Orient is a large, stylish, elegant eatery at 4 The High Street, Melrose Arch, Johannesburg. It has just been (November 2017) revamped in terms of décor and it is tres chic with bright, clean lines and a contemporary feel.
Asia is the largest and most populous continent and is home to many different cultures, each with their own characteristic cuisine. Orient makes use of several of the major regional styles of cooking traditions – Thai, Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese.
We were greeted by a friendly maitre d’, Gary, and shown to our party’s tables. As we formed a large party the group was settled upstairs. At times the volume of our party became a little overwhelming, but that’s not unusual in crowds of 100 or more. It is part of the social structure of a group.
The size of our party is relevant here, because there are very few restaurants that can cater smoothly and efficiently (and quickly) for large parties. Orient gets 10/10 for their handling of a crowd of this size. Once seated our welcome cocktails (gin, grapefruit juice and grenadine) were brought to the table, dry ice mist gently wafting up and out of the martini style glasses into the restaurant.
Water and wine were poured and despite the fact that there was more than one server dealing with the table, the correct stuff was always refilled. At one point I knocked a glass over, breaking it and spilling water everywhere, and the handling of the incident was both speedy and unfussed, leaving me impressed with the service rather than embarrassed at my clumsiness.
The menu was a themed tasting menu with the elements of water, air, fire and earth being picked out in the menu. Each course gave us three items, with the last course having four items. Then there was a dessert buffet served downstairs in the bar.
What this meant in terms of Western expectations is that the food varied between seafood and non-seafood, back and forth, rather than the Western custom of eating first fish then meat.
The service was slick and rapid, with our plates being changed regularly, together with the disposable (but good quality) napkins provided and the disposable chopsticks. I would have preferred linen napkins to be kept throughout the meal. I would also have liked wet wipes or a finger bowl at least at the end of the meal, but that is the only gripe I had about the entire process.
Our first course “water” consisted of crystal summer prawn, avo mushroom roll – a pretty confection which simply oozed health food concepts (well, if one doesn’t have issues with prawns and cholesterol) from the translucent rice paper wrapper, as well as salmon and tuna tartar cigars (served cold) both served with a peanut sauce, and hot Nikkei seafood spring rolls served warm. Of the three I was torn between the summer roll and the spring roll, with the hot spring roll with its delicate creamy dipping sauce edging out the prettier summer roll in all round satisfaction stakes.
The next course followed hot on the heels of the first and our “air” trio was an Asian mushroom pot sticker served piping hot, together with steamed open seafood dumplings, and sweet potato chicken croquettes. I like the first two very much and the two dipping sauces were both clear soy sauce based concoctions, one of which was pleasantly fiery. The mushroom pot sticker had the characteristic crispy base and the succulent but not soggy centre that every chef or cook aims at when making the dish. The difference between the pot stickers and the dumplings is largely in texture, the latter being steamed rather than fried. The sweet potato chicken croquettes would perhaps have been a little stodgy if one ordered them as a dish other than a tasting dish.
So far the food had been excellent and it is difficult to imagine that things could get better, but somehow Orient pulled it off in their “fire” course. Three skewers, the first being a delicious crispy pork belly skewer, followed by a Robata grilled salmon skewer. The owner, Ernst, apologised that this was “overcooked” (together with the later duck course) but pointed out that the general South African taste is for the overcooked style. My partner and I were divided on this one. I am firmly in the general South African taste category, so enjoyed the grilled salmon greatly. This was followed by a gingery Nikkei beef fillet skewer which was unbelievably delicious. I am salivating just at the memory thereof.
The “earth” course consisted of a vegetable combo with baked brinjal miso which was full of flavour with a hint of heat, a trio of Asian mushrooms in a creamy sauce and crispy cauliflower lollipops. All of them were excellent. Chef My is the executive chef of the group of restaurants owned by Ernst and Michelle throughout the country and his specialty of duck and mandarin pancakes made its appearance. The pancakes were wafer thin and the duck and mandarin sauce were both excellent and not at all fatty. This was followed by a ginger fish which was delicious – I think it made use of hake. The finale was Vietnamese pepper prawns.
A common impression of Asian cuisine is that it is rice and noodle heavy, but we were served a menu of thirteen dishes without a single grain of rice or a noodle anywhere. Certainly the skewers are a Banter’s delight.
Many of us sat at the table long after the bar with the desserts opened. I saw a selection of prepared fruits going down which looked magnificent. A lovely young woman, Thandi from Yenda Yenda, offered complimentary Thai massages (about five minutes each). This is a delightful surprise treat and was most welcome.
My partner for the evening brought up some caramalised nuts and a panacotta style dessert. I wondered idly about the fruit, but there really was no more room for even the tiniest morsel. I had had more than just an elegant sufficiency.
I recommend this place highly whether it is an intimate dinner for two or a splashy large group affair. The service is every bit as excellent as the food and that is very good indeed. I have chosen Orient as the place I would like to spend my 60th birthday. It is that good.
Food 10/10. Service 10/10. Ambience 8/10.