served as cubes on skewers, this was one of the highlights for me. Beautifully tender, perfectly spiced and delicious with the spicy aji rocoto (pepper sauce). I haven’t tried the alternative which is the BBQ Chicken (R70). It was not available when I tried to order it.
Out of the 5 mains, I have only tried 3. I haven’t had the Lamb Loin (R165) served with aubergine & corn and that delicious pepper sauce that came with the beef. I also haven’t had the Quinoto (R85) which is the vegetarian option of quinoa, courgettes, tomato and asparagus. I have had the Churrasco Sirloin (R150) and found it to be slightly overdone. We weren’t asked how we would like the meat done, but it’s so thin I don’t think it could be done any less regardless. The Black Cob (R145) was amazing, perfectly cooked and delicious, served on quinoa with langostine, pak choi and soy. I’ve had the BBQ Pork Belly (R135) twice. Once it was terrible and the other time it was fantastic. The terrible one was when they were very busy and the nice one was when they were quiet (lunch) so I’m not sure if that has anything to do with it. But they were even presented differently, one was served as a whole strip while the other was sliced.
Overall I felt the meat dishes could do with more veggies or some sort of side. They are served with veggies, but micro veggies and only a couple. Like literally 2. I had the Wagyu Beef Burger (R130) which is only on the lunch menu and that was pretty good, and very substantial with the bowl of sweet potato fries. I’m not usually a fan of sweet potato fries but these were good. Damn, I promised myself I wouldn’t go over 1,500 words this time, and here we are. Well, just desserts to go…
The Picarones (R50) are like little doughnuts made from sweet potato and served with condensed milk (dulce de leche) for dipping. Decadent and quite heavy so be sure to get them to share. The Toasted Quinoa Creme (R55) is unusual, served with burnt banana and a rum & butterscotch sauce. It’s a creamy dessert, vaguely reminiscent of creme brulee. The Blonde Chocolate Pave (R60) will calm the cravings of the chocolate lovers. Creamy chocolate tart with seasonal berries.
Next time I go, I will order either the black cob, or the Peruvian style beef as a main, and I’ll start with the prawn tacos and maybe a ceviche if someone else is paying. The wine list is quite short, about 20 whites and 20 reds plus some bubblies. The prices are not too bad (eg. R150 for Springfield wild yeast chardonnay). The wine selection is careful and the varied. I was pleased to see some unusual options on the list. Service was good, although it did dip in the evening when the place was super busy.
So there it is. Dining at Charango is not something to do on a whim. It’s a special experience that, to be fully appreciated, will require your attention and a chunk of your life savings. But you won’t regret it. Then when you’re done, come join me at the bar for a pisco sours. Or two.
See my full gallery of images here.
PS. If you go in the evening you should definitely book.
Charango Bar & Grill
114 Bree Street, Cape Town
Tel: 021 422 0757
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