FOODSTUFF: Shared Indian tapas at Thali

thali_6-001.jpg Consisting of a series of linked interior spaces and a back courtyard of a double-storey historical house, Thali is crammed between narrow shops and a popular bar on an inner city Cape Town street. It’s a busy street, well worth a taxi ride to experience the Indian tapas and interior décor inside.

The restaurant and bar’s patterned walls and a blue-and-white tiled staircase lead up to Sally Chapman’s wallpaper of hand-sketched birds on the landing, near a hanging group of cages.

In time, a first-floor dining space in vivid pinks named The Birdcage will host small groups for Indian feasts.

Thali’s interiors are rich and varied but refreshingly there is no “placed” décor from interior professionals. Treasured Indian postcards and other auction finds co-exist with old marble fireplaces and modern mosaic dining tables. Thali’s restaurateur business partners collaborated on the décor as much as on the food.

The black-tiled kitchen opens to the dining room with decorative wooden rolling pins and spoons, and a long blue velvet banquette. Beyond it, the dining space extends to an Indian courtyard garden — also designed by Chapman — brightened by lanterns, an ornate chest and bamboo on walls. It is an appealing spot to enjoy fresh oysters with a carrot juice-infused Cape Malay dressing on a summer evening.

thali_5.jpg Although you may think of tapas as ordering a series of plates of your choice, at Thali the kitchen determines most of your menu. Oxford Dictionary defines a thali as a metal plate on which Indian food is served, or a type of set meal at an Indian restaurant. Both descriptions fit the Cape Town version: two diners each eat four tapas dishes, with a few alternatives here and there.

The restaurant’s modern style delivers skill, texture and crunch in beautiful food with “Indianised” flavours. The kitchen sends it on earthenware plates, wooden bowls on metallic trays, and a smoking copper tandoor vessel.

Dublin-born chef Liam Tomlin is the culinary kingpin behind Thali. Before Cape Town, he and British wife Jan operated Australia’s Banc, awarded restaurant of the year in 2001 in the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide. When they opened Chefs Warehouse & Canteen in Bree Street in 2014, the couple merged the sociability of tapas with fine dining precision and casual benches.

Opening Thali in November 2016, the Tomlins partnered with friends Dimo and Candice Papachristodoulou of The Fat Cactus and Long Street Café. Former Chefs Warehouse recruit John van Zyl heads Thali’s kitchen. Van Zyl worked with Tomlin for four years previously, and recently assisted chef Angelo Scirocco in opening Urbanologi in Johannesburg.

thali_2.jpg “A point about tapas that I like is that it’s plates of food to share,” says Van Zyl. “It’s eight small meals, basically a tasting menu of sorts, but not very formal. It’s a great way of eating and socialising.”

Adds Tomlin: “The whole thing with Indian food usually, is you order a few dishes and they arrive at once. So you’re full fairly quickly and they all seem to all taste similar. We serve them in different courses so you can enjoy the different flavours, starting with lighter and working up to the heavier ones.”

Meat and vegetarian options both start with a cleverly crunchy potato and chickpea chaat snack with pomegranates. Three more courses follow the chaat in stages. Also staggered: chilli jam, yoghurt raita, fragrant rice, naan bread and flaky paratha.

So you could have lighter grilled meats such as minced lamb kebabs, steamed fish with tangy dressing or tamarind-spiced pork belly next. Heavier chicken or lamb curries follow. White wines here are on the more aromatic side.

thali_1.jpg The vegetarian menu includes black dahl, or tandoori and pureed cauliflower variations served with coconut and cashew. Homemade paneer cheese in spiced spinach, curry emulsions or vegetable curries complete the repertoire. “The concept is that it’s light and bright flavours,” says Van Zyl.

A lemon posset dessert signature is tough to beat. Thali’s variation infuses cardamom in double cream, plus rose syrup, pomegranates and crushed pistachio.

THALI, 3 Park Road, Gardens. Thali for one (R180) lunch Mon to Fri. Tapas for two (R650) dinner Mon to Sat. No reservations. Tel 021-286-2110.

A version of this appeared in Business Day Homefront in February 2017

FOODSTUFF: French flair at a Stellenbosch winery’s new bistro

glenelly_-_vine_bistro_005-001.jpg BORDELAIS ARTHUR DE LENCQUESAING ON THE REFASHIONED GLENELLY ESTATE

Our family has been investing in wine property since 1783. My great-grandfather then returned from World War One at a young age. He and his brother bought a few Bordeaux properties in France, including a part of Second Growth Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, Third Growth Château Palmer and Cru Borgeois Château Siran.

a_glenelly449.jpg My grandmother, May-Eliane de Lencquesaing, inherited a majority share in Pichon in 1978 at the age of 53. It was tough. The farm was struggling to pay wages. Then we had a fantastic Bordeaux 1982 wine vintage. American critic Robert Parker rated the wine 100 points. The international wine market opened.

In 2003, my grandmother founded Glenelly Estate in Stellenbosch. In 2007, Château Pichon was sold to Roederer Champagne and she devoted her time to the development of Glenelly.

She is now 91, living in a house in Bordeaux and still very involved.

23_tuna_tartare_and_glenelly_estate_reserve_chardonnay.jpg My grandmother liked Glenelly because it was a blank canvas. Previously it was a fruit farm, so she could create quality wine from scratch. She briefed winemaker Luke O’Cuinneagain to create wines made to age, showing power, elegance and balance.

She built a very modern gravity-flow cellar, which she could not have done in Bordeaux, with all its wine traditions and restrictions. When we built the wine tasting room upstairs we created the bar counter from the farm’s Cape granite stones.

Creating The Vine Bistro was a big project. We started in summer 2015 and opened in November 2016. We spoke about the importance of food and wine pairing; we wanted a place to taste the wines properly and also to bring in a bit of France in the food – chef Christophe Dehosse was the ideal choice.

17_the_vine_bistro_at_glenelly_interior_2.jpg We wanted guests to look at the view from outside but have shade from pergolas. In the bistro you will find the Drucker chairs. They are made in a small village near Paris at Maison Drucker. They are traditional Parisian bistro chairs and the only ones worth having.

THE RESTAURANT: THE VINE BISTRO IS UNCLUTTERED AND ON A GROUND-LEVEL SPACE

It opens outdoors to vineyard views, with water features and a pétanque court. Some walls have white metro tiles above leather banquettes; one is painted ruby red. There are filament lamps, bare wooden tables and brass details.

The Glass Collection wine range includes approachable, delicious Syrah, and promising Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon wines. The Glenelly Estate Reserve Chardonnay and respective red blend are a worthy step up, while the Lady May red blend is a beautiful wine to set aside for a few years.

Chef Dehosse offers a flexible single-page menu. “There’s a strong sense of a traditional French family,” he says. “I cook what I’m comfortable with and what I like to eat.”

Bistro starters include tuna tartare with crisp vegetable salad or chilled red pepper soup livened by chorizo and octopus. Mains are classic and fairly uncomplicated: fillet, béarnaise and pommes frites, to a hearty West Coast mussels and fish bouillabaisse reduction with haricot beans. Pork cheeks braised in herbs and red wine tastes comforting.

25_caneles_pineapple.jpg Dehosse gives the traditional chewy Bordeaux canelé bake a twist, serving it with rooibos ice-cream and caramelised pineapple.

THE VINE BISTRO, Glenelly Estate, Stellenbosch. Open lunch and dinner Mon to Sun. Tel 021-809-6444, Glenelly

A version of this appeared in Business Day Homefront magazine in January 2017

FOODSTUFF: A revamped Grand Africa Cafe & Beach still has it

grand_africa_cafe_beach_hr_exterior_3.jpg It is about the first glimpse of azure sea and a suggestion of a beach holiday — even if only for an afternoon. The Grand at Cape Town’s Granger Bay has always been a venue less about what you’re eating and more about the drinks and friends with whom you are sharing it. A place where piles of sand hold up the outdoor dining tables and slip-slops on feet seem overdressed.

But step on to a shaded tropical-style walkway at the new, improved Grand Africa Café & Beach and you’ll see that massive mirrors reflect back and subtle décor tweaks now add to the experience.

In July 2016, the Harbour House Group bought a 70% stake in Grand Africa Café & Beach, closed its doors and set about refurbishing one of Cape Town’s sought-after venues. Three months and a multi-million budget later, the style revamp is complete.

grand_africa_cafe_beach_hr_seafood_platter.jpg Inside the original warehouse restaurant interior space, the sway of Café del Mar and newer loungey musical counterparts is familiar. But a Tanqueray gin bar is new and the long, industrial Grand dining hall next door now overlooks an Absolut Elyx bar. Two white, floating, old-fashioned pressed ceilings are a hanging focal point above the bar counter’s long stack of spirit bottles.

A good portion of the renovation budget went towards bringing in more natural light by installing large stack-away windows in the original warehouse walls for those sea views.

A new raised, ocean-facing indoor deck (called the VIP deck) brings the feeling of the beach inside, with white, wooden floor panels. Just the place for those who prefer to observe the beach buzz while enjoying a little more privacy and shelter from the elements.

grand_africa_cafe_beach_hr_exterior_8.jpg Other new outdoor sections include the Ibiza-style area on the beach, with luxurious daybeds, private bars and a deejay booth for a comfortably exclusive area, discreetly set apart. Two container bars have been repurposed and reclad as a beach beer and sparkling wine bar respectively.

On the food side, the Grand is not changing what works. Head chef Dominic Faict cooked at Kloof Street House and Asoka previously. His kitchen now serves 1,050 guests a day. The menu includes signature favourites such as sugar-cured salmon, Chalmar beef fillet with bearnaise and Cajun linefish tagliata. Sushi platters are a new addition.

grand_africa_cafe_beach-grand_salmon_salad_3_hr.jpg The concept is “simple food that tastes great” for guests leaning towards food with their drinks, according to Grand GM Radley Dijkers.

“We’ll do 1.5kg spatchcock chickens. Or a seafood platter that shares four: crayfish, prawns, linefish and mussels on it. There’s also our long rectangular seafood pizza. We do sharing but we do Grand sharing.”

GRAND AFRICA CAFE & BEACH, Haul Rd, V&A Waterfront, Cape Town. Open for lunch and dinner. Tel 021-425-0551, Grand Africa.

A version of this appeared in Business Day Homefront magazine in December 2016

FOODSTUFF: Forkfuls of FABER improve Paarl’s eating options

faber_-_cream_cheese_and_honey_sorbet.jpg FABER restaurant’s philosophy of crafting edible bounty is off to a promising start.

Built in a style similar to the farm’s original 1700 Cape Dutch homestead, FABER is inside the building that holds Avondale’s cellar and wine-tasting area. The restaurant’s high-volume ceilings, terracotta tiles and cement floors contrast with a modern open kitchen that is finished with Moroccan mosaic tiles.

CHEF ERIC BULLPITT EXPLAINS WHY PAARL IS THE PLACE

We wanted a short and catchy name that explained what we were and connected us to Avondale Estate. FABER is not just about being craftsmen: it’s our love for the land and our connection to it … to the chickens that run in the field.

My grandpa had a self-sustaining farm in Rustenburg, so we’d go into the garden if we wanted a salad. Johnathan Grieve, Avondale’s owner, also toils in the vineyards here, so the connection fits. There is nothing more exciting than eating food that has a story.

faber_exterior_hr_1.jpg I’ve always thought of Paarl as that little town just past Stellenbosch. Yet we are just off the N1, closer to Cape Town than to Stellenbosch. FABER is opposite Boschenmeer Golf Estate and Val de Vie. There are people with money to spend. We drove around and thought maybe we could do something special.

Not simple food, but simplicity. Avondale wines are farmed biodynamically so our meat and vegetables won’t come from here primarily. But the idea is to get a lot of our produce from the farm in the next few years, from eggs to broiler chickens and pasture-reared organic beef. Our menu includes what is available in the field, what is on the farm, what is good right now. We serve Avondale’s biodynamic red and white wines, and will offer other labels once we are licensed.

faber_-_avondales_happy_chickens.jpg Most of us have lost touch with what farming used to be. We want to showcase Avondale’s chickens and duck and hen eggs from the farm “egg-mobile”. We had a cow that lived its life eating grass from the Avondale field. I had a taste — it’s phenomenal how different it was from feedlot animals.

The chickens running here can’t be poached quickly; they have to be slow-cooked. Chicken isn’t usually an exciting option but this is not your average chicken. It is skinny, so the meat is wilder, almost like guinea fowl. That makes it a special chicken in my eyes. We call the dish the Avondale happy chicken because it was happy until it met its end.

We’re not here to reinvent our cooking. The style is technical but not overcomplicated: a few key ingredients on the plate. The roasted Karoo lamb shoulder is one of the most rustic things we do — it’s so perfect and tender in what it is. It’s served with pumpkin seed pesto, wilted greens and herbs. The menu will always be one page, focused on what is available.

faber_interior_hr_2.jpg I don’t think we will ever serve a crème brûlée. You might find a soufflé on our menu but with a creative component to it: fermented banana and chocolate, or maybe peaches and beer. Our popular cream cheese and blueberries dessert (cream cheese and honey sorbet, with coconut crumble and blueberry macaron) was inspired by blueberry cheesecake.

FABER Avondale Wines, Paarl. Open Wed to Sun lunch; Wed to Sat dinner.
Tel 021-863-1976 FABER

A version of this appeared in Business Day Homefront in November 2016

FOODSTUFF: Coffee and patisserie with class at Cape Town’s Coco Safar

coco_safar_gluten_free_alfajores.jpg Cape Town is home to the first global Coco Safar at Cavendish Square. Just another shopping centre coffee shop? I say no.

The experience starts with the Safajores chocolate-coated buckwheat biscuit and glass of water that arrives on a beautiful tray with every coffee order. It continues with a waitress’s descriptions of exotic fillings: colourful operas, star domes and pastries as exquisite to admire as to savour.

We have ordered high tea for two, served in a trio of sweet and savoury waves (the Third Wave is a purist approach to sourcing, roasting and brewing coffee). A Canadian apricot streusel pecan scone is surprising and crumbly; a keylime and kumquat éclair’s citrus tang perfect. A flat white is rich and strong. A chilled, slow-brewed coffee is spiked with orange peel.

At Coco Safar every aspect is crafted. Croissant Benedict breakfasts extend to brioche pizzetta light lunches. The café may be accessed via the din of a shopping centre, but there is a reprieve, thanks to ceiling fans, jazzy tunes and moody ambience that could be in cosmopolitan Vienna or Brussels.

coco_safar_seating.jpg During their honing process owners Caroline Sirois and Wilhelm Liebenberg sampled from Pierre Hermé’s Paris patisserie to Dominique Ansel’s cronuts in New York’s SoHo. Liebenberg becomes animated when he is describing Coco Safar creations concocted after many product development hours in his Willie Wonka-like Woodstock facility.

Nearly everything is created locally for Coco Safar, from leather-stitched armchairs and crockery to eye-catching uniforms. Banquette seating below mirror panels is framed by cast metal with weathered bronze effects. Dangling glass ball lights — they remind me of creamy chocolate truffles — were blown by Red Hot Glass in Paarl.

At the adjacent retail capsule emporium, collections of coffee and rooibos capsules entice behind a counter. Their packaging forms a colourful wall backdrop.

The espresso bar outside is for a quick, quality coffee stop. It is also a shrine to the iconic Idrocompresso coffee machine, a shiny steel and glass one-off with leather detailing on surfaces and handles. Says the barista: “It’s like playing with a Ferrari every day of your life.”

coco_safar_space.jpg Q&A WITH CO-OWNER AND CEO WILHELM LIEBENBERG

Why Cavendish Square as your international flagship store? We were looking for one spectacular retail space that would allow us to best showcase our unique brand and business model. That is what we found at Cavendish, ideally situated in the southern suburbs of Cape Town, where no coffee capsule retail offering existed. The roll out of other Coco Safar stores in SA and other key global markets is in the works.

What makes Coco Safar not just another coffee shop? The experience is all about daily escapism: it is the first authentic luxury espresso bar and café that incorporates a capsule emporium of its kind, pairing Third Wave specialty coffee and rooibos with couture patisserie and cafe food. We bring the best of Paris and New York in a luxurious cafe bistro-style environment where quality reigns at every level. Our patisserie offering is like no other in South Africa; our breakfast and casual dining offering very different to what’s on offer in Cape Town cafés. And it’s the first time you can have a plated dessert experience in a cafe environment.

Which elements and local design input will you replicate in other stores? Our original store design is reminiscent of the French industrial era and the golden age of travel with Jules Vernes-inspired design elements. A timeless understated luxury setting that should transport anyone who steps into the store to another place and time.

We intend to almost exclusively use the custom-made local furniture, fixtures, decor elements and store cabinets for the brand’s global roll out as part of a proudly South African export story.

This timeless interior design will form the basis of all future stores, but always allow for some elements to be incorporated in each new location, to give each store a slightly different identity.

coco_safar_espresso_machine.jpg Why Woodstock to supply an international coffee and patisserie brand? More than a year ago we opened our central kitchen, patisserie/coffee lab and production facility in Woodstock. We found this neighbourhood to have incredible creative energy with a true entrepreneurial spirit, just like it used to be in the Williamsburg district of Brooklyn, New York.

This environment is highly conducive to hosting and managing a production facility where we can train all our culinary talent, under the supervision of corporate chefs from New York, focused on producing quality sweet and savoury products daily. As part of our hub and spoke business model, where the production facility supplies several stores, Woodstock is centrally situated with easy access to Cape Town neighbourhoods.

Explain your “couture quality” concept for the French patisserie at Coco Safar. When speaking of couture quality, we specifically refer to the haute couture nature of our patisserie, which is conceptualized, designed, styled and handcrafted by teams of artisans, just like designers crafting haute-couture fashion collections.

If the concept is capsules, why does the adjacent Espresso Bar grind coffee and beans? The Coco Safar business model is truly innovative: offering specialty coffee drinks at our Espresso Bar and Cafe, made with our signature beans that can be taken home. And our specialty coffee and rooibos capsules showcasing a range of single-origin, award-winning auction-lot coffees, put in capsules for the first time and sold at the first retail capsule emporium besides Nespresso.

How did your custom-designed Idrocompresso machine come about? Kees van der Westen is the undisputed industry leader from a commercial espresso machine design, technology and manufacturing perspective. Considered a true visionary, he has created some of the world’s most iconic machines ever to be used commercially. Kees gave us exclusivity to a completely new Spirit espresso machine, marrying lever technology from the past that he has brought into the future, confirming his appreciation of our brand as an emerging market leader in the coffee industry.

COCO SAFAR, Ground floor, Cavendish Square, Claremont. Open daily. Tel 021-671-1607, Coco Safar

A version of this appeared in Business Day Homefront magazine in October 2016

REVIEW: Groote Post lunch and spring flowers

img_20160904_135918.jpg Spring … It’s one of those seasons that seems to wake up a month or so too late. Or surprises you by literally popping the blossoms out. Most years it is a combination of the two.

Well, spring 2016 scored top marks for last Sunday’s weather. A fabulous sunny day with only a light breeze here and there, lured invitingly at the West Coast National Park gate at 9am. We were there to see the Postberg indigenous flower carpets during the rare August/September period when these private areas of the nature reserve are open to the public.

When to go We’d anticipated the queues and a reliable Landy loaded with seven of us left Cape Town just after 7.30am. What a pleasure to leave the park at midday when a 1.5km queue was barely moving outside the gate.

img_20160904_135740.jpg Our morning in the nature reserve was fabulous. We drove into the Postberg, parked and climbed a hilly section above the lovely Plankiesbaai beach, surrounded by boulders on one side. There were a few brave swimmers, but mostly people setting up their picnics, simple braais and camp chairs with brandy bottles.

Our kids scampered up an easy hilly section that had plenty of yellow, orange and (yay!) occasional pink daisies. The type that you had to bend over close to photograph. And against the rugged West Coast setting with snatches of blue sea or sky above, quite vivid and lovely. As a bonus, we discovered an ostrich nest. No parent birds to be seen.

We’d decided to skip the picnic and do lunch out on the West Coast. But on that coastline there aren’t a lot of options. My limited impressions of Langebaan’s pub-like restaurants? Tourist hell, about two decades too late.

20160904_102041.jpg We settled on Hilda’s Kitchen at Groote Post wine farm, accessed via a dirt road off the R27. I looked for a recent commentary and found a 2014 Eat Out review by my writing colleague Greg Landman, describing “always delicious” cooking and chef Debbie McLaughlin’s eleventh year at the restaurant. Two years on, during a Sunday visit on September 2016, I’d say the venue and culinary highlights have not changed much. Why would they?

20160904_135956.jpg What to eat Off the current menu of about three starters, mains and desserts, we ordered a main Greg had described as “pork belly, slow roasted and served with tangy plum sauce”. Tender and slightly Asian in feel, it was declared delicious. One of our boys requested the signature “old man’s fillet steak roll” (a crumbed chicken burger was the solitary offering for any children in our group, and the crumbed patty seemed to be out of a box). As an adult main, a tasty individual chicken pie containing shredded meat and porcini was served with handcut potato wedges (replacing the menu’s mash) and salad. The lamb main course possibly looked more exciting than it tasted, but our complaint was probably more with the waiter’s description of “medium” than with the fact that it arrived slow-roasted and tender.

For starters we had tried a salad with beetroot, goat’s cheese and pumpkin seeds. A tasty tomato tart surrounded by a delicate pastry (the other starter was sold out) worked a treat with the fresh, guava zing of Groote Post Sauvignon Blanc 2016. All very tasty country fare, made to a trusted recipe in the way that country fare usually is.

20160904_141921.jpg Back to Greg’s “dessert you have to have” white chocolate cheesecake. I can vouch that it was country-size in portion, yet a hungry junior member of our party polished it off. The lemon tarts had a suitably sour tang, encrusted in a delicate homemade pastry base. Decent if not the best I’ve ever eaten – but I covet really distinctive lemon tarts so I’m a tough customer.

In short, pretty decent food really. And definitely the best lunch option for kilometres. Just avoid the plunger coffee – it tastes sluggish and grey.

Who to take? Hilda’s Kitchen is in the old thatched manor house on the property. We reserved an outside table under the trees at the back, so the adults could sip wine while the kids ran around and got dirty. And that they did (a slide down an embankment ruined a couple of pairs of shorts, but kept mischievous faces grinning from ear to ear).

20160904_150445.jpg What to drink Darling beer to quench your thirst, and bottled water too (the farm water is an acquired taste). At R110 the standard Sauvignon Blanc is marked up R30 on the cellar door price. It’s delicious, full of guavas and fun, so a fitting lunchtime partner. In red we tasted the fruity-style Shiraz but ordered a more serious cherry-tinged Pinot Noir 2014 (R235). It may not have made the most sense from a value point of view, but we were enjoying a lovely day in the country and felt like a bit of a splash.

How much? You’ll pay about R75 for starters, R50 - R70 for kids’ main courses, R135 - R145 for adult main courses, and about R50 for desserts.

HILDA’S KITCHEN AT GROOTE POST,
Groote Post Vineyards, Darling. Open Wed to Sun for lunch.
Tel 022-492-2825, Groote Post

RECIPES: swimming pool birthday cake

dsc_0005.jpg For Daniel’s 6th birthday we decided to move the party elsewhere. He was as keen as a bee to have it at home – the nostalgia of old-fashioned birthday parties of previous years? – but boys in particular, need activities. Especially in winter …

dsc_0037.jpg Plan A
We decided to host a swimming pool party at our local CT indoor public pool, Long Street Baths.
I swim and Daniel takes lessons there regularly, so we know the venue and its lovely staff. A friend with three kids had plenty of pool party gear to lend us. I’d called around and none of the private swim schools could compete in terms of the pool’s generous size.

dsc_0050.jpg Considering a plan B?
The RSVPs were in, and I’d negotiated a flat rate with the manager to allow all our older kids, parents and even a few younger siblings in. Then five days before the party, a major problem: our Long Street pool was broken and drained of water. No swimming!

Plan B Taryn’s Swimming Academy
What a marvelous find this was. Although further out of town for most kids and parents, with an indoor heated 12.5m pool, boy was it a great venue! They offer private swimming parties, and charged a reasonable fee for a set number of older kids and a few might/might-not-swim siblings. They threw in a lifesaver and we were still able to have our coach Allen running the pool activities. Older kids, siblings and even a few game dads and a grandpa wallowed in the water. We added to the fun with a few blow-up dolphins, colourful beach balls and prizes. Bring on the Olympics swimming heats – we finished on a high with the shower cap race, for enthusiastic girls and boys!

dsc_0033.jpg On to the eating
So much for the nourishing ‘healthier’ cheese on grated wholewheat sandwiches and popcorn – when they broke for refreshments and got out of the pool, it was the Flings, my butter-icing cupcakes and granny’s painstakingly decorated biscuits that were gobbled up first.

For the swimming pool cake I went back to the beer box recipe from previous parties, baked as a rectangular vanilla cake. It was iced with white butter icing (well, cream, thanks to the butter’s natural colour). Swimming pool tiles and three swimming starting blocks were created from vanilla wafer biscuits iced in brick-like fashion.

dsc_0067.jpg The swimming pool ‘water’
I mixed a homemade icing gel recipe I found on the internet, made of lemon juice, caster sugar, cornflour, water and blue food colouring. But after a few attempts at boiling it/adding extra cornflour, I gave up on the pool gloop. The lemon juice had turned it a murky green-blue and it wobbled but never really set. I had visions of gloop sliding all over the cake on the drive to the swimming pool venue, so when Daniel declared its tart flavour yucky once too many times, it was binned.

Instead, butter icing (I think slightly curdled) with a dash of imported blue gel colouring created a weird frosted effect. Perfect for smearing over the set white icing. Voila, swimming pool ripples. Tasty and pleasing to the eye.

dsc_0093.jpg Decoration
The pool swimming lane floats went on the cake at the venue. Surprisingly hard to find at supermarkets and cake suppliers, I eventually bought these inexpensive sweetie necklaces at King Cake. A few jelly ring ‘inflation devices’, and a scattering of jelly beans around the pool cake within reach of little foraging fingers.

Find the original beer box recipe at Daniel’s 2nd birthday red bus cake

Also see Daniel’s 5th birthday Superman cake and his other party cakes.

FOODSTUFF: my go-to Hong Kong dim sum spot

dsc_0037.jpg Every now and then you have an eating experience that is a life shaper, something that stands out in your mind not only for being novel but perhaps also awkward, unusual or challenging to your perceptions of what food can be. Most of mine have been uncomplicated things. Sometimes the experience is also amazing. Eight years ago I had one that was all of those in Hong Kong.

I had asked an overseas food contact for recommendations. When enquiring specifically about Hong Kong’s speciality dim sum, also known as yum cha, I was warned about a couple of places that should only ever be visited with locals.

The first spot turned out to be a dead end, a member’s only dining destination on the third floor of a building. The second was easy enough to find in the humid streets selling traditional wet produce and Chinese paraphernalia, snaking off from a mass of business-district skyscrapers in Central.

dsc_0040.jpg A flight up past tanks stocked with plump fish, we were greeted by a blast of air conditioning at Lin Heung but no welcome. We stood around and waited for probably five minutes for somebody to notice us. Men in white coats rushed past to top up Chinese tea from giant tea kettles; framed Chinese scenes didn’t liven basic white walls where fluorescent light tubes cast an eerie light in a large windowless room. Ceiling fans whirred.

Mostly male diners were seated at plastic stools around multiple round tables. There was a noisy din as people ate, talked and read newspapers. Traditional dim sum trollies were wheeled past, topped with steaming baskets. We so wanted to be a part of it. But we felt silly and, assuming there was some sort of missing cultural code, left.

Another foreign couple walked inside as we were regrouping on the street. ‘Come on,’ I said, irritated. ‘We’re going in too.’

dsc_0041.jpg That time we started observing the system. The idea was to hover near a couple of tables until a seat was vacated. Once we sat down a menu strip – all in red Chinese characters – was stuck under the glass table top. Old men at our table carried on reading newspapers; two friendly Asian girls eventually helped us order. They were visiting from Canada. As soon as we accepted any dim sum, items were ticked off and the paper strip was replaced under the glass.

One trolley lady stopped and allowed us to point to some items we wanted. Another fled whenever she saw us indicate that we wanted something, her lack of English the reason. We feasted on the best dim sum ever, washed down with tea. We took our slip to the cashier afterwards to be totalled. The meal was ridiculously good value.

dsc_0031.jpg Fast forward to my July 2016 visit: I asked a Hong Kong friend to join me at Lin Heung as she’d never been. The email with details had been lost, but my previous photos provided some clues. When I googled, I was a little sad to find Lin Heung mentioned on food blogs and TripAdvisor. I learned it had an opening date of 1928.

The tea house stools had been replaced by chairs, but it was still packed with the same characters: a mix of mostly very old alongside younger Chinese men. There was a familiar noisy din. But stepping inside had been totally different: we were welcomed, shown to seats and presented with a laminated menu outlining the serving times for dim sum, in English.

It doesn’t really matter what we ate: it arrived at the table in stages and tasted as wonderful as the last time. Most of it was pork dumplings, or delicate siu mai containing pork and shrimp filling combos. Or the loose folds of rice noodle rolls wrapped around delicate pork, doused in soy sauce.

dsc_0033.jpg The great part about places that use traditional trollies is that you can figure it out as you go because the ladies lift the lids, allowing a visual check it out before you accept. The round, spongey char siew bao buns filled with barbeque pork weren’t as light as they could be, but that’s a small detail. Chicken with mushroom wrapped in bean curd skin was so much tastier than it sounds.

In 2016 we had help from two Asian girls were at our table again – this time two work colleagues were visiting from Taiwan, where Lin Heung is apparently famous. They offered to take photos.

We had a delightful time. Including tea, lunch for two cost the equivalent of about R300. The experience made my heart happy, and rated – again – as one of my best meal experiences around.

How interesting: when I looked back at previous photos I saw the same trolley lady had served us in 2008.

LIN HEUNG TEA HOUSE, 160-164 Wellington Street, Central, Hong Kong.

FOODSTUFF: Cape Town welcomes The Shortmarket Club

shortmarket_club_-_chef_wesley_randles__manager_simon_widdison_hr_3.jpg Chef Wesley Randles and manager Simon Widdison are the hands-on component of a four-way partnership that includes Luke and Sandalene Dale-Roberts (it’s her furniture and interior design here) of The Test Kitchen and The Pot Luck Club, Cape Town restaurants where Randles and Widdison previously worked.

First impressions? The dinner vibe is buzzy and service is slick, with no give-away waiters stumbling over unfamiliar menu items or having limited knowledge of a dish, as is so often the case in a new restaurant.
Prices are on the high side, but then Randles points out that they go to a lot of effort to source artisan ingredients. So a warm baguette is presented with distinctive butter that has never spent time on a supermarket shelf. Near impossible to resist.

Or take the grass-fed rib-eye on the bone is from Oak Valley in Elgin. Tender, full of flavour and charred as expertly as it would be at any top steakhouse. The extra touches in the cafe au lait sauce, and sides including duck fat potatoes or fennel fondant.

The menu doesn’t have the wow factor of The Test Kitchen. The style is simpler. More familiar. The surprise is in the sorts of ingredients combined on a plate, the expert sauces or a flavour you can’t quite place.

shortmarket_club_-_interior_hr_1.jpg A CONVERSATION WITH CHEF WESLEY RANDLES

I’ll take you through the menu. Lunch or dinner is contemporary but classic. Organic grass-fed beef carpaccio on goat’s ricotta, with a dressing of miso-cured egg yolk and barrel-aged cherry vinegar dashi. Served with frozen Parmesan and burnt onion powder.
Or you could order Saldanha Bay oysters. There are dressing options so you could have a spicy Tiger’s milk dressing. Or just oysters clean. You could finish work in the afternoon, sit in the bar area and have the perfect martini with fresh oysters.
There is lamb rump, roasted over the wood fire, served with lamb rosemary jus and a Consol jar of mint jelly on the side. On the plate is fennel fondant, instead of classic potato fondant, roasted down until caramelised. It comes with leeks sous vide and fennel seeds, pine nuts and pine needles.

The dining process is a little bit of theatre and fun. So we have bread trollies and cheese trollies running up and down the aisles. The waiter will bring a tray with four plates on it. We created the menu and style for this space. We can bring back that old-world dining where every table is looked after really well, but with that bit of theatre at the table so the dining is fun.

shortmarket_club_-_chardonnay_steamed_west_coast_mussels_with_celeriac_and_ham_hock_veloute_poac.jpg The point of the menu is to challenge your focus and taste buds. The restaurant doesn’t feel pretentious to sit in and it’s a market between upmarket casual dining (The Pot Luck Club) and extreme fine dining (The Test Kitchen). We’ve never touched on breakfast in any of our restaurants so that’s a whole new thing. Our style of breakfast is recognisable but extremely different.

We know Cape Town has quite a breakfast culture. It’s going to take something different and creative to separate us. We’ve tried to be original. It won’t be eggs and a croissant. So we have a Scotch egg. It’s a boiled egg in a layer of pork farce and caramelised onion, on a bed of wild mushrooms, kale, crème fraiche and grated truffle.
Another dish is organic trout, hot-smoked inhouse, then glazed with sweet miso butter. It’s served with organic poached eggs and three-month fermented cream. Nobody touches fish for breakfast in Cape Town usually. That’s the idea: we can draw people in because our breakfast is different.

I’ve always wanted to do an amazing roasted chicken at the table. So we have a petit pousson. It’s a two-day cooking process where the chickens are cured and stuffed with chestnuts, lemon and fynbos. Slow-cooked sous vide individually, then roasted in the oven, glazed in olive oil. At the table we present it in chestnut husks set on fire, so we are smoking the chicken on arrival. The garnishes are classic. We’re serving roasted parsnip and bread sauce, with organic roasted baby beet and tarragon gravy.

The food style is a complete mix and match. You can’t say any of the dishes are Asian or something else. We’ve taken amazing South African produce and used them with techniques we know. I’ve worked with Luke for nine years so I’ve learnt to manipulate the flavour using Asian ingredients in such a way that we can bring out the best possible product. We use certain Asian ingredients to make the dish — not Asian — but the best it can possibly be.

shortmarket_club_bar_hr_1.jpg I wanted to do a lemon tart that is so much more. When it arrives at the table it looks like lemon tart. But lemon geranium is blended into the crust, and the custard filling has a touch of saltiness from preserved lemon. It’s caramelised and served with strawberry and amasi ice-cream, and finished off with lemon charcoal and strawberry dust. I don’t like to screw around and add a million purees to the plate. But then it has to be the perfect lemon tart.

I’ve always aimed at being an all-rounder: very capable in pastry, but also on the sauce section or grill. Luke always said to be a really good head chef you need to be able to jump on every section at any time and be better than everyone else. It’s important that you can do that, especially if you have your own restaurant.

Simon and I have worked together for years. He is an all-rounder but he knows his wine pretty damn well. I started at La Colombe with Luke just before I turned 21, then at The Test Kitchen (Simon was the GM opening it). Simon and I opened The Pot Luck Club together in 2013.

I try to make sure that I am not just following trends. You start off with a base: something completely original. Then you can add techniques you’ve seen somewhere and create something completely different. That is just progression; it’s not copying. The first and foremost focus here is flavour. Everything needs to be delicious first.

THE SHORTMARKET CLUB, 88 Shortmarket Street, Cape Town. Open Mon to Sat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Tel 021-447-2874, The Shortmarket Club

A version of this appeared in Business Day Homefront magazine in July 2016.

FOODSTUFF: Mulberry & Prince makes its debut

mp_pork_brodo_cucumber.jpg The name was inspired by two major streets in Manhattan. But the charcoal-painted Mulberry & Prince Kitchen and Bar exterior is part of a Cape Town inner city strip of buildings on Pepper Street, between buzzy Bree and Loop.

Its co-owners and co-chefs Cornel Mostert and Cynthia Rivera formed a connection while both studying in America. He is Capetonian; she grew up in Brooklyn. They share a keen eye for design and the desire to put a flavour stamp on their plates.

Two will eat well at Mulberry & Prince but the small menu lends itself to three enjoying a shared selection far more. It is food that sometimes hides complex techniques. Bacalao fritters are balls of umami fun. There are fresh elements to sliced kohlrabi with walnuts, shaved Parmesan and mint, balanced by persimmon or apple sweetness.

mp8952.jpg Labour-intensive ricotta dumplings have a lightness of touch, served with dainty shimeji mushrooms in a pool of leek and scallion green sauce. Steak tartare or aromatic lamb ribs both have their culinary merits.

The pork brodo, a sous vide pork shoulder steak in broth, is all about comfort, but has an element of surprise in unusual cucumber lengths with their skins charred black.

You will remember the sweets. The perfection of buttermilk panna cotta lifted by cherries in hibiscus vinegar. A wickedly moist chocolate cake cloaked in French chocolate ganache, whipped cream and sea salt. Much like the restaurant, the eating experience is about pared down elements with beautiful accents that linger.

mp155.jpg INTRODUCING CHEFS CORNEL MOSTERT AND CYNTHIA RIVIERA
Where and how did you meet? Mostert: At The Culinary Institute of America in New York, in the same class.

Why Cape Town and why now? Riviera: We’ve been friends for some time and we always talked about doing something together. It was about not wanting to work for other people and do their menus any more. We had so many ideas so we thought: why not try it out?

Your concept for a local restaurant? Mostert: Something different, while introducing diners to modern American cuisine aside from burgers and fries. Some of our ingredients wouldn’t be on most Cape Town menus. Endive, kohlrabi, stracciatella cheese … We like to order oysters or beef tartare when we eat out, so that’s why we serve it. The menu is designed with small to mid-sized plates for sharing. It’s how we like to eat, where everybody shares around the table. It creates a spontaneous vibe.

mpbacalao_fritters.jpg Any overlaps with the New York and Cape Town dining scene? Riviera: Bree Street, around the corner, has a lot of similarities with Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Brooklyn is kindof what Bree street is turning into: restaurants, boutiques and street artists. But the food is still quite different.

How do you divide the roles? Mostert: It’s only Cynthia and I in the kitchen. For dinner service I work the hot line. Cynthia usually does the cold salads and desserts, but we mix it up and help each other too.

mp406.jpg You are both young to own a restaurant. How do you rate your chances? Riviera: Sometimes we’ve felt that because we are young people don’t always take us seriously. It’s annoying because if we weren’t sure that this was what we wanted, we wouldn’t have taken this chance. We aren’t prepared to accept mediocre standards, whether it comes to the products from purveyors or anything else.

Many of the dishes seem quite minimalist and fresh. Mostert: We’ve tried to keep it clean and simple. But if you look further, it is often quite complex. For example, the ricotta gnudi dumplings take three days to make by hand.

MULBERRY & PRINCE,
18 Pepper Street, Cape Town. Open Tues to Sat for dinner. Tel 021-422-3301, Mulberry & Prince

A version of this appeared in Business Day Homefront magazine in June 2016.

FOODSTUFF: Franschhoek’s lovely Le Lude

ll_tartare.jpg From its elegant French-influenced gardens and interiors to its flutes of fizz, a Franschhoek family’s recently completed farm is luring visitors with its Gallic charm.

It has the feel of an established property that has been there forever. Yet Le Lude’s split-level cellar was built only in 2012 so the Barrow family’s first Franschhoek methode cap classique (MCC) could be made — they’re mad about Champagne and set on producing a worthy local equivalent.

The cellar’s upper section is now linked to the Parisian-green tasting room and white Orangerie restaurant — additions that opened to the public in November 2015.

Ferda Barrow says there was nothing to see when she and attorney husband Nic started building. ‘Four years ago we had to do the MCC so we built the cellar. We gave our architect some instructions but it was really about formalising our design ideas,’ she says. They built their adjacent home two years ago.

le_lude_orangerie-4.jpg Winemaker Paul Gerber produces an excellent leaner, dryer style of MCC Brut and Rosé non-vintage under Le Lude’s label. Initially the plan was to offer only bubbly tastings with canapés for visitors, including those hopping off the Franschhoek wine tram.

But when the Barrow’s chef daughter Nicolene Barrow became involved, they added a small restaurant. The MCC and canapé concept is well worth doing — flutes are paired with a choice of three of Nicolene’s canapé plates.

When Le Lude winery was purchased in 2009, it was an overgrown plum orchard. The property is just more than 6ha and 3.2ha is under vine: half planted to Chardonnay, plus Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier cultivars.
The farm buys in 95% of their grapes.

le_lude_orangerie-4.jpg Some of the MCC special bottlings use cork instead of crown caps for their secondary bottle fermentation — Le Lude were pioneers of this French agrafe method used in South Africa.

Le Lude refers to the Loire valley with its beautiful little châteaus and lovely gardens,’ says Ferda, an accomplished gardener. The family started the Klein Karoo Nationale Kunstefees in Outdshoorn. They also run a few country houses and hotels there.

Ferda’s other daughter Olga Barrow designed the interiors for Le Lude’s tasting room and restaurant. Orangerie’s lunchtime diners look out past white benches to Ferda’s pergolas and rose gardens enclosed by hedges.

llsouffle1.jpg Chef Nicolene credits her time at Michelin-two-star Le Gavroche in London for shaping her classic style. Orangerie lunch menus start with home-baked rolls and beautifully plated steak tartare, and finish with exquisite clafoutis desserts — there is a Gallic elegance to many of the dishes and sauces.

You may marvel at the creamy duck liver parfait on homemade brioche or get lost in the bisque-like richness of bouillabaisse, but Orangerie is probably best known for its warm Gruyère soufflé. The à la minute technique was perfected under the strict gaze of Le Gavroche’s French chefs. Says Nicolene: ‘I’m doing my version and the locals just love it.’

ORANGERIE AT LE LUDE, Le Lude, Bowling Green Avenue, Franschhoek.
Open Tues to Sun for lunch and/or bubbly with canapés. Reservations only for High tea. Tel 087-754-9925/6, Le Lude

A version of this appeared in Business Day Homefront magazine in May 2016

FOODSTUFF: Smoking hot Hoghouse microbrewery and Texan BBQ

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What made a mining exploration company repurpose a nondescript space in industrial Ndabeni into a smokehouse barbecue restaurant and microbrewery? To fill a gap for nearby Pinelands residents to enjoy drinks and dinner.

It’s a place to pop in after work to meet friends. The dinner-only customers are diverse, a mix of boys out with mates, hip couples, middle-aged women and families.

The menu is designed so diners order a few tasty dishes to share.
It’s casual and meant for fingers, and you can finish sweetly with a pastry or a sorbet cone. Most people start with ‘Snacks and move on to ‘Barbeque’ and ‘Sides’.

An unused garage in this unsexy, industrial part of Cape Town might sound like an unlikely location, but director/chef PJ Vadas says he never doubted that the concept would work.

hoghouse_006.jpg 8 questions to Chef Vadas

1. Why a Texan smokehouse? South Africans love meat and beer, so it’s a simple thing. We cook everything on fire (even our veggies) so it takes you back to braaiing. Hoghouse obviously offers pulled pork and pork ribs too, but it’s our beef brisket that few other restaurants do well.

hoghouse_200.jpg 2. It sounds easy. Is it? I came back from Texas and designed our mobile smoker, which we park out front. It took us a few months, trying different woods (we’re using rooikrans) to settle in. How it works is we put the meat in and wait. The technique is difficult because the meat has to be hung properly and can be sinewy, so there’s nowhere to hide. Ours is grassfed free-range meat from Spier.

3. Does an industrial space work? Yes, it’s a working brewery and we can smoke meat for 18 hours at a time without upsetting the neighbours. The cheaper rent allows us to have more space and more affordable food. People can eat well for R200 a head. The idea was always to have a restaurant for locals. We knew if it was affordable, offered quality food and had enough safe parking (customers park inside a security boom) people would come.

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4. The secret? It’s all about the smoker. There’s no gas, just rooikrans wood and hot smoking. It’s low and slow. There’s only salt and pepper on the meat. Our pulled pork smokes for 18 hours, while free-range beef brisket is tender after 14 hours.

5. What about beer? Five ales are all brewed on site. We can brew a 1000 litre batch at a time. Joachim Blackadder is a sommelier who manages the brewery and does our wine list – some wines are blended for us.

6. What’s popular? Our homemade hot sauce, beef brisket, and pig’s tails dipped in honey mustard.
We’re offering a Scotch egg coated in black pudding.
Every Friday we also smoke a pig’s head and then roast it to crispy – people are loving it.

hoghouse_263.jpg 7. What’s on the side? We have a lot of vegetarian regulars, which sounds like a contradiction, but the cauliflower with goat’s cheese, caper and sultana butter is probably our most popular dish. Pineapple Kimchi is a hit too. We do a braai broodjie of Spier’s potato bread, Huguenot cheese, onion and tomato, cooked on the grill.

8. Describe a Hoghouse regular. They range from 25-year-old students after a beer and brisket bun, to pensioners from Pinelands coming for a hearty supper. Some Stormers and Springbok rugby players recently discovered us. They tend to order smoked brisket by the kilo. Pinelands didn’t really have a bar and meeting place. Now it does.

*HOGHOUSE BREWING COMPANY, 42 Morningside Road, Ndabeni. Open Mon to Sat for dinner. Tel 021-531-0721, Hoghouse Barbecue

A version of this appeared in Business Day Homefront magazine in April 2016

FOODSTUFF: A taste of Burrata’s winter 2016 menu

20160322_152032_lls.jpg Some of South Africa’s top restaurants are located at the Old Biscuit Mill in Woodstock. The Test Kitchen and Pot Luck Club of course.
And, offering an altogether different eating and drinking experience, Burrata. One of my go-to dining spots for modern Italian dining: comforting yet skilled; offering a twist when it comes to flavour combinations.

20160322_144118_lls.jpg The new winter menu has plenty to see you through from autumn’s nippiness to spring.

To start, a few items from the antipasti section are best shared between two or three. Worth having is the fried cauliflower pops which you dab with pesto, spicy lamb meatballs on a bed of quinoa, and Sicilian caponata, aubergine and tomato given a crunchy lift with bites of fried capers. Flavours are simple: a pesto of artichoke and spinach works a treat on a slice of pizza flatbread.

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Main courses include a few creative fish and steak items, but our group stuck to pasta and risotto options. No regrets. A Burrata signature is back for good reason: a Parmesan risotto has pliable bite melding with umami creaminess, dotted with plump marrow bone insides. Preserved lemon for added delicious.

Exec chef Annemarie Robertson says the secret to all Burrata risottos is starting with a ‘stock’ of caramelised Parmesan rinds, onion and garlic. I love the idea of using up the end of this cheese and imparting lovely saltiness.

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Some new winter recommendations
- Rigatoni pasta with slow-braised springbok shank. Brown onions and a meaty jus gives this dish classic flavour depth, and serving it with kale brings it very much into 2016.
- Ravioli (large ones) filled with some sort of squash, finished with sweetcorn sliced off the cob, and a gentle smoked paprika and lighter-weight red pepper sauce, offering fresh vibrancy and plenty to interest if you’re in a vegetarian mood.
- Spaghetti, unusually served with velvet strands of pulled pork, in an intense tomato and wine sugo. Parmesan crisps add an extra element.

On the wine list
Sommelier-owner Neil Grant’s list favours South African brands plus a few French and Italian labels, should they be of interest. Just ask to try something different …

Grant has brought out a joint label at his three restaurants, aptly named In Cahoots with a tandem bicycle on the label. His wine partner is Chardonnay specialist winemaker Richard Kershaw. It’s everything you’d want in a fuller-style Chardonnay, and well worth it for R280 a bottle.

20160322_152013_lls.jpg Desserts to try
Sweet selections are small yet focused. They move with the season into heavier territory.
- A hazelnut panna cotta tastes almost cocoa-like (it’s also the colour of pale chocolate) but works well as a pudding eaten all together, with a sprinkle of hazelnuts, fresh fig and fig gelato.
- My favourite, creamy lime zabaglione, served with a zesty winter citrus salad of assorted grapefruit and orange, and raspberry sorbet. After good wine and the heavier weight of winter food, it’s the ideal finish on a note of lightness.

BURRATA, The Old Biscuit Mill, Albert Road, Woodstock.
Open Tues to Sat for lunch and dinner. Tel 021-447-6505, Burrata

FOODSTUFF: La Colombe is searing hot

lacolombetuna.jpg Tackling the winding roads of Silvermist Mountain Lodge to reach La Colombe restaurant in its new Constantia Nek location, the gradual elevation and snatched glimpses of Constantia vineyards focus your mind on your appetite. On breezy days, a mass of trees whistle.

Inside the restaurant an intimate private room offers views of the white gum forest on one side, while a bar at the opposite end leads to casual courtyard tables. The open kitchen offers drama for indoor diners, but the plum seats are on an enclosed terrace at the gable end, where windows open to show off mountains, gums and produce-filled vegetable boxes below.

Source Design wanted the new La Colombe to feel like an elevated timber tree house up high on an organic wine farm at the top of Constantia Nek. The design brief used a ‘fresher environment’ to draw attention to La Colombe’s intricately composed dishes. The crisp white interiors tie in with white table linen, while walls mix an array of charcoal and dove greys. Aged oak floors and black cast-iron metal straps hint at the wine barrels hidden in the cellar below.

lacolombe053.jpg Silvermist Estate is the only certified organic wine producer in the Constantia Valley. Andrew and Troy Constandakis own La Colombe in partnership with chef Scot Kirton. Front-of-house manageress Jennifer Hugé takes care of the rest, from staff training to precise food-and-wine pairings delivered in quality stemware. This is a restaurant where you’ll recognise the same serving staff year after year. They effortlessly describe dishes despite multiple elements and seem to know how to make diners feel special but not harassed.

La Colombe ranked second in SA in the recent Eat Out awards and Scot Kirton was named Chef of the Year 2015. Depending on how many courses you are having, lunch or dinner could start with home-made breads and innovative butters. It could partner raw and cooked together in a beef tartare mixed with seared beef tataki and assorted Asian flavours under a crunchy noodle nest. Perhaps a vibrant, unusual cucumber and strawberry dessert, coffee arriving with extra sweet nibbles. This is skilled food that is as beautiful to look at as it is to eat. It requires a higher spend for that privilege.

lcchef.jpg 8 questions to Eat Out Chef of the Year 2015 Scot Kirton

1.’It’s not just a dish, it’s an experience.’ Why? At La Colombe we don’t just serve food; we try to create memories that last a lifetime. We try to be slightly playful with our food so that it will be remembered, whether it is serving our tuna in a sealed can with key ingredients printed on the label, or just a funky way of plating something.

2. What does it cost? We offer an à la carte lunch menu. For dinner we have four courses for R535, or an eight-course tasting menu for R790 (R1 190 including wine).

3. Who thinks up the optional wine pairings with your dishes? Jennifer Hugé is the main force behind the wine pairings. She works closely with me, has an incredible palate and her knowledge of wines wows our guests every day.

4. One of your signatures is scallop and subtle Korean kim chi cabbage with sweetcorn. Other menu favourites? Yes, the scallop and kim chi, and the tuna with ponzu, wasabi and ginger in a can, are our two signature dishes. Other menu favourites are bone marrow and pickled fish on toast, with capers, herbs and truffle. Some favourites remain even when seasons change but others are replaced more regularly. Some dishes may take 15 attempts before they make the menu.

5. When did you plant the veggie garden? During the building phase of La Colombe, the chefs wanted a project to fill time in between menu planning, so they decided to plant a garden filled with all the herbs and seasonal vegetables used in the restaurant. It has been a great success and guests love it.

lcview-001.jpg 6. Is it about awards or repeat customers? It is definitely about regular customers that support us throughout the year, but the awards make it worthwhile for chefs to gain recognition for their hard work. Awards also bring first-time customers to see what all the fuss is about. We seem to be getting more dietary requirements from guests – some come in with cards printed with 20 things they can’t eat – so it becomes quite perplexing at times, but we challenge ourselves to meet them.

7. Is there a typical La Colombe diner? Lunch is a lot more casual – guests are welcome in shorts and slops. Dinner tends to be a lot more formal. La Colombe is not only a destination restaurant for tourists; we have very loyal locals throughout the year and offer great winter specials in the off-season.

8. You said a hypercritical audience judges every plate. Solution? The pressure is huge to deliver on every plate. So the food can’t be over complicated: every item on a dish needs a purpose. It is often very tempting to just keep adding components, but dishes are often better through removing components, keeping it simpler and focusing on flavour.

LA COLOMBE RESTAURANT, Silvermist Mountain Lodge, Constantia. Open Mon to Sun for lunch and dinner. Tel 021-795-0125, La Colombe

A version of this appeared in Homefront magazine in December 2015

REVIEW: Open Door’s outdoor breakfast deck

odjuice.jpg Six of us tried out Open Door’s new breakfast deck on Sunday and had a tastily lazy morning. There are plenty of good breakfast spots in Cape Town but most are indoors. The appeal of Open Door is that you can sit outside and enjoy rural views of a BMX track with lovely mountains behind.

Executive chef Annemarie Steenkamp and pastry chef Christine de Villiers put their heads together to make the cereal and hot options more creative than the usual breakfast fry-up. They’ve both worked at Le Quartier Français in Franschhoek at some point, where even the buffet selections pitch way above the average hotel breakfast, and nothing is out of a box. So a similar attention to detail shows at Open Door.

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brioche, citrus hollandaise, marrow, eggs
We had two children under seven that hopefully didn’t annoy too many adults with their running about outside. A plus is a great BMX track within walking distance – they charge R50 a day for kids of all ages. It’s just a little far away to watch your kids from an Open Door breakfast table – now that would be styling. But could become a handy combo with breakfast all the same. We vowed to return with mini bikes to spend some time getting dusty.

odopen_door.jpg What to eat The beetroot yoghurt with homemade nut, seed and coconut granola sounds unusual, but we stuck to hot items. A thick slice of toasted brioche with two poached eggs, tangy citrus hollandaise, chorizo and sweetcorn is the flat-out winner here. Bits of fatty bone marrow are hidden under a velvet coating of sauce. If you’re lusting after comfort food, a baked sausage, poached eggs and spiced tomato sauce dish with melted gruyere cheese is a good alternative. Only a little lacking in chili heat.

Two food-inclined boys were happy with a homemade croissant and scrambled egg (an alternative was boiled eggs with sourdough toast soldiers). The only disappointment was the waffle topped with maple syrup, crispy bacon and two fried eggs. Nothing intrinsically wrong, although a waffle’s ability to soak up syrup and seem dry never helps. It arrived in an old black frying pan and seemed to be more about presentation than a well-matched combination.

When to go Breakfast is only served from 9am to 11am.

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baked eggs, sausage, spicy tomato and gruyere
Who to take Well-behaved families, couples and groups of friends will all enjoy this.

What to drink The juices are made properly. The apple zing (apple, carrot and lots of fresh ginger) gets my vote.

How much? Gourmet granola R68, freshly made juices R38/R45, flat whites/cappuccinos R24, homemade croissants with scrambled egg R42, creative savoury dishes (benedicts, waffles) R72 to R82.

OPEN DOOR, Constantia Uitsig, Spaanschemat River Road, Constantia. Monday to Saturday for breakfast. 021-794-3010, Open Door

Also see Open Doors at Constantia’s original Spaanschemat restaurant

FOODSTUFF: Abundant greens at Allée Bleue’s picnic

abpic1.jpg I’m often asked to recommend Winelands picnics. I tend to make the effort to drive out to a restaurant. But having a husband who isn’t flexible enough to sit hunched and cross-legged for longer than five minutes, means spreading a blanket isn’t a popular choice in our house.

Fortunately he didn’t have to do that when we were invited to experience a Sunday family chicnic for four at Allée Bleue. Their idea of a picnic is a table and chairs, and waiters bringing drinks to your checked tablecloth under a shady tree. Younger kids are kept busy with a trampoline and jumping castle, and there are lovely lawns to run around on. Live music makes Sunday picnics a particularly good choice.

Although much of the farm is filled with practical packaging warehouses and hydroponic tunnels, the picnic area makes the most of its proximity to charming Cape Dutch buildings. The wine tasting centre recently moved there, so it’s handy to collect a few bottles en route to your car.

abpic3.jpg Allée Bleue grows, and supplies retailers, with incredible leaves, herbs, (including less usual tarragon and tatsoi) and fruit, aside from delicious wines. Their Chenin Blanc and Isabeau (Semillon Chard Viognier blend) have long been favourites of mine because they are so food-friendly.

So unsurprisingly the Allée Bleue picnic is a tasty showcase of the farm’s fresh produce. It goes down well in hot weather, especially if you’re big on salad – we had five of them, plus two artisanal cheeses. A lot of thought goes into providing quality homebaked breads, incredibly creative salads, a vibrant salsa verde, and some savoury preserves. It is beautifully presented in a basket where the sides open out, and all the food is served in jars with lids.

So a lovely country experience all round. On the salad note: the wild rice with smoked feta and baby carrots was delicious. There was mixed baby leaf salad with grated Parmesan, plus a crunchy baby fennel, red onion, preserved citrus with hazelnut dressing scored points. A beef stir-fry with egg noodles; and an unusual salted chicken salad with coconut shavings, dried mango and coconut dressing.

ab1.jpg Little jars aside, a few solid separate bits of protein would not have gone amiss – a few cocktail sausages perhaps? Melktert miniatures and farm nectarines finish it off. (The vegetarian picnic version is fairly similar, but the salads only have cheese, and a Med grilled vegetables replaces the beef noodle stir-fry).

The kiddies’ option was the source of envy at our table of four. A box of homemade chicken nuggets and fries were still warm. We felt lucky when our son graciously shared bits of his chocolate brownie.

ALLÉE BLEUE, Intersection R45 and R310, Franschhoek. Allée Bleue, 021-874-1021.
Picnics: R185 per person for standard or vegetarian picnic. Includes two glasses of Allée Bleue Starlette Blanc per adult.
Kiddies’ picnics: R65 per child including a juice box.
Herb tours (40 min) 10.30am on Fridays. R185 per person including a welcome drink and three-course meal at Allée Bleue Bistro.

PLACES: Escape to Tree Tops in Citrusdal

dsc_0041.jpg We wanted a different getaway, a place warm enough to ignore the outdoor chill of spring, with a drive of sufficient distance from Cape Town to remind us that we had escaped urban life for three days and two nights. Tree Tops near Citrusdal ticked the boxes.

It wasn’t easy finding September weekend accommodation near Citrusdal. Only two hours from Cape Town, this is citrus country, and it’s surprisingly popular for mountain bike races and company retreats. Spring probably increased the appeal of the area, as the wild flowers were out in force once we detoured.

dsc_0022.jpg The Baths is an outdoor resort with hot springs that date to Victorian times. Their numerous affordable self-catering options were full – we were advised to book their weekend accommodation two months in advance.

Luckily we heard about treehouses overlooking the river at a farm, 9km along a gravel road from The Baths, and booked the last one. The location was tranquil and beautiful. Tree Tops is what I’d describe as a decent glamping option – something in between self-catering and luxury camping. It’s privately owned and well equipped, but we didn’t know to what extent. The email from the owner provided a map, and only instructed us to bring towels and food. Firewood was available for R20 a bag.

In fact each treehouse has a double bed, reasonable quality linen, a bar fridge, kettle, and glasses and mugs for two. A table and two chairs on the balcony, a small basin, and a tiny electric fan, were also standard. One bigger treehouse also had basic cooking facilities and a fireplace inside, so if you’re looking for solitude, that’s the one to request (we never saw the couple staying for a night, only their parked car).

The communal toilets had separate shower rooms. They were all clean and linked to the treehouses via a wooden bridge. The showers were hot, but you need to take your own soap and two-ply.

dsc_0011.jpg A stone kitchen on the lawns was well equipped with a communal fridge, a couple of two-plate stoves, and a cupboard for each treehouse – containing two sets of plates and cutlery, pots, wine glasses and even a waiter’s friend. The only drawback is that if all treehouses are occupied, you need to request extra bits and pieces for any children. We’d already called the owner on arrival, after requesting extra bedding for a five-year-old, and finding only a bare mattress in our room.

The communal braai area facing the river has its own grid and a few seats, and makes a lovely sunset or breakfast spot. Two smaller braais are available if you don’t fancy being sociable.

Which is obviously a consideration. We were lucky enough to have the place to ourselves on the Friday night. On the second night we shared a fire and a chat with a young apple farmer and his girlfriend, before moving to our treehouse balcony with our bottle of wine, when our son wanted to go to sleep. Tree Tops is designed more for couples than families, and huts are close enough to each other to necessitate keeping your voices down when moving around.

dsc_0037.jpg If I returned I’d probably book it with two other families, and take over a few treehouses. Your kids need to be old enough to share a double bed – with a sibling or friend – in a separate treehouse though, as you won’t fit more than one young child on the floor. The treehouses are close enough for adjacent occupants to call to each other, but they’re suspended on stilts some distance from the kitchen and braai area – so something to keep in mind, as most young urbanites struggle to sleep near night-time crickets and chatty morning birds.

But that’s part of the appeal that makes it so worth doing. It’s quiet, you’re in nature, the views are lovely, and the two-man canoes are tied to the riverbank for anybody to use. We had great fun tackling the beer-coloured Olifants River with our paddles every morning. We also spent a day at The Baths as day visitors, alternating between the bathtub-heat of the hot springs and the icy regular swimming pool.

TREE TOPS, Citrusdal. Adults R650 for two a night; children R120 per night.
Tel 022-921-2474 or 071-681-3871, Tree Tops

RECIPE: Superman birthday cake

dsc_0036.jpg Daniel’s 5th birthday party fell on a public holiday again. Five seems to be an age where kids love to show off their strength, lightning speed and superhuman powers. So naturally we had a superhero and pajama party (a few adults dressed up too, but swapped the spiderman mini-juices for wine).

We usually get a bit carried away and invite too many people, but it was a little more hectic than normal this year. I’m working fulltime as an acting magazine editor for six weeks, so it meant I only had weekends to run around and source cake decorations and ingredients. Then Craig’s flight was delayed for hours the day before while the house/cake/cupcakes/garden were meant to happen. No pressure. It’s why I wore a Wonder Woman T-shirt on the day and felt the part.

dsc_0004.jpg I deviated from the usual beer box cake recipe because I was given a new Kitchen Aid cake tin with smaller dimensions (23 x 33 x 5cm) and wanted to put it to the test. It made just the right size of cake to accommodate Clark Kent’s buffer alter ego. My cake rose too much in the centre, but I just piped butter icing in the cracks and kept spreading. Fortunately Superman needed a puffy chest.

The party was a blast, with granny baking cheesecake and gingerbreadmen, Hannah beautifully icing the cupcakes, and I sorted out the cake decoration late at night. In attendance: four spidermen, a superman-batman, dinosaur and a maiden or two. A few days later when I asked Daniel if he’d expected a superman cake (it’s a surprise until we bring it out), he said sort of, but he was hoping he’d have a cake with Superman’s kryptonite. Right …

dsc_0010.jpg HEILIE PIENAAR’S BUTTER CAKE
Versatile and flop-proof, butter cake is the foundation for many recipes. The cake batter is easily modified to include other ingredients and flavours.

Preparation time: 25 minutes
Baking time: 25 minutes
Skill level: easy
Makes: 1 two-layer cake

Ingredients: Double the recipe for the large tray bake variation below
125 g butter, softened
250 ml (1 cup) sugar
3 extra-large eggs
5 ml (1 tsp) vanilla essence
560 ml (2¼ cups) cake flour
12 ml (2¼ tsp) baking powder
1 ml (pinch) salt
150 ml milk

  1. Preheat oven to 180°C. Grease 2 round 20 cm cake pans. Cream butter and sugar together. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition, until light and creamy. Add essence.
  2. Sift flour, baking powder and salt together. Add dry ingredients, alternately with milk, to egg mixture.
  3. Spoon mixture into the prepared pans and bake for about 25 minutes. Leave in pans for a few minutes before turning out onto a wire rack to cool completely.

Variations
-Oil cake: Substitute butter with cooking oil.
-Large tray bake cake: Double the recipe. Bake mixture in an oven pan of about 24 x 34 cm for 35 – 40 minutes.
-Chocolate cake: Mix 60 ml (¼ cup) cocoa powder with 60 ml (¼ cup) warm water and add to the cake batter.

dsc_0048.jpg BUTTER ICING
(Multiply the recipe according to the quantity required)
100g soft butter, cubed
300g sieved icing sugar
2.5 Tablespoons milk
lemon juice to taste

  1. Beat together butter and icing sugar until soft.
  2. Beat in the milk and lemon juice. Add colouring.
    Tip: buy cake decorations and ingredients, including bottled red, yellow and blue gel food colouring, Spiderman cupcake icing faces, and catering packs of smarties (sort them into red, yellow and blue colours) at CAB Foods.

dsc_0063.jpg Superman S design
I photocopied the S emblem from a T-shirt, enlarged it to size, and cut out inside the letters to create an icing template. I was surprised I managed to pipe in the yellow and red design using a fine icing nozzle. The blue surrounding icing was easily spread with a knife. Extra smarties stuck on the board with piped white icing blobs. We don’t do plastic icing, so it’s never on the cake itself. But Superman needs a red cape …

Also see Daniel’s 4th birthday Peter Pan cake

Find the original beer box recipe here at Daniel’s 2nd birthday red bus cake

FOODSTUFF: Cape Town’s five best teatime patisseries

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Tracy-Leigh Genricks at Four & Twenty
Bread & Butter. Stephen and Eileen Cross’s passion for baking (all self-taught) put a suburban tea room on the map. Their tea lover’s menu includes a loose tea selection, while a display table is filled with Amarula carrot cake to daintily decorated lemon meringue cupcakes with curd centres on cupcake bases. Five types of cheesecake include Oreo, red velvet and caramel chocolate. They’re also known for Banting sweet treats. Sandown Road, Sunningdale. 021-554-5817.
Main Road, Paarl. 021-863-0672, Bread & Butter

Four & Twenty Café. Silwood-trained Tracy-Leigh Genricks’s display of hand-crafted pastries, biscuits, tarts and cakes are innovative, delicious and a treat to look at. Staples include scones, cheesecake, and fruit-filled tartlets – always with a new flavour, topping or twist. Try decadent chocolate ganache cupcakes to meringue, lime and strawberry pies.
Wolfe Street, Wynberg. 021-762-0975, Four & Twenty (Reopens on 20 July 2015)

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Sweet treats from The Birdcage

La Belle Bakery. A cosy interior and terrace is a popular option in this leafy neighbourhood where Ronnefeldt teas are served. Tag on a meander down the adjacent Alphen Trail afterwards. A pastry chef’s display entices with lemon bars to baked cheesecake, rocky road squares or coconut and pineapple mini carrot cakes. The Alphen hotel, Constantia. 021-795-6336.

M Patisserie. Self-trained and extremely talented, Martjie Malan sets the standard in Cape French-style patisserie. This Koekedoor TV show finalist epitomises baking precision and perfection. She’s the queen of macarons, sweet or savoury eclairs, and madeleines made the classic way. Visit her venue to enjoy exquisite cakes with Nigiro’s loose-leaf teas. Andringa Street, Stellenbosch. 021-886-5020.

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La Belle's display includes rocky road squares and brownies
The Birdcage. Institute of Culinary Arts-trained baker Beate Strydom says red velvet cupcakes put this tearoom on the map, but she prefers making more interesting, newer creations including brown sugar cupcakes with butterscotch centres. The people’s favourite, this tea room offers Dilmar teas, custard and chocolate bars, cheesecakes (always baked), and even nougat studded with Jelly Tots.
Plein Street, Stellenbosch. 021-882-9790. The Birdcage

A version of this appeared in The Times on 7 July 2015

REVIEW: Loaves on Long is satisfying a knead

loaves.jpg Cape Town’s restaurant-clogged centre is still luring new converts. Loaves on Long opened their artisan bakery café recently in a double-volume building linked by charmingly uneven stairs. It’s diagonally opposite The Grand Daddy hotel and surprisingly easy to miss, yet is attracting regulars.

Chefs Ciska Rossouw and Lyndal Wakeford operate their joint business on passion and a shoestring budget. The upstairs level has basic pine tables and white banquettes, but in good weather balcony seats provide a bustling city snapshot.

Downstairs the counter is only replenished with fresh bakes once the rest have sold. That meant only gluten-free brownies – more chocolate-coconut cake than brownie-chewiness – were available for dessert when I went for lunch.

Roussouw made her name at The Bakery at Jordan, producing baked goods and country meals from quality ingredients. The Loaves on Long philosophy is similar, but there’s more food to go.

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Foraged Newlands mushroom soup with a crunchy goat's cheese surprise

Eggs and meat are free-range; some cured into bresaola or salami for gourmet sandwiches (pork belly with apple is good). Roussouw is often visible kneading her signature rye that encloses a whole pear, or shaping croissants (they’re puffily crisp).

loaves3.jpg Wakeford primarily runs the café with its tiny rotating menu. We didn’t fancy roasted vegetables with grilled halloumi, or the popular burger on a homemade bun.

So tomato-based fish curry with prawns, hake and potato tasted homely, but its bread-dough ‘vetkoek’ seemed heavy. Homemade tagliatelle wasn’t rolled thin enough to lift the partnering cream sauce, duck and wilted spinach. Thanks to a staff shortage, lunch was also slow.

But an inspired mushroom soup eased all those shortcomings. Pine rings and Boletus foraged in Newlands, merged creamy-earthy goodness and sautéed slices. With goat’s cheese croquettes, perfection.

Loaves on Long’s winter dishes are flavourful but hearty; starchy vegetables or bread items feature often. Next time I’ll know to order only one course.

What to eat If available on the small menu, don’t miss the foraged mushroom soup with goat’s cheese croquettes.

When to go early morning for pastries and muffins, or breakfast on the run. At midday for a weekday lunch.

Who to take Catch up with a friend, or have a casual lunch meeting with a colleague.

loavescounter.jpg What not to do expect tons of staff input. A split-level space and limited floor staff means an element of self-service may apply when you eat in.

What to drink They’re waiting for a liquor licence, so soft drinks, coffee or leaf teas are the current options.

Whatever you do don’t forget to take home fresh loaves made from stoneground flour. The ciabatta is still good the next day.

How much? Croissants and mini cakes R18 to R25; gourmet sandwiches R45; breakfast dishes R45 to R55; lunch dishes R65 to R85.

The verdict A modest bakery and café offering hearty fare.

LOAVES ON LONG, 33 Long Street, Cape Town. 021-422-3353. Open weekdays 6.30am to 6pm, Saturday 8am to 4pm.

REVIEW: Open doors at Constantia’s original Spaanschemat restaurant

roasted_pumpkincurried_frittersseedcrumblebuttermilklabneginger.jpg
Roasted pumpkin, curried fritters, seed crumble, buttermilk labne and fried ginger
There’s a new place where people eat in rural Constantia. Open Door restaurant is modern enough so its central Art Deco bar doesn’t seem at odds near the chef’s table in view of open kitchen activity.

But the remodelled River Café space is sufficiently time-worn with repurposed beams in ceiling alcoves, and old brass handles, numbers and hooks now forming decorative detail on smoky-grey walls. Most were building originals.

Staff wearing dapper uniforms offered a café menu, or – what we tried – lunch and dinner options. Sommelier co-owner Neil Grant’s wine bottles zigzagged inside a glass display fitting 1000 labels. We ordered easy-drinking Fist of Fancy Pinot Noir (R160).

If you have one dish from executive chef Annemarie Steenkamp, make it the nifty vegetarian starter. Soft pumpkin puree under spiced seeds, a buttermilk labne blob; zestiness from crisp-fried root ginger; herb oil. The fun came in dipping curried fritter squiggles into it all.

Vegetables also featured creatively in pan-roasted kabeljou, its crisp skin topped with charred turnip slivers, on peas and sweetcorn kernels. A leeky, light velouté tasted of poached oyster salinity.

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Pan-roasted kabeljou under roasted turnip slivers, oyster velouté, sweetcorn and peas

A fireside table showed off stately trees through a former schoolroom’s sash windows. Wintry moodiness in a chunk of venison loin; orange sweet potato kept interest; cranberry jus and puy lentils affirming earthiness.

By the time desserts were sent, we were hooked. I’d probably skip on walnut and banana loaf again, although its banana sorbet and blowtorched banana balls were fun.

But I loved the guava pudding. Freshness of aniseed panna cotta on a guava and fennel compote. Simplicity, poached guava and homely almond crumbs on top.

Steenkamp and Grant stamped buzzy Burrata and Bocca on Cape Town’s culinary map. Open Door’s experience is different. More polished, like many of its customers. But reliant on cleverly crafted combinations that wow if given a chance.

openfire.jpg What to eat There’s a lunchtime café menu (kale chicken Caesar to beef burgers). Or creative options on a small lunch or dinner a la carte menu.

When to go Take in the space over a drink at the bar, followed by dinner. Or lunchtime is lovely near the fire.

Who to take Enjoy with a romantic partner, impress your visiting in-laws or host a business lunch.

What not to do Offer the management advice about how everything was before. It’s a new concept in an historic venue – relax into the experience.

opendoorpud.jpg
Aniseed panna cotta on guava and fennel compote, topped with poached guava and almond crumbs
What to drink Wine – sommelier Neil Grant’s vast but approachable list has something for everyone, by bottle or glass.

Whatever you do make sure you return later in the year, once their breakfasts on the deck are in operation.

How much? A la carte starters R62 to R89; mains R98 to R172; desserts R42 to R62.

The verdict A pricier yet quality food and wine experience.

OPEN DOOR, Constantia Uitsig, Spaanschemat River Road, Constantia. Monday to Saturday for lunch and dinner; Sunday lunch. 021-794-3010, Open Door

A version of this review appeared in The Times on 17 June 2015

Also see Q&A with Annemarie Steenkamp

REVIEW: Bistro 13’s winter menus, and sporting connections

dsc_0010.jpg There’s no cricket paraphernalia or framed Protea shirts on Bistro 13’s smoke-grey walls. The countryside restaurant interior is uncluttered: lithe wooden tables on cement floors, a few floating shelves; light streaming in large aluminium windows. Diners watch busy chefs through a kitchen hatch.

Proteas cricketer Faf du Plessis owns Bistro 13 with chef Nic van Wyk. Word is that Van Wyk’s brother is a sports agent, and the Indian Premier Leaguer was looking to invest in a project. The restaurant opened on Welmoed Estate in September 2014. Du Plessis enjoys cooking in his spare time, but his sports commitments prevent any hands-on input.

My weekday lunch with a winemaker friend from a nearby cellar started with very good breads, all baked inhouse.
Pointing out industry faces at two other tables, the winemaker happily selected off the small menu, but declared no interest in sport. We sipped Credo Chenin Blanc, modestly marked up from the adjacent Stellenbosch Vineyards tasting room. You’ll find more innovative Cape labels on the wine list too.

dsc_0007.jpg The calamari and potato crisps with red pepper, tomato and squid ink sauce, came recommended. Instead we enjoyed three perky smoked salmon croquettes, alongside lemony crème fraiche, rocket, delicately pickled fennel slivers and pomegranate pips. A light and fresh start.

Ordinarily I find springrolls to be crunch with no inner substance, but Bistro 13’s fine lamb shoulder filling caused a rethink. The clincher was dipping in mild curry cream, with a dab of sweet plum chutney. Sauces are good here.

A main course of vegetarian risotto was a weak point. On face value all homely and autumnal, pumpkin pieces and crispy sage leaves in burnt butter over al dente risotto. But after a few forkfuls, squash and melted gruyere cheese heaviness.

For those unfamiliar, Van Wyk trained at La Colombe, partnered Michael Broughton at Terroir, and worked at Barnyard Brasserie previously. He only serves sustainably caught linefish – I’ve known him to delete fish from the menu when a supplier couldn’t source it.

We were in luck with sustainable yellowtail. Easily overcooked, this panfried piece was moist, floating on a beurre blanc sauce that cleverly balanced its harissa spice. I loved the fried-to-crispy chickpeas and roasted cauliflower, aubergine baba ganoush blobs adding grunt.

bistro13pud.jpg
The restaurant was emptying by the time dessert arrived, service still efficiently friendly. A shared warm chocolate pudding oozed sweetly like a fondant, but for me lacked bittersweet intensity. Accompanying peanut butter caramel was rich in a wintry custardy way, dotted with shards of peanut brittle.

Bistro 13 serves tasty bistro food that’s interesting and skilled but not ridiculously fussy. It’s why families and business people return. A fireplace kept things cosy inside, but I’ve eaten on the sunny deck during lazy Sundays when young kids from surrounding tables mucked in on an impromptu soccer scramble on the lawns. I wouldn’t rule out a mini cricket match.

Starters: R65 to R70. Mains: R120 to R150. Desserts: R40 to R65.

Feed Me Experience Any two starters, two mains and one dessert, in half portions. Winter special of R225 per person, valid until 31 August 2015. Lunch or dinner excluding Sundays.

BISTRO 13, Stellenbosch. Welmoed Estate, Baden Powell Drive, Stellenbosch. Lunch Tuesday to Sunday; dinner Wednesday to Saturday. 021-881-3044, Bistro 13

A version of this review appeared in The Sunday Times on 14 June 2015.

WINE: Cape Town’s five of the best Shiraz

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Two recent competitions put Shiraz, or Syrah, in the spotlight:

Boschkloof Syrah 2013 from Stellenbosch may have only been a Shiraz SA Wine Challenge finalist in 2015, but at R155 it’s my go-to wine for a classic Stellenbosch Syrah that finishes dry. This Syrah’s 2010, 2011 and 2012 vintages were previous Challenge winners. Reenen Borman barrel-matures the wine for 14 months, using 10% new oak. www.boschkloofwines.com

boschkloof_syrah.jpg Driehoek Shiraz 2012 If you want to try something different, it doesn’t get more remote than Shiraz vines growing at over 1000-metre altitude on the oldest farm in the Cederberg. Neighbour David Nieuwoudt makes this fruity, spicy-prune Shiraz SA Wine Challenge winner, R175. Nieuwoudt’s elegant Cederberg Shiraz is also one of the 12 winning wines this year. www.cybercellar.com

Eagles’ Nest 2012 My most exciting Shiraz Challenge winners in 2015 were wines grown at higher altitude, where grapes can hang longer without becoming overripe. Full of dark berry richness, this elegant wine is grown on an incline below Constantia Nek. My special-occasion choice at R225. eaglesnest.com

en_shiraz.jpg Fleur du Cap Bergkelder Selection Shiraz 2013 is from predominantly cool vineyards in the Cape Agulhas area. At the 2015 Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show competition, this wine won trophies for Best Shiraz and Best Red Wine Overall. At R79 it’s a no-brainer. Shiraz is on the up in South Africa, with more vines being planted than pulled out. The Bergkelder, 021-809-8025.

Strandveld First Sighting Shiraz 2012 wears the best-value price tag of the 12 Shiraz SA Wine Challenge winners in 2015. At R75, a juicy mouthful of Elim flavour shines through, thanks to only 20 to 30% new oak. This ‘less is more’ approach to oak is catching on. It’s also half the price of the winery’s flagship Strandveld Syrah. www.getwine.co.za

TASTE FOR YOURSELF:
Attend the annual Shiraz Showcase on 18 June 2015 (6pm to 9pm) at Cape Town International Convention Centre. Find some of South Africa’s best Shiraz labels and Shiraz blends, including the 12 winners of the 2015 Shiraz SA Wine Challenge. Contact Sandra Lotz at 082-924-7254. Tickets R120 webtickets

A version of this appeared in The Times on 3 June 2015

FOODSTUFF: Bree Street brings home the bacon

bacononbreesign.jpg In case you haven’t noticed, real bacon is back. Not the brine-injected, bland supermarket stuff, but naturally-reared pig bacon from the belly or loin, dry-salted and hung so that when you put slices in a pan they quickly crisp up.

You can buy charcutier Richard Bosman’s coppa, bresaola and other cured meats in Spar and fancy delis. But when eating breakfast out, local cafes and restaurants that serve non-commercial bacon are harder to pinpoint. Bacon on Bree is Bosman’s ode to superior bacon in an urban restaurant.

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Bacon on Bree's Smokey Joe: house sourdough, crispy bacon, cheese.
Opened in partnership with wife Justine Seymour in mid April, it’s a daytime bacon bar offering a tiny menu: five bacon sandwiches or croissants arrive on pig board cut-outs. Bacon is partnered with homemade Asian-inspired salty sauces, salad or cheese.

The Harvey Specter flies, with crisp bacon, Brie, tomato and pesto crammed into a ciabatta. The Smokey Joe house sourdough (shaped as a government loaf) simply pairs bacon and cheese. Dusted with smoked paprika, it’s a winner.

bacononbreeinterior.jpg Sandwiches aside, there’s bacon and blue cheese salad, bacon-flavoured sauce over chicken wings, and home-cured salmon. You can order Kamili coffee or juice. Occasional menu specials appear on the chalkboard: look out for bacon and mushroom soup, or a spicy bacon-and-pork-patty burger …

In demand are Bosman’s vacuum-packed bacon products to go. Priced from R40 to R45, at least five types of pig are sliced under the guise of cured meat. There’s smoked, streaky, nicely marbled neck, or fattier cheek guanciale strips. Bacon cured with honey (best with breakfast pancakes), competes with herb-and-spiced pancetta or lightly smoked lardons.

Unusual wild boar is available as belly pancetta, or in pinker boar bacon loin strips. You can take away crackling ‘chips’, jars of bacon dust or packs of mixed nuts partnering crispy lardons. In short, it’s bacon or bust.

BACON ON BREE, 217 Bree Street, Cape Town. Open Monday to Friday 7am to 4pm; Saturday 8am to 2pm. 021-422-2798, Bacon on Bree

A version of this appeared in The Times on 3 June 2015.

REVIEW: Riverway Cafe a little bit of all sorts

riverway_cafe.jpg Hout Bay locals are familiar with Spiro’s and Ragafellows restaurants, operated by Spiro Ragavelas, his brother, and Spiro’s wife Julie. Riverway Café is Julie Ragavelas’ personal venture, with feminine décor showing in vintage plates decorating walls, old-fashioned cabinets and scarves draped over wrought-iron chairs.

The café’s location is one of its best assets, outside a shopping centre on the Baviaanskloof River embankment planted with greenery. Glass walls and a terrace let in spirit-lifting sunlight.

The menu offers all sorts: breakfasts, substantial salads and even high tea. But I found it lacking in starter-type dishes for nibbling on during a lazy lunch. Pulled pork jalapeno bacon poppers didn’t entice. Mushroom and Brie soup did, but wasn’t very shareable.

We settled on a salt and pepper squid main dish between two. Calamari rings and tentacles, plus tempura vegetables, were tasty but oily, suggesting a kitchen not understanding batter-friendly temperatures. A vinegar overdose made the accompanying Asian dipping sauce inedible.

rbunny.jpg

There were no complaints from the child at our table, who was delighted to have a spice-free squid half portion, after a request to the management. But then children enjoy most things arriving with fries and tomato sauce, and Viennas were the only protein alternative on the children’s menu.

For adults, a grilled citrus tuna steak was topped with sliced avocado, on wilted spinach. Its soy and coriander leaf fish marinade was garlicky, but made for a tasty combination with sweet, zesty lemon curd.

Baked cheesecake and chocolate cake from the display were homemade and sweet; coffees perkily strong. But the dish we’ll remember was the bunny chow. This was Durban street food lifted to café-style glamour: a soft loaf replaced government issue bread, whole spices infusing a chicken and potato curry inside to just beyond Cape Malay heat.

riverway_c1.jpg What to eat Soup options change from time to time. The rest is usually on the printed menu.

When to go glass-walled, it offers cheerful daytime terrace tables and winter sun well into the afternoon.

Who to take family for all-day breakfast or lunch; girlfriends and aunts for tea and scones.

What not to do expect waitstaff with menu knowledge.

What to drink Bring your wine corkage-free while they wait for a liquor licence.

Whatever you do don’t ignore this if you’re worn out by soulless shopping centre eateries.

How much?
Breakfasts average at R55 to R75; kids’ lunches R25 to R45; adult mains R65 to R95; salads R65 and cakes R35.

The verdict honest but not exceptional food.

THE RIVERWAY CAFE, Midpoint Centre, Mainstream Way, Hout Bay. 021-791-0565. Open weekdays 8am to 5pm, Sat 8am to 4pm; Sun 9am to 3pm.

A version of this appeared in The Times on 27 May 2015.