By Arja Salafranca
Walking through the herb garden, past a large oak and a small fountain with copper-coloured pelican statues in water where koi fish swirled, I found my friend sitting at a table under an umbrella.
The Olives and Plates Wits Club and Conference restaurant is situated at the University of the Witwatersrand’s West Campus in what used to be known as the WITS Clubhouse. It’s housed in graceful-looking old-Dutch architecture, and it feels like stepping into a calm oasis away from Johannesburg. The highway, and the city, rumbles on in the background, but we heard none of it sitting in the outdoor courtyard.
The restaurant has been within my sights for some time – news of its superlative service and fresh, tasty food having reached me by friends who have visited, repeatedly. But this was my first visit.
The service is, indeed, superlative and almost courtly. Our waiter was friendly, yet politely discreet, there when we needed him, and yet, leaving us to a leisurely meal.
It took some time to work through an extensive menu filled with a range of options, so many of which sounded worth trying. In the end we decided to share two quesadillas, one served with salad, one with potato fries. My choice was the Grecian with halloumi, fresh tomatoes, mint, feta, pestonnaise and baby spinach (R89), while my friend chose the Middle Eastern which consisted of tenderised steak, hummus, fresh cilantro, tomato and rocket (R92). The salad looked a picture, too pretty to be eaten; and the chips were plump and moreish. Both dishes were superb: the steak was tender, and just right. But the Grecian took the cake: the pestonnaise and mint made the halloumi pop, a definite winner.
There is a vast selection of breakfasts, served until 11am. There are the usual suspects, traditional, scrambled and so on. Some of the more unusual choices include ricotta hotcakes, poached eggs with tahini, a Spanish omelette with potatoes as well as a range of healthy options: Greek-style yoghurt, fruit, granoli, berries and so on. Or there’s the interesting-sounding quinoa breakfast bowl consisting of quinoa, chai seeds and oats cooked in coconut milk & vanilla topped with sunflower seeds and fresh apple curls.
Light meals consist of toasted sandwiches and a club house sandwich stack, wraps and tramezzinis. In a nod to its name, Olives and plates also serves ‘little plates’from a mezze platter, with the option of adding to it, tapas style.
Salads are a story in themselves, and worth another visit. Among those that caught my eye were the halloumi, spinach, dates and avo salad (R99) consisting of halloumi entwined kataifi, baby spinach, onion, peanut brittle, croutons, dates & avo layered on garden greens, fresh tomato and red onions and the calamari glass noodle salad (R120) with baby calamari, lemon grass, cilantro, fine onions, heirloom tomato and corn served on Asian glass noodles.
Other more substantial dishes include grills, pasta, chicken fillets, chicken pie and more.
In between talk of Covid, and Christmases not spent with family, of retrenchments in various industries, and a dip into sharing experiences of writing masterclasses that are now being held online, I took a walk to the cake table. Within the spacious restaurant is a large round table which I had to circle a few times. Dessert is always a big decision. It was a toss-up between the lemon meringue and the decadent sounding salted-caramel cheesecake, which my friend and I shared. Topped with a cloud of meringue, the cake was smooth to the tongue and simply delicious.
We sat and spoke, unhurried, savouring the quiet, conversation from other diners far away in these socially distanced times. As we left my friend picked a twig of verbena , and advised me to brew it as tea. The scent followed me all the way home.
There are two other branches of Olives and Plates: one in Hyde Park in the Exclusive Books shop, and another in Sandhurst. Both close at 8pm, which makes it slightly early to enjoy a leisurely meal. The WITS one is not open at night. Info at www.olivesandplates.co.za