REVIEW: Carne on Kloof rates with SA’s best

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The Place: When Giorgio Nava closed Caffé Milano bakery and replaced it with another branch of meat-focused Carne SA this July, I joked to a colleague that perhaps Cape Town’s low-carb-high-fat phase was steering diners away from breads and sweet pastries towards protein-rich steaks sporting fat. The Milanese chef-restaurateur opened the original Carne SA in Cape Town’s Keerom Street legal district in 2009. His point of difference has always been to supply his restaurants with meat from his own Karoo farms.

The new Kloof Street venue has distressed brick walls bearing the same decorative wooden pods found in Carne Keerom Street. Dim lighting makes night dining more enticing but the smaller café interior space easily feels crowded. Street-facing tables are another option. This is more than a steakhouse, and many of Nava’s jet-setting regulars have already congregated. Quite a few are on the upper side of forty, wearing heels and evidence of botox.

The Drinks: Bottled wine value is better value; by the glass starts at R33 for white or R40 for red. You’ll find a fair list of Cap Classique and whites, plus sufficient steak-friendly current and older-vintage reds. We drank Felicité Pinot Noir 2012 (R165).

The Food: The smaller menu looked similar to the original Carne in Keerom. To start, signature ravioli (R80) filled with slow-braised lamb offered savoury simplicity in four perfectly silky pockets, meat juices melding with burnt butter and salty Parmesan. A caprese salad (R80) combined diced tomato, the odd caper and creamy-rich, bouncy burrata mozzarella.

Some of Carne’s game, plus the Dorper lamb and pork, is from Nava’s Karoo farms. But it was grassfed beef from Italian Romagnola crossed with South African Nguni and Afrikaner cows that appealed at our table. Switched on waiters showed off a platter of raw meat specimens; for carnivores there’s no better advertisement. The fat 1.2kg la fiorentina T-bone for two (R400) was sorely tempting. Or for novelty value from the specials, the boneless spider steak from the back of the knee, earning its name from web-like marbled fat streaks (R140 for 250g).

The tender prime rib cut (rib-eye on the bone) didn’t disappoint. Priced from R140 upwards, no sticky bastes diluted meaty flavour on this plump, tender 500g slab (R175) of beef. All Carne grills include sides in the price: mash, spinach, broccoli or salad, otherwise charged at R25 to R30. My thin-cut fries were overcooked, and the mushroom and brandy butter side sauce was small for R20, but that’s where the criticism ends. Cooked to order, a 600g tomahawk (R195) of flavoursome sirloin on a front rib had its bone extended dinosaur-like off an oversized plate.

The Verdict? The obvious question as a diner: were the steaks at Carne on Kloof still hitting the mark? Carne SA’s Keerom HQ dry-ages their prime rib, but other steak cuts are typically wet-aged for 28 days. Carne on Kloof wet-ages all its meat currently, but is introducing dry-ageing space in a couple of months. Although meat’s ageing technicalities are usually relevant, the free-range beef quality was so good here that it wasn’t. Carne on Kloof’s steaks rate with South Africa’s best.

CARNE ON KLOOF, 153 Kloof Street, Tamboerskloof. Tel 021-426-5566. Open Mon to Sat for lunch and dinner. Another Carne SA branch is opening in Constantia in September.

This article appeared in The Times on 20 August 2014.

FOODSTUFF: Bringing home the real bacon

screen_shot_2014-08-19_at_10.26.59_pm.jpg ‘I’m obsessed with good bacon,’ says Cure Deli’s 29-year-old Martin Raubenheimer, aka Bacon Man. ‘Commercial bacon is a watered down version of what our grandparents ate. Quality stuff is about going back to source meat from farmers who give a damn.’

In creating Cure Deli, that’s exactly what Raubenheimer has done. With help from his mom, Raubenheimer cures bacon and creates plump pork sausages by hand. As a boy Raubenheimer wanted to be a butcher, and it was while filming a corporate production about niche food farms in 2010 that he decided to act. ‘I source from farms within 200 km of Cape Town. My big thing is visiting those farms and knowing the animals live as naturally as possible, free of antibiotics and hormones. You are what you eat because of what they eat.’

Cure Deli offers streaky (from the belly), back (the loin), and lean leg bacon. Unusually, Raubenheimer also dry-cures and cold-smokes an ultra-lean neck bacon. It’s tender, salty-smoky and marbled like a jigsaw puzzle.

But it’s the sausages that will rock your world, especially if bland, processed commercial pork-offcut versions tasting of sawdust are your starting point. Cure Deli’s pasture-reared breakfast sausages combine coriander seed hints (they include honey) with nutty depth. Toulouse sausages balance raw garlic with black and white pepper, and nutmeg. Fresh chorizo is the fieriest, pairing smoked paprika, cayenne pepper and garlic. But my favourite is the bacon sausages partnering apples or pears, bursting with smoky bacon offcuts, savoury elements and hits of fruit sweetness.

Naturally there are no rusk fillers, breadcrumbs or preservatives. Raubenheimer makes sausages every week from cleaned, gutted whole pigs. His bacon goes into a dry cure for about a week, followed by hanging and cold smoking.

‘It’s super labour-intensive,’ he admits. But I’m a true garagiste: my mom and I work out of my parents’ garage in Bergvliet.’

CURE DELI Tel 072 240 8511, website. Products available on Saturday mornings from Oranjezicht City Farm Market Day and Earth Fair Food Market, Tokai.

This article appeared in The Times on 13 August 2014.

REVIEW: Dog’s Bollocks for delicious patties served in perky buns

burger.jpg The Place: Look past the uneven floor, corrugated iron ceiling, and menu chalkboards resting on grimy windows of the adjacent auto repair shop. Don’t expect cutlery or fawning waitresses. You’re here for the food. Lampshades hang above wire mesh tables that have seen better days, and the side of Yard accessing the street generally fills with cigarette smoke. Nevertheless Yard attracts families and all sorts. Chalkboards list menus and the rules of ordering with a reminder, in colourful language, to wait until you’re called. Chalk the amount of food and drinks alongside your name, in the appropriate column on the black door.

The Drinks: Write up your order, help yourself to soft drinks or booze in the fridge and, in the evening, hand over cash on the spot. A 600ml Triggerfish pilsner under the Dog’s Bollocks label (R50) is great with burgers or ribs. There is an unlabelled white or red wine blend (R80) too.

The Food: Megan Eloff runs the food side of Yard, and co-owns the business with Nigel Wood. He introduced The Dog’s Bollocks concept in late 2011, with 30 burgers made on a first-come-first-served basis from 5pm, until they run out. Eloff now heads this show, offering 50 burgers, buffalo chicken wings, nachos or ribs.

As of July the burgers include a side order of chips (R85). Of 10 options, newcomers include the Vietnamese bahn mi pulled pork, and pene picada tomato-based sauce with chorizo and roasted peppers, topped with an egg. The novel chicken-fillet Caesar burger looked good on the pass too, with bacon, lettuce and homemade anchovy mayo. There’s a vegan and Noakes option, the latter with lettuce replacing Woodstock Bakery’s glorious stoneground-flour buns.

burger.jpg On a busy Thursday night we escaped the smokers with a table beyond the pass. The Mexican chilli and cheeseburger came with a mince-and-kidney-bean chilli con carne topping, plus a cheese sauce. It was hearty, but heavy on cumin, and I’d like more heat. The 3B (bacon and cheese barbecue burger) was classic and good. A perky bun sandwiched a thick patty dripping in sweet tomato-barbeque sauce, with crispy bacon, cheese, lettuce and trimmings. Messily delicious, these were super-burgers stretching roughly 15cm across, with sides of nicely crispy handcut chips. A slab of excellent barbeque porkbelly ribs (R120) tasted oak-smoked and tender, in the same sticky sauce.

The Verdict? Yard feels a bit like you’re at someone’s student digs party, where the music is loud and you’re expected to help yourself to drinks in the fridge. But as my eating partner said above the din, ‘No digs party I went to ever had food this good.’

Need to know: Cash-only operation. A largely female team transforms quality ingredients and serves it with sass. You’ll need multiple wet wipes once you’ve eaten though. Visit Yard after 5pm for burgers, wings, nachos and ribs at The Dog’s Bollocks (Mon to Sat 5 – 10pm). Or build your own breakfast at Mucky Mary’s Hubcaps (Mon to Fri 7am, Sat 9am – 4pm). At lunchtime order sandwiches or soft tacos with creative fillings (the pulled pork banh mi taco is excellent) from The Bitch’s Tits (Mon to Sat 9am – 4pm).

THE DOG’S BOLLOCKS, Yard, 6 Roodehek Street, Gardens. Tel 082-885-5719.

This review appeared in The Times on 6 August 2014.

REVIEW: Kentucky chicken waffles? You’ve got to be joking

chicken_waffle.jpg It’s known as the chicken waffle, and the combination is as peculiar as it sounds. An otherwise savoury dish drowned in a cloying maple-flavoured syrup, too sweet to make sense. Yet at a grungy Cape Town hole-in-the-wall called Lefty’s, true believers swear the R65 Kentucky chicken waffle is a life-changing experience.

On entering Lefty’s you sniff stale smoke from the bar and pass chairs in chaotic disarray from the revelry of the night before. The dimly lit eating area’s embossed wallpaper and stained-wood panels resembles a fifties dining room, but doesn’t hide the canteen rawness of the adjacent kitchen.

‘You need support, someone cheering you on, if you order one of those,’ warned the waitress on scribbling the waffle order. Fortunately I had a wingman, who settled on a tender, tasty strip of pork ribs for R75.

The chicken waffle arrived. Puffy Belgian pieces made from a craft beer and butter batter. Boneless chicken breasts, marinated in buttermilk, thyme, cayenne pepper and hot sauce overnight, and then deep-fried until crispy in seasoned flour. Back bacon bits for smoky saltiness.

chicken_waffle.jpg ‘The chicken waffle started out as a joke,’ recalls co-owner and chef Ryan McDonagh. ‘I was fascinated by this American thing. We put it on the menu, convinced it wouldn’t stick.’ It did.

‘It’s so over the top that if you’re going to get it, you’re going to get it. It’s quite an abrasive sort of dish – so arrogant and full on – but it works in its own way,’ he adds.

It was a hefty, surprisingly satisfying plate. But after four bites I couldn’t stop airlifting the chicken and bacon clear of the saccharine pool, desperate for salvation. ‘A lot of people just can’t fathom it. That’s why they come,’ shrugs McDonagh. ‘Everybody figures they have to try it just once, to see what the fuss is all about.’

LEFTY’S DIVE BAR, 103 Harrington Street. Tel 021-461-0407. Open Mondays from 4pm, Tuesdays to Saturdays from 11am. Kitchen closes 11pm.

This appeared in The Times on 30 July 2014.

WINE: A mushroom bonanza with soccer-inspired wines

dsc_005.jpg A surprise delivery of these assorted Nouvelle mushrooms arrived late on a Friday, accompanied by a Creation Pinot Noir wine. Both grown and created in the lovely Hemel en Aarde Valley near Hermanus, fungus and grape are equally associated primarily with earthiness, softly decomposing vegetation, and single-minded clarity in terms of flavours.

My selection included fat shitake with its thick brown cap, and more delicately flavoured white and brown shimeji, sold as a mass attached by their narrow stems. What to cook alongside these delicious fungi? Plans were shuffled and wine-and-mushroom-loving friends hastily assembled for Sunday lunch.

The main ingredient for the menu was obvious, and with a FIFA World Cup final planned that evening it meant only one thing: a Germany versus Argentina theme for the additional wine and food elements. This was quality stuff; a tablecloth was in order.

I settled on:
MUSHROOM TARTS WITH GERMAN RIESLING

Cut 1 roll of butter puff pastry into rectangles, scoring a smaller rectangle near the edges to prevent the middle puffing up. On a baking sheet, bake at 200 degrees C for 15 to 20 minutes until golden.
Sauté 2 small, finely chopped onions in olive oil.
Add a sprinkling of brown sugar to caramelise the onions slightly.
Gently sauté about 500g of thickly sliced shitake mushrooms in enough salted butter to coat, plus chopped garlic, until golden and tender (I fancied the bigger, fatter mushrooms varieties for the tarts).
With the mushrooms removed and the pan juices remaining, add about 100ml cream, salt and black pepper, and a sprig of lemon thyme. Gently reduce that for about 8 minutes to thicken, then cool in the pan.
Assemble the mushroom tarts when everybody is ready to eat. Spread cooled chopped onion over the cooked pastry, then top with slices of buttery mushrooms.
Spoon over cooled, reduced cream, then pop into a hot oven for about three minutes at 220 degrees C.

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To drink? The wine of the day. Buttery pastry and rich cream sent me towards a wooded white, but woodsy mushrooms tend towards leaner Pinot Grigio or unwooded Chardonnay. So I thought I’d give a German Riesling a go. I had one stuck away just waiting for the perfect day … What joy that it lived up to the occasion. Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt Riesling Kabinett 1999 from a tiny Kaseler Nies’Chen vineyard in the Mosel Saar Ruwer region, was off-dry but luscious, lemony and light in that ethereal way only German Riesling gets right. Only 8.5% alcohol. We all lapped it up. Perfectly pitched with the tart.

BRAAIED STEAK WITH SHIMEJI RISOTTO, TWO PINOT NOIRS AND AN ARGENTINEAN CAB FRANC

Cooking for Sunday lunch is chaotic in our house, thanks to a young son who easily gets into mischief and a husband whose job demands desk hours every Sunday morning. It’s also not smart timekeeping to start assembling a mushroom risotto only when a friend arrives with his homemade chicken stock, and simultaneously get the Weber coals just right for searing aged olive-oil-basted sirloin to medium-rare perfection. With a few sips of wine and some patience we managed.

Gently sauté 2 tubs of Shimeji mushrooms (1 white and 1 brown), ends of stems removed, in about 20g of salted butter for a few minutes until tender. Remove the mushrooms.
Melt about 80g of salted butter, covering the base of the pot.
Add 2 cups of arborio rice, stirring to coat them in butter with a wooden spoon for a few minutes, at low heat.
Return the shimeji mushrooms to the pot for a few minutes, and as soon as they’re warm, start ladling in about 6 cups of homemade chicken stock, letting each ladle be absorbed before adding more liquid. It takes about 40 minutes, and the rice will soften near the end of the cooking time.
Season with salt and black pepper.
Just before serving, add 1 cup of grated Parmesan.

dsc_0018.jpg To drink? Weingut Friedrich Becker Blauer Spätburgunder Tafelwein 1997 from Germany’s Rhein is Pinot Noir to you and me. Unfortunately I can’t find my notes about why I selected this wine on a trip years back exploring German Pinot potential. I found a reference online to a fantastic 2007 vintage of the same wine, so perhaps mine was a wetter vintage. With 13.5% alcohol and a dark colour, I found dusty wet tea leaf flavours and couldn’t appreciate much beyond a green character.

Creation Pinot Noir 2013 from the Upper Hemel en Aarde showed riper raspberry and cranberry fruit and delicate tannins, as you’d expect for a younger vintage. Pleasant enough at 14%, but missing a little complexity in the mid-palate.

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Last up, 2001 vintage of Finca La Celia Reserva Cabernet Franc from Mendoza. Argentineans love their beef and specialise in powerful Malbecs. They actually makes decent Bordeaux blends too, so I was tempted to see how Cab Franc fared as a single variety with steak. Not too well it appears, or perhaps this wine just didn’t have the legs to age so long. We all thought we tasted too much oak sweetness and found the wine lacking a geographical stamp of identity. Pity.

The outcome? At lunch the mushrooms reigned, as did the German Riesling. Argentina didn’t really feature in terms of wine. That wasn’t quite the case in the football game hours later where the teams were fairly evenly matched, but it ended similarly with Germany’s triumph over Argentina.

NOUVELLE EXOTIC MUSHROOMS are available from Woolworths, Spar and Fruit & Veg City outlets. Or see buying Nouvelle mushrooms

REVIEW: New kid is no Black Sheep

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The Place A skateboarder sailed downhill past a vast window opening to side views of Table Mountain as a folksy singer crooned through the speakers. This was Kloof Road on a Friday, with a smattering of tables post-lunch. I thought Black Sheep sounded like a country pub, when it opened a few months ago. But it’s actually a slick urban eatery with varnished cement floors and seating on two levels, Tom Dixon copper lamps, seventies olive banquettes opposite mismatched old chairs, with vintage trinkets on shelves. Young men in slimfit cardigans lunch near middle-aged ladies, businessmen and couples. In the early evening a bar counter of patchworked wood becomes crowded with cocktail sippers.

The Drinks A good craft beer selection in bottle and on tap. Thought went into a creative, comprehensive wine list stretching to a few pages. A glass of Vondeling Petit Blanc 2013 is R32; Crystallum Peter Max Pinot Noir 2012 costs R360.

The Food Chef Jonathan Japha, most recently cooking at Fork, is in partnership with his Chilean brother in-law, Jorge Silva. The Black Sheep’s name refers to its blackboard menus. This isn’t unusual, but to the owners, chalking up available dishes on a given day without a prescribed menu is a big deal. ‘You could have a good dish tonight that might not be there tomorrow. We feel this is an honest way to go about running restaurants, because you’re only cooking what you have fresh,’ says Japha.

Nevertheless fixing on a lunch starter and main was tricky. Soup seemed too humdrum; salads too chilly. Two of us settled on grilled lamb kidneys wrapped in bacon and sage (R40), served as rich, quite satisfying skewers. Crisped Parma ham partnered warm crispy polenta fingers (R55) with wild rocket, Parmesan shavings and balsamic glaze. Acceptable but not special.

Main courses on offer between R120 and R130 included a roast kingklip dish, pork belly (a neighbouring table’s looked good), vegetarian curry and hangar steak. Braised feather blade beef in onions (R130) sounded fancy for what was a tender stew from a shoulder cut, with carrots on garlic mash, livened by herby salsa verde. Comforting wintry fare. Beer-battered hake (R60) was a little over-fried, but deserving of praise for presentation and pricing in a great-value R60-to-R65 lunch slot alongside a pulled pork sandwich, burger or prego steak sandwich, all with bowls of skinny fries.

A shared sweet almond tart (R50) offered a familiar taste of home in pastry studded with coarse nuts, accompanied by thick cream and stewed quinces. Pavlova and sticky toffee puddings were sweet alternatives.

The Verdict? A beautiful space is inviting to diners spanning a range of ages. The design made it feel more like a bar serving great food and drinks than serious restaurant, yet it’s pitching above a café in concept. Go for solid bistro food offering appealing plates and the odd bit of flair, but mostly delivering solid value in a hip neighbourhood-local sort of way.

BLACK SHEEP, 104 Kloof Street, Cape Town. Closed Sunday and Monday lunch. 021-426-2661.

This review appeared in The Times on 2 July 2014.

FOODSTUFF: Carbo offloading: where to find the fat

avellino_high.jpg At 65 on Main I’d cautiously ordered an ‘eggs baconnaise’ breakfast of poached eggs, bacon and Banting mayo on aubergine. Staff went out of their way to be hospitable, but seeing peculiar cauliflower ‘wraps’ or ‘pizzas’, green kale and berry juices and dense, carb-free breads didn’t help.

I can appreciate the weight loss benefits of a low-carb-high-fat diet, but for an artisan bakery fan, recipes from a carb-free cookbook just can’t compete. In truth, my eggs were perfectly poached on crispy bacon, under rich, creamy sauce. But after picking at mounds of under-seasoned, unappetising aubergine, I felt real joy about taking over my son’s uneaten English muffin.

Right, so I’m not following the low-carb-high-fat/Banting diet popularised by Tim Noakes and company. But where do ‘banteurs’ eat out once they tire of repetitive home cooking, and skipping the carbs with their butter-basted restaurant steak or fish?

Top-end restaurants usually accommodate most dietary preferences with advance warning, and Cape Town caters well for banteurs, but restaurants and cafes further afield aren’t specialising in low-carb-high-fat options, or they’re not marketing themselves as well.

Frères Bistro attracts many extra customers via regular menu options labelled ‘LCHF’. They dropped their Banting set menu and staff let diners request dishes instead - some sensitive customers assumed waiters were implying they needed to lose weight.

Four & Twenty Cafe doesn’t focus on banteurs, but high demand from customers struggling to find filling, creative low-carb lunches means they now chop 10kg of mushrooms and 10kg of aubergine daily. Banting regulars drive 120km from Worcester to 65 on Main just to eat.

Does anybody cheat? The Foodbarn’s Franck Dangereux said Banting is big at home, but in his experience diners often make exceptions when they eat out.

They’re careful with the starter, but might eat the potato in the main course,’ he says. ‘Some will even have dessert.’

Get your Cape Town low-carb-high-fat fix:

65 on Main, Green Point. Although regular pasta and bread is offered, this sunny cafe lures a LCHF clientele for cauli mash, wraps and pizzas, alongside veggie juices, carb-free breads and occasional puddings on a weekly menu. 021-439-9559.

Buitenverwachting, Constantia (closed July to mid August): Edgar Osojnik tweaks fine-dining menus for banteurs. Expect August additions. 021-794-5190.

Dear Me, Cape Town. Vanessa Marx accommodates vegans, diabetics and the lactose- to gluten-intolerant at this daytime bistro serving free-range meat, so advance notice for LCHF meals isn’t required. Flourless almond-and-xylitol brownies are popular. 021-422-4920.

De Grendel winery restaurant, Panorama (Closed 30 June to 16 July). Book a three or five-course LCHF tasting menu, or request Banting adjustments to regular dishes. 021-558-6280.

Den Anker, V&A Waterfront. Doekle Vlietman offers one LCHF-friendly starter and two main courses. Alongside these carb-free options he cheekily suggests drinking your carbs in Belgian beers. 021- 419-0249.

Four & Twenty Cafe, Wynberg. Regular patisserie and deli fans share space with banteurs seeking out creative LCHF breakfast items to creative salads and Thai cauli-coconut soup. 021-762-0975.

Frères Bistro, Cape Town. Many dishes have LCHF substitutes at this French-style bistro well known to banteurs. Standard sides include cauliflower and broccoli cheese, or salads. 021-418-1609.

Table 13, Green Point. Weighed buffet plates aside, you’ll always find a Banting breakfast, and lunch option such as grilled chicken supreme with mushroom cream sauce. 021-418-0739.

The Foodbarn, Noordhoek. Carbs are almost always side orders on this French high-fat-and-protein menu. Request LCHF alternatives including salads, vegetables or pastry-free mushroom quiche. 021-789-1390.

The Gardener’s Cottage, Newlands. Ask about Banting options. No-carb seed bagels make breakfast partners, while peri-peri chicken livers are a lunch favourite. 021-689-3158.

Franchised food is in on the act

bullet.jpg Banting on a budget? Forget it. Knead Bakery & Café outlets specialise in artisan loaves. Yet despite charging R55 apiece, they can’t keep up with demand for their 750g low-carb bread (in light or dark versions) where various seeds and husks reduces the carb content to 30g.

Ryan Faull says as bakers they took on the challenge of developing a tasty recipe, and the process and ingredients are pricy.
Expect low-carb rolls and sweet confectionary by August.

You might associate Col’Cacchio franchises with pizza and pasta, but banting-friendly dishes and salads now appear under a ‘low carb high fat’ menu icon (there are no LCHF pizza and pastas) alongside vegetarian, gluten-free and vegan offerings.

Kauai developed an ‘Original Eating’ range that partners Tim Noakes’ Original Eating diet plan. By early July, Kauai outlets will offer two curry dishes with cauliflower ‘rice’. From October, a 10g low-carb wrap, and 15g strawberry yoghurt smoothie will be available nationally.

Vide e Caffé is best known for coffee, so they’re only ‘playing on the banting trend’ by rolling out ‘slightly healthier’ carb-restricted alternatives to their croissants and Portuguese tart staples.

Don’t expect rigid compliance but you’ll soon be able to buy carb-reduced and banting-friendly salads, plus the ‘vide bullet’ of double espresso, milk froth and a dash of coconut oil.

This article appeared in The Times on 28 June 2014.

REVIEW: La Mouette: Winter with a French twist

screen_shot_2014-07-09-010.jpg In theory winter specials are the Cape’s way of luring diners out to eat during chilly winter months when business isn’t as brisk.

Yet in practice they often disappoint because they’re at little-known eateries craving recognition, or at smarter restaurants trimming their portions or creativity.

Not so at La Mouette, its French name referring to Sea Point’s beachfront seagulls. Here diners can order a la carte, or their popular six-course tasting menu all year round. But in colder months it’s one of the better winter specials, with six taster courses on the June/July winter menu totalling only R195 per head. If you opt for wine pairings it totals R325 each. We drank a versatile white in Mulderbosch Steen op Hout Chenin Blanc (R175) from the one-page list instead.

Opened in 2010 by British chef Henry Vigar, local wife Mari, and business partner Gerrit Bruwer, dining happens in three spaces inside La Mouette’s double-story Tudor building. We were upstairs, near a fireplace. Courses were pleasingly swift on a journey of earthy winter deliciousness.

Mushroom soup started the show with assorted mushroom elements in a bowl: coarse pesto, jelly and pickled mushrooms. Sweet garlic aioli. Crunch from a Parmesan hazelnut crust. A moist cheese and truffle potato croquette. The grainy-creamy soup was poured over afterwards.

Beetroot salad looked like a palette of fuchsia petals with its perky baby beet slivers: one pickled, one cooked, one ‘ravioli’ sandwiching ricotta. Acidic notes from a herby goats’ cheese ball and a hazelnut dressing, candied walnut sweetness, a pureed celeriac smear as a base note.

screen_shot_2014-07-011.jpg There is a trend in Vigar’s cooking. He calls it exploding the ingredient, by deconstructing and interpreting it in a few variations.

So the duck granola course explored a roasted purple miniature carrot, plus carrots pureed, pickled and emulsified. With salty duck parfait blobs, and a raisin and hazelnut granola, they formed an adventurous, earthy combination; freshened by radish slivers. But a single tealight candle on a table annoyed because we couldn’t properly admire the beautiful plates. With this food you eat with your eyes first.

The meat and fish courses were the most restrained. The alternative to the duck granola was a take on fish pie: cured hake with salt-baked potatoes and leek ash, a solitary mussel topped with ‘sea foam’. Black olive syrup, a sweet-salty blob of bitterness, was the high note on a plate holding lamb ragu with lamb shoulder. Its alternative dish was inspired umami brilliance. Crispy Jerusalem artichoke chips on artichoke puree and macaroni cheese, melding with gooey Parmesan and truffle oil, livened by diced tomato in vinaigrette. Loved it.

Vigar is big on sweets, so being served winter vegetables in a pudding wasn’t unappealing. A parsnip sponge improved with honey-and-thyme ice cream, carrot-and-blood-orange puree adding sour tanginess. But the course of petit fours was the meal clincher: chocolate chip biscuits, chocolate milkshake, a chocolate-coated ice cream ball quite unlike commercial Italian Kisses. An intensely bittersweet chocolate macaroon.

This is classic, skilled food with cheffy touches, yet delivering value in a relaxed environment is central to the La Mouette ethos. So smaller portions are ample in a tasting menu format. Go soon for affordable fine dining from a chef who is having some fun.

LA MOUETTE, 78 Regent Road, Sea Point. Tel 021 433 0856, La Mouette

This review appeared in The Times on 18 June 2014.

FOODSTUFF: Seelan for retro Waterfront twists

dsc_0002.jpg Study these two photos. A waiter dressed in a white overall-jacket showing off the signature chopped salad for two. You just know, before it happens, that you’ll be served at the table. Then the bouillabaisse arrives, ladled individually from an old-fashioned soup tureen. At Seelan restaurant that’s the direction in which your meal is headed: retro outfits, old-style service, solid and fairly simple, retro food with flavour, freshness and modern twists.

I dined, by invitation, on a few menu signatures at Seelan restaurant in June. If it seems odd that a 120-seater in prime waterside position at the V&A Waterfront opening in April 2014 can already have signatures, it’s because chef-owner Seelan Sundoo has fine-tuned his style while being employed at other venues. dsc_0006.jpg The Grand, The Reserve Brasserie and Shimmy Beach Club – not places I’m overly familiar with because they’re more about the place than the food – but I definitely recognised a stamp on Seelan’s plates from his time at old-style retro Italian, La Perla. Many of those customers have followed the chef to his new home.

What might you enjoy? The bouillabaisse starter (R95) is a comforting, slightly creamy tomato-rich version – not the heavy garlic-and-saffron kind – that’s plump with prawns, white fish and calamari rings. The tagliata comes in a sliced fish or steak version (R160). I requested kabeljou instead of bland kingklip. It’s served with a pleasant soy, sweet chilli and ginger sauce, then goes fusion with rocket, sundried and regular tomatoes, plus Parmesan-style cheese shavings on top. dsc_0009.jpg The sirloin tagliata version is tasty too – partnering chanterelle mushrooms, cream and truffle oil. But I can’t help feeling both dishes would benefit from a little less sauce and topping elements. Worth eating also is the half rotisserie duck (R165) served with either an Asian BBQ sauce or an orange sauce. The duck was expertly roasted with crispy bits, although I found the orange sauce overly sweet.

dsc_0007.jpg The rest of the menu offers assorted pastas (R80 to R95), various creative salads (R65 to R80), prawn or lamb curries (R135 to R145) and grills including steaks and rotisserie lamb to veal chops. Side dishes cost extra, and there is some scary pricing in the seafood direction, but then crayfish, langoustines and platters will do that.

I fall into that category of Capetonians who ordinarily leave touristy Waterfront restaurants to the foreign guests benefiting from a great exchange rate. But as a local if you do fancy a smart-casual lunch with an enclosed terrace harbour view and don’t mind paying a little extra, you can order a decent wine by the glass (I drank Vondeling Chardonnay), experience attentive service and eat very well at Seelan. Just don’t be surprised to see a dessert trolley being rolled in.

SEELAN, Shop no. 8, Quay 5 (near Sevruga and opposite the pirate boat), V&A Waterfront. Tel 021-421-4906.

*I haven’t tried it but as part of the V&A Waterfront’s winter special Seelan is offering three courses for R180 (Mon to Thurs lunch or dinner). Or a six-course tasting menu for R380, including a wine tasting per course (Mon to Thurs lunch).

FOODSTUFF: Where to fish for freshness

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Is Cape Town’s best fish found in Joburg? Fish wholesalers say this is sometimes true because Capetonians are price-conscious yet Gauteng customers don’t flinch at spending more. Being able to buy from Cape Town and Mozambique also increases their options.

The Cape fishing industry is plagued by stormy winters where boats can’t go out to sea regularly. So during a particularly wet patch I asked locals to share their shopping recommendations. I discovered that sourcing fresh fish in Cape Town is about extra effort, and trust. While it’s convenient to shop at a retailer’s fish counter, their quality and product knowledge is inconsistent, even if a reputable supplier is involved.

Most shoppers for home use support smaller fishmongers, paying extra for freshness, familiarity and the odd cooking tip. Fishmongers that sell pre-frozen fish occasionally, are honest with their customers to ensure repeat business. Some gut whole fish on the spot; others supply fresh vacuum-packed fillets with no comebacks.

Need to know
Aim for a fishmonger with less stock and good foot traffic to guarantee freshness. A wide variety in winter probably means some fish has been pre-frozen. Hake is available all year round, but if you’re buying fresh tuna in winter it’s unlikely to be pole-caught sustainably as per the Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative’s recommendations.

The SASSI website offers a list of sustainable orange and green fish. Although legal, few reputable fishmongers sell red fish species. If you value eating sustainably, ask how it’s caught and experiment with less popular green species.

In June, weather permitting, Cape waters should deliver fresh hake, angelfish and monktails. There’s also farmed kabeljou/kob – all SASSI green. From the orange list you could find fresh kingklip, sea-caught kabeljou/kob, Red Roman and Cape salmon.

Try these
Fish4Africa José Moniz and family own this no-frills wholesaler and their own fishing vessel. Their flagship branch moves a lot of fresh and pre-frozen fish at good prices. They prep it and include free lemons. Woodstock, 021-448-5258.

Food Lover’s Market One of the biggest fish selections in the northern suburbs, their display offers detailed SASSI labelling of fresh and pre-frozen fish, but their staff knowledge is erratic. Buy whole or pre-filleted fish. Willowbridge, 021-914-8011.

Ocean Jewels Julie Carter’s selection is small because she sells only fresh and pushes green species. Most fish is pre-filleted, but you can request whole fish from the back fridge. Join her popular email list – a R20 delivery fee extends to the northern suburbs. Woodstock, 083-582-0829.

Ocean’s Edge Michael Mendonca draws on his work experience at large retailers to offer customers personalised service (they pin-bone whole fish) and a small, fresh supply. Open Sunday mornings and weekdays until 7pm. They also sell portions. Sea Point, 021-433-0860.

Southern Cross Seafood Deli More restaurant than fishmonger, Clive Greyvenstein’s deli also sells fish stock and chowder. A Muizenberg fish wholesaler (his former business partner) delivers assorted fish fillets daily. Palmyra, 021-671-5002.

The Little Fisherman A small selection of whole fish is gutted to order. Portions possible too. Newlands. 021-794-5526.

Vredehoek Kwikspar Johnny Telo’s relatives are SASSI-compliant fishermen, so he cuts costs by buying whole fresh fish direct, and having staff vacuum-pack fillets. Join their fish SMS list for affordable hake and occasional tuna (in summer). Imported Norwegian salmon is cheaper too. Vredehoek, 021-461-4455.

This article appeared in The Times on 11 June 2014

REVIEW: Street Food on Bree

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When Chefs Warehouse & Canteen opened in Cape Town in February, owner Liam Tomlin’s aim was to create a casual dining space where every square metre ‘worked’. Its location in the new Bree Street food hub was key. The high-end canteen restaurant is attached to a kitchen shop and deli. It does not take bookings and diners share long tables, eating from an ever-changing menu of soup, deli staples and desserts. The main focus is modern tapas, a board of substantial samplers of French, Italian, Asian or Middle Eastern samplers serving two. The food is vibrant and visual, the service swift and unfussy.

Street Food on Bree opened early last month. Utilising those square metres means a small pavement building outside Chefs Warehouse now offers weekday breakfast and lunch on the move. A brick wall has colourful prints of travel snaps. A few stools allow sit-down eating, and a barista from Deluxe mans the coffee hatch. Jason’s bakery supplies pastries but brownies and addictive sweet churros are made inhouse. The main appeal is Asian or Middle Eastern food, sold cold to take away. These colour-coded meals range from R40 to R65. The exception is the Asian noodle broth of the day (yellow: R50) heated via the coffee machine.

My first visit was after the lunch rush, when many noodles, salads and sandwiches were sold out. We tried Thai beef salad (green: R60) and lamb schwarma (orange: R65) and were wowed by multiple, finely sliced ingredients partnering side sauces with zingy notes. Tender, rare spice-dusted beef strips on iceberg, sprouts, green bean, red onion, coriander and basil, with roasted peanuts and buckwheat noodles for company. A sweet Asian vinaigrette boasted julienned carrot, red chilli, mint and spring onion. A strong soy dipping sauce had sesame oil richness. To nit-pick, most Thai cooking favours lighter fish sauce over soy, but the fusion didn’t detract.

dsc_0043.jpg Lamb schwarma had tangy layers and components marching in tune, although I noticed the fridge chill more. Food to go will do that. Lamb strips in herby pita, with cucumber-mint tzatziki, tomato slices, fine red onion and spring onions. Gently spiced butternut puree with a peanut sauce-like leaning, plus a bitter hit of aubergine baba ghanoush. Endearing. Sapporo Japanese beer (R30) and naartjie juice (R26) squeezed onsite made ideal lunch partners.

Claiming a stool a few days later at midday, I had many choices. I fixed on rice noodle wraps (red: R40), carrying a moist mix of sweet barbequed pork, vermicelli noodles, carrot, red onion and fragrant greens. Personally I found sesame-dotted Togarashi mayo (based on a peppery Japanese condiment) pushed creamy elements too far, but cucumber ribbons, red onion, chilli and pickled ginger created sweet lift. Finishing with a quality flat white (R18) impressed.

Of course Dublin-born Tomlin has the credentials to pull this off. His previous top-end restaurant Banc was restaurant of the year in 2001 in the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide. He also judged South Africa’s top 10 restaurants as an Eat Out guide panellist in 2013. That kick-started the idea of going simpler, to offer consistency and value, serving full-flavoured food people want to eat.

STREET FOOD ON BREE, 92 Bree Street, Cape Town. Tel 021-422-0128. Open Monday to Friday 7am – 3pm.

This review appeared in The Times on 4 June 2014.

FOODSTUFF: Cape Town’s Shimmery beachside dining

dsc_0020.jpg The venue may be around two years old but it was a first for me. A persistent PR company had repeated their invitation to come and sample the winter menu at Shimmy Beach Club. On the house. So when a gap materialised at short notice I called a friend who eats out a fair bit and we met there for lunch.

I liked the ordered chaos of driving in a less frequented part of the harbour past boats under repair and waterfront roadworks, then parking under the looming Port Authority building. In contrast, entering Shimmy’s felt a little surreal, a large L-shaped space enclosed in floor-to-ceiling glass that opens to bring in the outside. Bars and loungers are dotted about, interiors filled with loud decor elements and anonymous art. There’s a deck where it’s easy to imagine beautiful young things hanging out ordering cocktails and finger food. It overlooks oversized cushion seats with beach sand underfoot and a glass-wrapped pool where unusually, adult swimming or aquatic lolling is allowed. The restaurant shares the same view, flanked by Cape Town’s harbour and Atlantic Ocean behind. On an occasional sunny day when you’re trying to ignore a fairly rainy winter, it’s pretty darn appealing.

dsc_003.jpg The menu offerings are as slick as the rest of Shimmy’s, and seem to primarily target business lunchers, attractive partygoers and new monied types happy to share platters while dining out in groups. Chef Adrian Cook (appropriate name, isn’t it?) mentioned he’s trying to move away from the venue’s reputation as a nightspot. The chef has trimmed the menu significantly since he started in September 2013, which is saying something because the sushi section alone fills three pages. For the rest, diners apparently order salads to share or pizzas with the likes of caramelised onion and goats cheese (R105) as toppings.

dsc_005.jpg There are steaks and pastas with modern, non-Italian sauces. But in keeping with its harbourside location the number one Shimmy seller is seafood. You’ll pay accordingly of course. Cook says seafood platters are popular here: it’s R800 for two sharing, and R8000 to feed 20, but then they do include crayfish and langoustines in the fishy mix.

While crustaceans were visible on other lunch tables, we tried more modest menu options. The chef recommended a cured duck breast starter with aioli (R95). A success with multiple slices wrapped into a roll, served with tasty aioli creaminess and a sticky-salty dark sauce. Strawberries and basil leaves freshened it up. Shimmy Ritz (R85) promised a twist on the usual avo-prawn favourite and visually it didn’t disappoint with a deconstructed slate plate showing all the bits. But on tasting, the tempura prawns lacked batter seasoning, and the Marie Rose sauce was thinner in texture and flavour than most versions I’ve tried, or made.

dsc_0011.jpg As a main course the portion was ample: Indian flatbread, rice and poppadum were included alongside tasty atchars, aside from creatively prepared vegetable and potato accompaniments for the table. But I’d prefer a Cape Malay chicken breast and prawn curry (R170) with greater depth of flavour to knit its elements together.

The catch of the day offers great value at R85. Cook serves sustainably sourced fish where possible, a mean feat for a restaurant that serves 600 covers during lunch and dinner in season. Yellowtail easily dries out but my fish fillet was succulent and delicious after grilling, if an odd match with mushy peas. Points go to the waitress who recommended a side sauce of salty Asian Tsumi glaze to give the fish extra zing. Sadly a shared dessert of apple and buttermilk upside down cake (R45) disappointed, but Americano coffees were strong and properly made.

There is certainly a place for Shimmy in Cape Town’s food scene, but the pull here is always going to be about the location. You often don’t feel like thinking about a menu in a spot where the view and quieter daytime vibe encourage relaxation. So I’d be more inclined next time to pop down for a simple pizza with my toddler in tow, to enjoy beach sand, an indoor play area and – in warmer weather – the separate child-friendly infinity pool.

Shimmy Beach Club, South Arm Road, V&A Waterfront. Tel 021-200-7778 or see Shimmy’s

FOODSTUFF: Winelands stayover at Angala

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After confirmation of an April Friday night stay at Angala in Simondium, my next step was to check travellers’ comments on TripAdvisor. I’d been asked to provide honest feedback about our complimentary overnight experience at this relatively new country boutique hotel, and it was encouraging to see both local and overseas guests were impressed by their stays.

A five-star establishment set on the Franschhoek-facing side of the Simonsberg mountain (you drive through Vrede en Lust wine farm to access it), Angala is small and personal hence very un-hotel. From deluxe rooms to the luxury suite we stayed in, the accommodation feels separate and fairly private, with greenery nearby, and views of mountain, valley or both. In short, peaceful without being too remote.

dsc_0029.jpg Before its refurbishment, this venue was the Cathbert Country Inn. The new owners clearly drew on their personal experiences of luxury travel, because the roomy spaces are filled with the sort of touches that cut out having to phone reception first – a microwave above the pod coffee machine in a custom-built oak cabinet in the deluxe bedroom, pool towels in the bathroom cupboard, a basket piled with firewood near the fireplace, a stocked mini-bar at no extra charge. There is underfloor heating and country chic décor that’s luxurious yet not ostentatious. An additional outdoor shower with its floor built around an existing tree trunk – but shielded from prying eyes – moves the spacious en suite bathroom from satisfactory to memorable.

dsc_0037.jpg Dinner was one of the biggest surprises at Angala. Guesthouses or small hotels aren’t known for high food standards, but consulting chef Matthew Gordon has worked some magic on the resident chef. Marlin Clayton is a local from nearby Pniel who started studying IT before switching to an apprenticeship in food. He’s spent time working at local cafes and winery restaurants, and his mastery of classic cooking techniques is evident. His cooking pitched well above expectations during a flavoursome dinner.

dsc_0008.jpg At R275 for three courses, highlights were warm, plump Roma tomatoes on a round, thin pastry tarte tatin disc. Another starter saw duck done three ways: liver parfait, expertly home-smoked breast and a tasty spring roll filled with duck confit, served with fruit chutneys, oils and micro-herbs. A grilled kingklip main dish sounded plain but was tasty and served with flair, alongside perfect beurre blanc sauce, baby vegetables and coriander-and-pistachio couscous. Clayton’s menu repertoire is limited and some desserts in particular, could benefit from subtle tweaks, but generally you can eat very elegantly here and the chef’s passion shows on plates that are layered with flavour.

dsc_0056.jpg What else? There’s an eco pool near the restaurant and deck for uninhibited summer guests. It’s a natural system whereby plants clean the liquid of any impurities, leaving clear water and a green algae layer lining the cement pool. A young Egyptian couple seemed happy spending their time visiting Paarl wine farms and Franschhoek restaurants. Popping down to neighbour Vrede en Lust winery’s new Lust Café for lunch is only a five minute drive (their sourdough loaves baked on the premises are a must-buy). The sort of person opting for a stay at Angala would probably be a well-off urbanite wanting time out to recharge their batteries close to nature. We hiked uphill past the neighbouring property’s vineyards and orchards before breakfast to admire the morning light and surroundings (you could also pack your mountain bike for a short ride). We weren’t disappointed.

ANGALA BOUTIQUE HOTEL & GUEST HOUSE, Simondium. Luxury suite from R3200 per night including breakfast. Tel 021-874-1366 or see Angala

FOODSTUFF: Take a table at Cape Point Vineyards

dsc_0040.jpg With the price of petrol skyrocketing, more than ever there should be a reason to get into a car. I had a good one recently – for a writing commission, I took along a food-loving friend to taste wines at Noordhoek’s new Cape Point Vineyards (CPV) tasting area. It shares a deck with their new restaurant, and we were invited to stick around for lunch.

dsc_0031.jpg Not a bad weekday outing, right? We made a morning of it, tasting wines in Constantia, then taking the scenic route via some of Chapman’s Peak hairpin bends. It’s a spectacular drive, well worth the R36 toll fee. CPV’s new wine-tasting area has round tables inside, with deck couches decorated in simple beige and brown wicker. My guess is they’ve kept it intentionally low-key so as not to interfere with the deck view of the farm dam, Noordhoek beach and the ocean beyond.

dsc_0049.jpg CPV is a long-time favourite for its picnics and family-friendly jungle gyms on dam lawns. But take note – the food deal has recently expanded. Chef Clayton Bell was persuaded to leave Constantia Uitsig to open Cape Point Vineyard’s restaurant on site. Clayton is overseeing the picnics too, of which friends have provided good feedback – at R330 for two people, a basket is sent to picnic tables, packed with creative salads, pate, charcuterie, wraps and something sweet.

dsc_0045.jpg Clayton’s understated style focuses on simple Med classics highlighting flavour, so you’ll find no-frills plating here. A one-page a la carte lunch or dinner menu includes the likes of carpaccio, caprese salad, Parma ham and figs … Puff pastry is a winner, as Clayton’s pastry chef wife supplies a number of great Cape Town kitchens. So I’ll return for the outstanding Bouche de Moules (R85), a retro dish teaming exquisite pastry with black mussels in a creamy sauce, rich with fish stock and saffron. Less exciting was a puff pastry tomato tart (R75) enveloping Fontina cheese with mustard and basil, in my view lacking attention to detail or perhaps the correct variety of ripe tomato. But I’m sure this will be easily ironed out; Clayton mentioned his new kitchen staff are finding their feet.

dsc_0038.jpg Freshly made pasta was always an Uitsig signature, and it’s also the thing to order at CPV restaurant on a chilly day. Mushroom ravioli (R100) was simple and satisfying, if not something your doctor would recommend. Half-moons filled with shrooms and ricotta, doused heavily in cream-and-truffle-oil sauce. We struggled to decide between grilled sirloin with mushroom and truffle sauce served with pomme frites (R140), and the grilled springbok loin (R155). But it would be hard to beat the tender game medallions that arrived, served under a shiny caramelised honey sauce with roasted baby potatoes.

dsc_0051.jpg With cream and butter used so liberally in earlier courses you won’t have much room for dessert, so a shared portion is advised. We didn’t fancy lavender in the panna cotta (R75) but gave it a whirl anyway. What a pleasant surprise to eat spoonfuls of soft white vanilla with only a lavender hint, plus an excellent coffee to boot. Bravo.

Wines to taste: A charming Parisian took us through Cape Point Vineyard wines – she’d studied oenology and decided on a work stop in South Africa to understand local wines. Duncan Savage’s wines usually collect a healthy medal tally in local competitions, and they’re as delicious as ever. Special mention goes to the CPV Sauvignon Blanc Reserve 2012 (R155) with its Sauvignon-dominant split with Semillon and 14 months barrel time (a tiny percentage is fermented in clay amphorae). Taste lean, green fruit with soft-textured minerality. It’s good value compared to the flagship Isliedh.

CPV Isliedh 2012 (R235) isn’t cheap, but this already-stylish sipper will improve if you can keep your hands off it. The Semillon portion is bumped up, again with Sauvignon Blanc, but there is less oak and clay amphorae time. I loved this wine, noting yellow plums, apples and creamy oystershell.

CPV Chardonnay 2012 (R155) was a surprise find, making a lovely lunchtime wine. It had a lot of barrel time but handles it well, with white peach and almond nib flavours.

CAPE POINT VINEYARDS AND RESTAURANT, Noordhoek. Wine tasting fee of R5 to R10 per wine, refundable on purchases of R500 per person. Restaurant open Tuesday to Sunday for lunch and dinner (excludes Thursday night market). Tel 083-444-7088 or see CPV

FOODSTUFF: Cruising on Radisson Friday sundowners

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Looking for something different to do on a Friday summer evening in Cape Town? Tobabo’s Restaurant & Terrace at the Radisson Blue Hotel Waterfront has teamed up with Tangent Charters and they’re offering affordable sunset cruises. The boat sets off at 5pm on Friday evenings and the deal is that the Radisson Blu provides the snacks and drinks, while boat designers Tangent Charters take you out into the Atlantic in the direction of Clifton beach for a couple of hours.

dsc_0008.jpg Their 39-foot catamaran departs from a private mooring adjacent to the hotel’s terrace, where in good weather conditions are comfy enough to balance a glass of wine or two in moderate swell. I joined some jetsetters on a catamaran cruise this week, and once the engines were switched off and they’d hoisted the sail, a few of us spotted a few dolphins surfing nearby. A few poor victims were struck by seasickness, but I thought it was a pretty cool experience …

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If you have no dinner plans, stick around and enjoy three courses on the Tobago’s Restaurant sea-facing terrace afterwards. They cater for vegetarians and while the menu won’t rock your culinary world with innovation, it’s tasty fare offering fairly good value for a hotel restaurant when packaged with the cruise as a total night out.

RADISSON BLU HOTEL WATERFRONT, Beach Road, Granger Bay. Cruise from 5pm – 7.30pm.
R250pp for the sunset cruise, a glass of Champagne and salty bar snacks.
Or R495pp for a Tobago three-course dinner plus sunset cruise, glass of Champagne and salty bar snacks.

Tel 021 441 3000, contact capetown.reservations@radissonblu.com or see tangent charters

FOODSTUFF: Country charm at new Overgaauw Restaurant’s set lunch

dsc_0028.jpg Are you one of those diners who likes to control every culinary decision, or are you happiest when you can leave the menu to the chef? If you’re in the second category, you’ll really enjoy the eating experience dished up by Camilla and brother Jason Comins at Overgaauw Restaurant in rural Stellenbosch.

You may remember The Table at De Meye, a similar concept run by Camilla and photographer husband Russel Wasserfall in Paarl. Following a similar philosophy, new Overgaauw Restaurant opened in December 2013, and the setting is rustic and serene. Jason has taken on a more hands-on kitchen roll and Russel only helps out with service. An old farm building where vinegar was previously made has tables on the verandah and outside lawns. Three courses of dishes are served and these change often because the growing queue of regulars don’t want to get bored. It’s classic food with a few country twists, at a set price. Cooking demos for small groups are also planned, and in the off season there will be occasional winemaker dinners.

dsc_0004.jpg Our shady outdoor meal on bare oak tables started with home-baked bread and farm butter, the flowers arranged by Camilla. The cooking and kitchen planning is shared between Jason and Camilla. She’s self-taught with experience as a food stylist and product developer, while he trained at Ireland’s Ballymaloe Cookery School and clocked up work experience at a few restaurants. This duo’s greatest culinary preparation was growing up on a self-sufficient family farm in Vryheid in northern KZN. There they baked bread, gathered eggs, made butter, sausages, biltong and pickles and even hunted and fished.

dsc_0010.jpg Wines – listed on a board – are well-priced and all from the Overgaauw cellar. We kicked off with glasses of Sauvignon Blanc (R30 a glass for any white or red), and had pleasant Sheperd’s Cottage Cab Merlot red with the main dishes. After nibbling on too many slices of bread, we were brought a colourful platter of assorted tomatoes (some on the vine grown a few metres from our table) in a herby tumble of bocconcini mozzarella balls with roasted red and yellow peppers in Overgaauw white wine vinegar vinaigrette. To offset the vinegar acid, slivers of smoky Italian-style cured and aged pork loin. We polished it off.

dsc_0014.jpg Main dishes are both bountiful and beautiful. Deboned lamb, marinated in oregano herbs, lemon and olive oil before roasting. Jason’s cold sweet chilli tomato chutney – many of his chutneys and pickles are on sale too – and elegant green beans. Jason’s Irish herby potato salad provided homely flavours, with a deliciously earthy lentil, roasted butternut and chilli (so mild I couldn’t find any bite to be honest) salad freshened by micro herbs.

I like the attention to detail and support for small producers and entrepreneurs at Overgaauw. I was told on which Paarl farm the lamb was grass-fed and reared, and also where the bocconcini and tomatoes were bought from. Unsurprisingly there is no mass-brand cola on offer. Only water or a refreshing carafe of sparkling water with a dash of Wellington producer Wilde at Heart’s Victorian rose geranium cordial, or traditional lemonade. There are a couple of craft beers if you don’t fancy wine.

dsc_0033.jpg The dessert of the day was a slice of dried coconut macaroon cake, its white and yellow patterns defined by the baking separation. A mildly mango ice-cream added a sunny outlook to the afternoon. Children under four can find enough to eat on their parents’ platters, but ours was delighted to be offered his own bowl of chocolate ice-cream (his mom had momentary food envy after trying a spoonful). At Overgaauw there’s no fancy machine producing Americano coffees with crema, but you can finish off a meal with simple filter coffee and a bucolic view. In keeping with the people and place, this is an honest and homespun eating experience.

OVERGAAUW RESTAURANT, Stellenboschkloof Road, Vlottenburg, Stellenbosch. Open for lunch Friday to Sunday. R265 for three courses or R225 for two courses; R130 for children age five to 12. Tel 021 881 3910, overgaauw

REVIEW: Good grub and views at The Bakery at Jordan

dsc_0010.jpg I may have found a new country breakfast favourite. The Bakery at Jordan is a café-style deli and bakery on Jordan Winery, which has prime positioning overlooking the dam. There is a buzzy coffee shop atmosphere at tables inside the bakery space, and welcome sunshine for the lucky few that manage to bag tables on the narrow upper deck. The more self-service-orientated lower deck area under the trees is a peaceful option after you’ve tasted some Jordan wines, set further away with more space and a close-up view of the dam.

dsc_0034.jpg George and Louise Jardine are behind the project, serving upmarket lunches and dinners at Jordan Restaurant with George Jardine on the property. Pastry chef-turned-baker Ciska Roussouw mans the baking oven and also oversees the small deli breakfast and lunch menu (but you’ll see chef George about too – the advantages of having a restaurant next door). The two-metre wood-fired baker’s oven with its mosaic flame-patterned door was purpose-built – George reckons the secret is in the layers of insulation. The bakery counter is regularly filled with pastries and breads (R22 to R30) including sourdough, rye and seed loaves as well as ciabatta and honey and spelt baguettes, to take away (the sourdough and ciabatta are both excellent but this baker favours a crisper, slightly blackened outer crust). Also on sale are biscuits, rusks, preserves and savoury sauces (chimichurri and aioli) made on the premises, and gorgeous bunches of roses from a neighbouring farm. The rich chocolate brownie (R25) I bought was still delicious the next day, and true to its name, decadently rich.

dsc_0025.jpg Breakfast options (served between 8.30am and 10.30am) include homemade granola, free-range eggs scrambled, or cooked ‘en cocotte’ and served with a couple of variations. We loved the ‘poach then bake’ (R55) breakfast of poached eggs, ham and spinach on a home-baked English muffin, under a herby hollandaise. Toasted sourdough served with smoked marrow, parsley, confit lemon and creamed spinach (R60) might appeal to those bored by egg-and-bacon combos. The cappuccino and Americano is decently made here and the croissants (R18) are buttery and pliable so worth ordering with cheese and jam. Our junior diner got stuck in and sticky. He also enjoyed watching pastry chef-baker Ciska Roussouw rolling and folding various pastries and breads in the bakery.

dsc_0035.jpg Brunch is served between 10.30am and 3.30pm, and plates sent out looked good. The menu is small so items rotate often, but I hope I’ll be able to return to have the Caesar salad with pancetta lardons (R90) or the salt-crusted baked hake (R105) with crushed minted peas and woodfire-roasted potato wedges. The pork pie with salad that passed me en route to a deck table looked mighty good.

dsc_0027.jpg In short, this is a great spot to linger at a table, or to pop in when in the area to buy freshly prepared supplies (aside from breads, pastries and condiments, salads are available to go). The great part is The Bakery at Jordan is a fairly direct drive along the N2 from Cape Town CBD, so getting there doesn’t take as long as you think.

THE BAKERY AT JORDAN, Jordan Winery, Stellenbosch. Open from 8.30am to 3.30pm Wednesday to Sunday (open daily from January 2014). Tel 021 881 3441, Bakery.

FOODSTUFF: Worldly brasserie dishes at V&A’s Mondiall

dsc_0001.jpg There are a lot of reasons why Capetonians avoid the V&A Waterfront. High-priced restaurants that deliver little more than a tourist-trap experience is one of them. I sat at a reputed steakhouse the other day and watched somebody send back two plates of brown beef Carpaccio before a freshly sliced red version finally satisfied.

After taking up an invitation to join a group for lunch at new Mondiall Kitchen & Bar, I know there is hope on the culinary harbour front. Chef Peter Tempelhoff has plenty of experience and accolades behind his name. As Executive Chef of The Collection by Liz McGrath hotels, he’s used to moving from one restaurant to the next and entrusting the hands-on work to a good team. At Mondiall he’s in partnership with Patrick Symington, who put lounge venue Café Dharma and Asoka on the Cape Town map. They both bid separately for this restaurant space, and landed up as partners.

dsc_0006.jpg I once waitressed at The Green Dolphin, where Mondiall now trades. Home for a few months after a backpacking stint in Europe, I was saving for my next working trip to Asia. It was the place to earn good tips from steak-lovers and seafood fans that booked dinner tables to hear live jazz bands in a dark, upmarket clubby sort of space. It’s all very different now. The Table Mountain views through glass window panels are still awesome, but the new Mondiall interior has been livened and lightened by stylish furniture in wood and beige tones against backdrops of exposed brick, antiqued mirrors and trendy vodka bottles. The open pass adds kitchen energy and an upper level uses old wooden shutters and hanging elements cleverly. A designer has spent money here, but hasn’t stripped the place of personality. Tables are made from recycled wood and you get the feeling somebody also spent a long time selecting crockery, serving boards and glasses too.

dsc_0009.jpg Oliver Cattermole is in the kitchen daily, but Peter’s input is visible in the food style and spiffy presentation. Initially planning a classic brasserie, Peter’s concept evolved into incorporating favourite dishes from his travels (he grew up in both Canada and South Africa). Mondial translates in Italian and French as worldwide, hence the eclectic dishes. ‘The menu looks a bit of a Jack of all trades, but it’s how people eat,’ explains Peter, referring to Italian, Asian, French, South African and Mexican dishes. There’s a lot of choice, but also dishes you want to eat. Having a menu indicate dates and places where each dish supposedly originated, also gets a table talking.

dsc_0011.jpg What’s good? This just-opened restaurant is still nailing the last planks of wood down, so the kitchen is also ironing out kinks. But West Coast oysters (R20 each) are served the French way on ice, with finely diced shallot vinegar and a squeeze of lemon. Steak tartare (R87) – circa 1921, Paris – sees finely chopped sirloin already assembled, and is served Asian-style with a red cabbage and sesame oil coleslaw, plus crispy onion bits for crunch. Tender and tasty, Buffalo wings (R68) – circa 1964, Buffalo – are cooked with ‘Memphis dust’, celery slices and a thick blue cheese sauce. A Caesar and Waldorf salad under the ‘soup and salad’ section also caught my eye.

dsc_0012.jpg I’ll be tempted to order the potato and Parmesan gnocchi (R76 or R125) next time – it looks vibrant and delicious on a plate, with its mix of sautéed woodland mushrooms, semi-dried tomatoes, rocket pesto and taleggio. Instead I tried the fish of the day (R135) – grilled yellow-fin tuna on a richly fragrant bowl of ramen noodles, meaty Asian mushrooms and greens, ladled with comforting lightly spiced Chinese master stock. A rookie mistake was opting for the recommended medium-rare tuna as the sliced piece that arrived was overcooked, but another diner at our table requested seared pink tuna – as I would’ve preferred – and got it. You can order a cheeseburger and fries made from locally reared Wagyu beef too, with trimmings and umami sauce for R120. I’ll probably be back to tackle the grilled sirloin Café de Paris (R155) – circa 1932, Geneva – it comes topped with the signature butter and a novel mushroom ragout, plus a side bowl of thin-cut fries.

But let’s skip straight to the high point of my Mondiall meal. Forget the apple tart tatin, Cape Malva or Mondiall chocolate sundae for dessert. If you want to be impressed by a chewy base with sweet intensity and just the right amount of springiness under the nuts, order the maple and pecan pie (R68). It’s partnered with a scoop of milk ice-cream, blueberries and sticky maple-syrup-reduced-with-Bourbon sauce. Like most Mondiall desserts it’s priced on the high side, but here you’re paying for real Vermont maple syrup that is so worth it.

As is often the case, this restaurant is still sorting out a few staff and kitchen kinks – there was some inconsistency of ingredients and they were operating without a permanent gas supply the day we ate – but I’m fairly certain they’ll find their feet. The V&A Waterfront is one of Cape Town’s most popular destinations and there is way too much mediocre eating to be found there. It’s too good an opportunity to waste.

MONDIALL KITCHEN & BAR, Alfred Mall, V&A Waterfront, Cape Town. Open for breakfast, weekend brunch, lunch, tapas and dinner daily. Tel 021 418 3003, Mondiall

WINE: Bubbly Melissa and her Genevieve MCC fizz

dsc_0019.jpg I spent a thoroughly enjoyable day in a little Chardonnay vineyard pocket along the Van der Stel pass en route to Bot River early last week, drinking bubbles and eating delicious food with a friendly group. The experience still makes me smile.

Melissa Nelson seems to be one of those happy people who smiles a lot actually, and her cheerfully-make-a-plan attitude rubs off on those around her. Melissa was a pilot for a while before deciding she wanted to make Cap Classique, so she asked around until she found somebody willing to show her. Genevieve Blanc de Blancs MCC was the result.

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Only 5500 bottles were produced of the maiden Genevieve MCC 2008 vintage. You can’t buy that vintage any more, which is a pity. After The Saxon Five Hundred’s chef David Higgs’ delicious country-ish meal pairing Genevieve MCC 2008, 2009 and – current release 2010 – I’m convinced these Chardonnay-only wines are real crackers after at least a couple of years in the bottle. The 2010 is fresh, lean and elegant and full of green apple zing, but is like a teenager still trying to develop its personality. Sipping the 2009 (my favourite) and very smart 2008, it’s as though you’re tasting sun-kissed nectarines with yeasty croissants. Yum.

dsc_0015.jpg Genevieve is pitched at a fairly serious spender with its R165 price tag (for the 2010), yet meeting some of Melissa’s regular bubbly-loving fans over lunch (one a model-turned-mom who was one of Genevieve’s early twitter followers) I gathered there is a definite swing towards handbags and heels. Melissa has just launched a Genevieve perfume that was inspired by her gently elegant fizz, and plans to sell it at boutique wine stores.

If you’re wondering what we ate, David’s menu kicked off with oyster and potato crisps with a dusting of celery salt, alongside mushroom, leek and humus snacks. The starter was perkily fresh, combining unusual ingredients including slices of yellow beets with tarragon-pickled almonds and grilled lettuce, alongside goats cheese. Pork initially seemed a conservative choice for a main course – I think bubbly works best with a smoky savoury element – but to give credit the velvety confit pork with its clever pork skin ‘popcorn’ bits crisped just right gave new texture and twist to perfectly roasted meat with baby carrots. Halved honeyed sweet potatoes and ginger beer gel added sweet tang to the plate. I wasn’t bowled over by a macadamia and halva parfait with pear mousse and lemon verbena custard – a lot of ingredients you wouldn’t ordinarily put together formed a delicately flavoured frothy interpretation. But I couldn’t fault it for being unusual, and for letting that glass of Genevieve bubbles shine.

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GENEVIEVE Cap Classique See Genevieve

REVIEW: Here we go round the Mulderbosch

dsc_0008.jpg Three couples, four kids under nine. An impromptu summer Saturday reservation for an easy family pizza lunch at Mulderbosch. You know the sort. We’re wearing T-shirts, shorts, suntan cream and an easygoing mood. We’re after their winery tasting area with comfy couches and large umbrellas. The intention: relax, have a few drinks with our kids enjoying the outdoors without annoying others.

First snag on making a reservation: ‘We’ll seat you inside in the lounge. Most of the outdoor area is reserved for a group.’ It happens. But access to jungle gyms, lawns, outdoor couches and boule courts is possible only once your kids go through a door, around the corner and well, out of sight. So an hour and a half after arrival there’s a puzzling reply to our request to take over an empty outdoor table (it’s obvious nobody has pitched). Staff only then call to check the reservation. Most eateries would do that fifteen minutes past the reserved time.

dsc_0004.jpg Second snag: We want to spend our money here and tip for service too. Yet going to the drinks counter seems the only way to guarantee cold beers for our group soon. Australia’s Coopers Pale Ale in assorted styles is brilliant (R30 each). Ideally we’d always like glasses to pour a bottle of Sauvignon into too. We persevere because there are things to like here: wines served with pizzas are at cellar-door prices. Mulderbosch Steen op Hout Chenin 2011 (R59) and Sauvignon Blanc 2012 (R75) are refreshingly good. dsc_0003.jpg But it turns into a bit of a joke later when our bottle of rather delicious Fable Jackal Bird white blend (R175) arrives open with some of its liquid missing. Was it grabbed from the tasting area by mistake?

Third snag: Choosing to be a simpler tasting-room pizzeria instead of stand-alone restaurant is fine but please get it right. The wood-fired oven at Mulderbosch Vineyards churns out tasty thin-based pizzas. You’ll find enough to like in the six different toppings, all priced at R75. There is Portabellini with truffle oil, or a topping of Prosciutto, rocket and Pecorino shavings (things look up when the cloying balsamic drizzle is left off the second order, as requested). dsc_0007.jpg Although we’re traditionalists, the Asian chicken, peppers, sprouts and coriander leaf combo is good enough to warrant a repeat order. Even the biltong, peppadew and avo topping has fans.

But there is a downhill slide with kids’ pizza (R40) orders. ‘We’d like a margherita with bacon.’ None available. ‘Okay then, we’ll have salami.’ Out of salami. Third try after a kitchen consult: ‘Um, do you have ham?’ Yes. Finally relief for hungry kids. There’s a lot of passing traffic, people dropping in for cheese and charcuterie platters or tapas snacks all afternoon (there’s also easy access to a shopping centre with supermarkets about eight kilometres away). So probably the best reply of the day comes hours later. Passing the pizza counter, I’m delighted that the bacon supply seems to have been replenished. ‘Oh no, that’s not bacon. It’s pancetta,’ I’m hastily corrected. And there’s no connection between their flavours or the animals they’re made of that might warrant offering pancetta to customers on pizzas, I suppose?
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Often when a place delivers hit-and-miss service it’s because a team is caught unawares by crowds and rushed off their feet. Interacting with good-natured staff who stumble over ingredient names but genuinely try to oblige, you quickly realise the issue is a lack of training and an absence of management. Mulderbosch Vineyards was purchased by Terroir Capital in the USA and the tasting room area modernised at great expense a few years ago. It’s a very pleasant space to spend a few hours. But you can’t help thinking that their wines deserve a little better.

MULDERBOSCH VINEYARDS, Polkedraai Road, Stellenbosch. Tel 021 881 8140,
Mulderbosch

REVIEW: Paternoster’s best seafood

dsc_0019.jpg I ate my best fishy lunch in years on a recent drive up the West Coast to Paternoster. It was one of those simple meals in a modest environment where expectations were lowered. You know, as a defence mechanism after the previous visit to the area left memories of gusty sea views and emotions bruised by over-oily fish, stodgy chips and a mussel sauce congealed with bad margarine.

I’d heard about Kobus van der Merwe but never imagined the sheer joy his humble seafood could bring. There are food people who know his culinary background very well and I’m not one of them. I can only write about what I tasted and felt, and know I had that switch-on-the-lights culinary moment when your brain realises that you’re experiencing something very special. Oep ve Koep is colloquial Paternoster chatter – open for business. The old fisherman’s cottage shop sells all sorts, and leads to tables in the enclosed garden.

dsc_0005.jpg When I called a few days ahead, Kobus answered the phone and said to please book 24 hours in advance. Something about serving a set menu on Sunday but the restaurant not having sufficient customers to open routinely on a Friday. I can’t imagine why not.

One of my biggest disappointments of Cape Town life has been the limited range of sustainably sea-harvested, affordable fish and seafood. The city is on the Atlantic coastline yet pressure on our oceans means that each year a bountiful supply of fresh local sea gems – to cook or order off a menu – becomes more out of reach. Farmed will soon have to do.

dsc_0007.jpg Oep ve Koep offers a taste of what seems missing. The focus is products from the sea, supplemented by fish farmed in the area. The chef grows herbs and edible flowers, and forages the coastline for seaweeds and dune spinach. It’s what gives his dishes such unusual flavours.

We snacked from a basket of misshaped bread sticks and old-style bread with angelfish pate, farm butter and a lemon rind preserve made from a thick-skinned, old-fashioned variety. Rose geranium and wild sage leaves made it smell beautiful. Large, imperfect salt flakes from KhoiSan in Velddrif, on the table.

dsc_0012.jpg To drink, Groote Post Old Man’s White (R114), the ideal seafood wine with its uncomplicated Sauvignon-Chenin-Semillon blend. Craft beers, Swartland and Darling wineries make up the balance of the small list of mostly modest labels, with Sir Lambert’s Bay Sauvignon Blanc (R180) if you wanted to be posh.

We picked at the delicate flavour of pickled angelfish (R55), fillets lightly treated in lemon juice and white pepper, on a giant textured sea leaf called summer ice plant, with delicate fennel leaves and naartjie segments. The fishy freshness reminded of lemon juice-cured ceviche.

The Saldanha Bay mussel starter (R65). We liked it so much we ordered it again with our main course. Mussels in shells poached gently in olive oil, a dash of cream and wild garlic. Small strips of springbok Carpaccio pre-smoked with rooibos tea leaves curling up in the hot broth, producing a cheekily light yet smoky-frothy-creamy-stocky broth with just the right ratio of each ingredient.

dsc_0015.jpg Die Mogens (R115). Is that Paternoster slang for the morning? I’m not sure, but I liked this main course dish very much. A large fig leaf from the neighbour’s tree, enclosing half a farmed kabeljou fillet-half baked inside a paper bag that had held country-ground flour for the bread. Unusually, a drizzle of black olive oil, dune spinach and a few perky waterblommetjies and nasturtium leaves for greens. The unusual sea and land elements creep up on you, cementing the awareness that you’re eating things of aquatic origin. A comforting neutral canvas in mashed white beans.

We didn’t have dessert. The purity of unadorned sea flavours and feeling full-but-not-weighed-down cancelled other cravings. Paternoster is around 150 kilometres from Cape Town. When I’m next asked for a Cape seafood restaurant recommendation it will be an easy choice. I just hope they’re open.

OEP VE KOEP RESTAURANT, St Augustine Road, Paternoster.
Tel 022 752 2105.

FOODSTUFF: Add Vergelegen’s Camphors to your list

dsc_0024.jpg There is a pig-crazy chef cooking at Camphors restaurant in Somerset West. You’ve probably heard of him, or tried his food. PJ Vadas cut his teeth internationally while slogging crazy hours at Gordon Ramsay’s London and New York restaurants, returned briefly to help his parents at the family’s modest Pembreys restaurant in Knysna (there he was one of the first local chefs to use a sous vide water bath), before joining The Roundhouse in Cape Town for a few years.

When it was time for a change, fortuitously the opportunity to open Camphors fine dining restaurant at Vergelegen landed in PJ’s lap. The name refers to the camphor trees, planted in 1700 outside this Somerset West property’s historic homestead. This sort of restaurant rarely makes money, but then one of South Africa’s largest and arguably most beautiful wine estates deserves a show-off dining spot (the casual Stables restaurant on the property brings in the cash). One year in, Camphors has already made the 2013 Eat Out Top 20 restaurant list. Go for lunch with a good friend keen to appreciate the expansive gardens and enormous trees while meandering to your car. dsc_003.jpg

The invitation was for two of us to try out six courses from a settled-in kitchen. The dishes mostly appear on the a la carte menu too, and change with available ingredients. The décor features grey, black or silver, and is quite splashy and sparkly in that way that might make you feel uncomfortable taking a group of unruly friends or young kids. Sommelier Christo Deyzel takes care of the exclusively Vergelegen wine selections, and does a more-than-adequate job of matching their food-friendly bottles to the dishes. I could do without having my chair pulled out every time I return to the table, but that’s a minor quibble.

dsc_0017.jpg Back to the pigs. This is an offal-mad chef who tweets pics of porky heads from his kitchen, so I wasn’t surprised to be served bits and pieces of one as an eye-and-palate-pleasing amuse bouche. Crunchy bits of pig tail in homemade mustard and Vergelegen honey; crispy crackling, a cured then deep-fried piece of pig’s ear. It’s usually what I’d call ‘squeamish’ food, but it wasn’t really, just adventurous nibbles. Also on the plate, a clever fish ‘n chips combining polenta-like ground chickpea ‘chips’ topped with smoked snoek. PJ has started a butchery on the farm where beef from Vergelegen’s free-range Nguni cows is processed for the restaurant, and has some bloody tales to tell. The creamy biltong filling inside a choux paste gougère made me want more.

Eating here you feel like you’re being treated with special food, where as much as possible is grown on the estate: honey, free-range Nguni beef, edible flowers and herbs. If it’s bought in, it’s because somebody else is doing it better: so the pork is from Bonnievale, the buffalo products from Wellington, the excellent breads from a Woodstock artisan baker.

dsc_0020.jpg A lot of dishes arrive with ingredients on a plate, waiters then pouring in sauces or creamy veloutés. There’s a bit much of that for my liking, but it forces diners to notice the various components and I can’t fault the resulting flavours and textures. This chef understands what his ingredients are capable of, and puts on a great show. A standout dish was the duck. The fuchsias and pinks so pretty it felt almost a shame to eat it. Hay-smoked breast served with parsnip puree and shitake shrooms, with fall-off-the-bone salty duck leg ham, a pool of jus, and slivers of baby beets in sweetish pickling brine. Vergelegen Shiraz 2010 was rich yet restrained, a plummy partner.
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Press rewind to an unusual and brilliant early course of torn strips of Buffalo Ridge buffalo-milk mozzarella. Lightly roasted yellow and orange carrots – raw or undercooked things is a trademark of this dish – a slice of two-year-matured buffalo-milk Provolone blowtorched to warm semi-rubberiness, zingy carrot puree topping. A thick swirl of cold buttermilk and carrot poured over, and from nowhere a hit of pickled green coriander seeds. Served with zesty orange peel nuttiness of slightly wooded Vergelegen Chardonnay 2012, this dish was spectacularly smart with its slightly cooked, salty, tangy and pickled combos.

dsc_0037.jpg Probably my most spot-on food and wine match was the simplicity of hake and gnocchi with Vergelegen White G.B.V. 2011. This flagship white of barrel-fermented Semillon with zingy Sauvignon is one of the estate’s most awarded wines, and typically takes years to come around. Seared hake with West Coast mussels (their liquor captured in a creamy velouté) partnered lightly smoked leeks and potato gnocchi, surprise twists in seared Cos lettuce and a dusting of seaweed. Simple, nourishing and classic while making the wine shine.

Classic styling is the common thread underlining all Camphors food. Scoffing at modern dining trends that try to redefine boundaries, PJ says he likes the classics. ‘Food must be delicious and taste like something.’ You can’t fault his philosophy.

At Camphors it’s the details that add value. The miniature saucepan of oxtail pie, served alongside the fiddly every-element-in-its-place grassfed ribeye dish, which speaks of comfort and love. Or the pastry chef poached from The Roundhouse. I didn’t catch her name, but could see why she was. Her buffalo ricotta cake is the sort that makes you smile when it arrives. Meringue straws, fresh and dried strawberries, strawberry ice cream and almond crumble all seemed so cheery. The Nigiro strawberry-vanilla loose tea brewed alongside at the table added just the right finishing touch. Done.

CAMPHORS AT VERGELEGEN, Vergelegen Wine Estate, Lourensford Road, Somerset West. Tel 021 847-1346. Open for lunch Wed to Sun and dinner Fri to Sat. Two-course menu at R275 per person, three-course menu R350, six-course tasting menu R550 – all excluding wine. Six-course tasting menu with wine pairings R750 per person.

How nine courses stack up at The Test Kitchen

the_test_kitchen_private_dining_room_1_high_res.jpg I love great food and lovingly coaxed ingredients but I really believe you have to be in the mood to sit through a tasting menu of more than four courses. Mental preparation and patience is required and if you eat this way too often it can easily feel like hard work. So any venue sporting a stiffly quiet atmosphere, dragging tempo or uncomfortable seats is likely to have fidgety diners losing interest two thirds of the way.

Fortunately those factors don’t apply at The Test Kitchen. So with all the hype created by local restaurant guides and international awards I tried to figure out why that is. You enter the creatively styled industrial venue and are immediately blasted by the noisiness of customers and a kitchen deep into service. The energy is palbable – chefs chopping, searing or plating from multiple ingredient containers at a steady tempo while waiters bump your chairs as they speed past. It’s oddly reassuring. In fact you’re rarely neglected for much of the meal, such is the standard and pace of service. And then there is food that wows.

The nine-course gourmand menu grabs attention with a vibrantly coloured trio of snacks to start. The Billionaire’s shortbread is witty, mimicking its usual sweet caramel version with a melt-in-the-mouth shortbread square with dark chocolate capping a porcini and truffle jelly and duck liver layer. A herb-topped smoked mackerel parfait parcel roll combines creamy-salty smoked fish with citrus zing, while vibrant fuschia dehydrated pickled beetroot resembles nothing you know. Visually freeze-dried instant coffee granules come closest, their redcurrant-ish taste forms a zany combo with lemon jelly on a shiso leaf. It’s an ingenious touch as you can’t nibble without sitting to attention – it seems rude to ignore your food.

the_test_1194.jpg Chef-restaurateur Luke Dale-Roberts’ The Test Kitchen is arguably Cape Town’s most successful high-end dinner venue. The irony is that most of us eat out to have a break from domestic monotony, yet tasting menus mean conforming to a formula of sorts and being told on what to dine. Such is this restaurant’s popularity that in October 2013 the three-course dinner option was dropped, and diners now order only the five-course discovery or nine-course gourmand menus. A vegetarian five-courser is available, and with sufficient advance notice so are nine vegetarian courses. People are consistently buying into and paying dearly for the experience.

The current Test Kitchen menu was introduced in winter 2013 and head chef Ivor Jones (at Luke’s side since La Colombe days) says some standouts have stayed alongside lighter spring dishes introduced. Ivor was running the show the night we dined. The African influences in dish concepts or ingredient input is fairly subtle – local veggies and macadamia nuts, Franschhoek trout and yellowtail, or the air-dried ham effect of ‘pulled biltong’ accompanying the foie gras. Take the inspired Cape-style ‘pickled fish’ dish which combined the most unlikely ingredients – yellowtail ceviche in a lightly curried dressing with, of all things, braaied carrots, pickled carrot ribbons and deep-fried crispy carrot strands. Simple. Understated. An aftertaste of cumin over an earthily sweet brown base, accented by the lean bubbles of Silverthorn The Green Man MCC 2010.

You’ve probably heard about one African element: Luke’s sense of humour playing out in the rough-and-ready roasted pig’s head, his version of a toothy sheep ‘smiley’ shown to diners for shock value. The plated dish that follows combines a meticulous square of ultra-tender pig’s cheek fattiness alongside crispy crackling and deep-fried pork scratchings. Perfect pressed apples, herby melba toast and a gooey-rich creamy pool of blue cheese complete the plate – rich on richness that works. The Paul Cluver Dry Encounter Riesling 2013 served alongside cuts through fantastically. I’m not convinced the pig link with the Township sheep’s head ‘smiley’ translates to the many foreigners filling the reservation book though – my explanation seemed lost on the solo American woman also dining at the pass counter.

the_test_1203.jpg Pete Wells makes a few good points about restaurants serving tasting menus recently in his October 2013 Nibbled to death article in The New York Times.
1. Three- or four-hour menus were a high-end anomaly a few years ago, but now look like the future of fine dining.
2. This is a challenge no chef should saunter into casually. A restaurant whose sole product is an expensive, lengthy, take-it-or-leave-it meal sets a dauntingly high bar for itself. But a few vault right over with a grace and agility that is truly thrilling.
3. If a meal goes on for hours, even radical costume changes from course to course may not be enough. They shouldn’t be repetitive or feel like padding either.
4. The elite who now fill these dining rooms are a particular kind of diner. One reason why these dining rooms can feel less lively.
5. You can’t eat a meal like this with a passing acquaintance since you’ll be together for hours, but you can’t go with somebody you really want to talk to, either, since there’s little time between courses for sustained conversation.

Thinking back on dinner, all those factors are valid but The Test Kitchen delivers a smart take. We didn’t suffer a main-course slump. You know, an inspired series of earlier savoury and fish courses tailed by a skilled but predictable red-meat dish. Instead the ‘slow and fast’ duck, a cleverly amusing edible highlight. Sous vide slow-cooked duck in contrast to the crisply pan-seared ‘fast’ duck flesh, hinting at Sunday roast with base notes of duck liver stuffing and lentils, an earthy dab of burnt onion and thyme puree pulling it together with confidence. Who said food can’t simultaneously delight and make you chuckle?

One of the things that makes great food stand out is the ability to build layers on just the right neutral base elements. Luke’s mastery of Asian condiments has always been his secret weapon, used with other ingredients in the subtlest manner. The way creamy pureed tofu is combined with miso so it doesn’t overwhelm the seafood juices and raw mushrooms in his scallop dish. A smear of ‘New York cheesecake’ that uses mirin alongside Franschhoek trout so the cream tastes not unlike horseradish mayonnaise, exploding on the palate with a bite of lemon jelly.

the_test_1208.jpg Wells’ elite diners are certainly filling The Test Kitchen’s tables though. Within elbow reach were an animated couple from New Jersey, a good 25 years older than most. Dropped off by their five-star hotel and full of compliments, the husband confided that their meals at Per Se, Robuchon and Ducasse hadn’t come close to this gourmand menu experience in Cape Town. I’m sure the exchange rate helped. Overheard too was a Melbourne diner telling Chef Jones that service this good was rare in Australia.

I was a media guest of the restaurant this time. We ate at the pass, and will happily request those counter seats for two again when paying with our own credit card. They’re fun, brightly lit and close enough to the chef plating the amuse to ask questions. This zoomed-in view of kitchen action is not the spot if you covet a romantic dinner or prefer to avoid the grittiness of staff wiping their hands on food-caked aprons and grimy cloths. And don’t expect to snag a table anytime soon if you’re bringing friends along. The Test Kitchen is taking bookings two to three months in advance.

THE TEST KITCHEN, The Old Biscuit Mill, 375 Albert Road, Woodstock. Tel 021 447-2337, test kitchen. The five-course discovery menu costs R520 per person or R765 including wine pairings. The nine-course gourmand menu costs R650 per person or R1000 including wine.

REVIEW: The Restaurant at Newton Johnson and Eric Bullpitt

dsc_0015.jpg I try to follow a few pointers when trying out new restaurants.
1. Give them time to settle and tweak their menus and service.
2. See what other food-lovers are saying to get a feel for what’s good or if a style is developing.

But occasionally I don’t follow my own rules because a good opportunity presents itself. This past September weekend was one of those. A last-minute decision to spend a couple of quiet days in Hermanus, coincided with The Restaurant at Newton Johnson opening its doors in the Hemel-en-Aarde valley on Friday 20 September. A Sunday lunch reservation was hastily secured.

Two of the best impulse decisions made, but then I had a hunch they both would be. I like the deceptively simple food of Chef George Jardine (of Jordan Restaurant with George Jardine in Stellenbosch), and have often been impressed by plates turned out by Eric Bullpitt, who George mentored and then nudged into running the kitchen at Jardine Restaurant in its original Cape Town CBD location. So it makes absolute sense that George and Eric are partners in this venture, Eric behind the stove, with George casting an eye over the pass on a weekly basis. The revamped restaurant on Newton Johnson’s wine farm (Heaven used to operate here) sees an opened up kitchen and dining space. A deck will follow. dsc_0001.jpg

When Eric moved to The Roundhouse, I caught up with him after his six-week stage at Noma in Copenhagen in 2011. Good chefs hone all five senses but Eric returned with his eyes and nose peeled to the pavement in search of edible chickweed. Chatting now from behind his open kitchen counter, Eric says they forage for most wild herbs used at the restaurant. His kitchen crew is getting extra direction from former Noma kitchen colleague Thomas Paulsen, who’s working with Eric for a few weeks (He’s called Tommy Tash but with those long blonde locks and Viking looks ‘Thor’ seems more appropriate).

The menu is compact and confident: four starters, four mains and four desserts. Hand-cut chips or a salad of garden greens with mature Gruyere as side orders. And some diners might want to order them, as the plates aren’t as heaped as people might expect in the country. This is sophisticated rural fare, the sort where each flavour or textural element contributes to the whole and nothing extra distracts from the effect. It’s a single printed page that allows frequent accommodating of new ingredients.

dsc_0019.jpg The valley views make it easy to get side-tracked from what you’re eating, but Eric’s dishes quickly return the focus. George was watching over service too on this particular Sunday, but dressed in a jacket and not chef’s whites. Although I see a lot of George’s style and ingredient influence on Eric’s plates, George says it’s just the two of them having similar ideas about what they like in food.

The starters (R60 to R70) tempted with cured and hot-smoked yellowtail with globe artichokes, or slow-braised beef tongue with celeriac puree. We tried a pea velouté made from peas grown as cover crops between the grapevines, thick and slightly lemony as it was poured on to the plate, crispy pork crackling bits giving a ‘pea and ham soup’ sensation. The lift came in crudités of fresh and pickled wafers of carrot, raddish, patty pan and bulrush, a leek-like white plant growing wild around ponds. Similarly impressive, the confit duck leg was shredded into rillettes, rolled into crunchy fried balls, and offset perfectly by roasted aubergine puree, roasted beetroot and subtle spicy dressing. An inspiring start.

dsc_0025.jpg You’ll find only Newton Johnson and Felicité labels on the wine list, aside from styles the winery doesn’t make (Villiera Tradition Brut takes the bubbly spot). A few are available by the glass – Newton Johnson Sauvignon Blanc 2013 at R36, Full Stop Rock 2010 at R47. We were tempted by the Resonance 2012 white blend at R137 a bottle, but instead splashed out on the latest domaine Pinot vintage – they also make an Elgin version but it wasn’t on the list. Newton Johnson’s Family Pinot Noir 2012 (R320) is tightly wound to go the distance yet vibrant cherry fruit offers amazing accessibility already – it was easy to finish the bottle between two.

The vegetarian main course sounded intriguing, a mix of winter root vegetables creatively partnered with Huguenot cheese and hazelnuts. But we settled on two excellent choices in beef rib-eye (R155) and pork belly (R150). Slow-braised belly: succulent and flavourful without being overly fatty, Granny Smith apples adding subtle notes in purees and stewed cubes doused in wholegrain mustard tangy sauce. Baby cabbage folds for texture. The rib-eye partnered a mini-study of the onion and leek family: pickled, charred, roasted and fried onion rings, spoonfuls of stocky jus pulling it together with still-pink charred meat.

dsc_0013.jpg The Eton mess meringue, berry and cream dessert is one of Eric’s signatures (R50). We were comforted instead by a simple milk panna cotta (R55). Soft-set vanilla custard with a lick of passion fruit, crunchy honeycomb and lavender flowers. To be critical, the walnut and banana cake would’ve been better a day earlier, but its earthy notes worked with roasted banana puree, dots of white chocolate cremeux and delicate caramel ice-cream. The service side also has quirks to iron out as staff become familiar with the menu. Likewise the kitchen will probably tweak dishes as they become more in tune with the regional produce. But there is no doubt that Eric and George have raised Hermanus dining by a few notches. The level of skill means prices are pitched well above a family restaurant, yet it was families and holidaymakers that kept the Sunday dining atmosphere relaxed. The kitchen offered to prepare grilled hake and hand-cut chips (R85) for the junior diner at our table. On request they even produced a sauce jug of tomato sauce.

THE RESTAURANT AT NEWTON JOHNSON, Newton Johnson Winery, Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, Hermanus. Tel 021 200-2148 Newton Johnson.

WINE: The Culinaria wine range. Made for food?

A lot has been said about creating dishes to pair with wines. But it’s not often that it works the other way round, and wines are made to suit food. The Culinaria range from Leopard’s Leap in Franschhoek was created to do exactly that. The six wines range from R65 for the Chenin Blanc Grenache Blanc, to R95 for the non-vintage Culinaria Méthode Cap Classique, so they offer value in a medium price bracket. During four separate meals, I put a few of the wines to the test with Leopard Leap’s extensive food-matching suggestions. This is what I discovered:

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  1. The Leopard’s Leap Culinaria Shiraz Grenache 2010 (R89). Recommended foods for the Leopard’s Leap Culinaria Shiraz Grenache 2010 include spicier foods such as spiced Moroccan lamb, Indian shami kebab and Chinese Szechuan beef. However roast venison, beef and lamb served with a reduction sauce or with chocolate-chilli sauces are also on the list.
    Other foods: rich casseroles such as oxtail and beef bourguignonne, or dishes that incorporate beef, lamb, pork or duck, with various beans and lentils.
    Food no-no: most fish dishes, and overly ‘fiery hot’ dishes, the reasoning being that the perception of alcohol will increase and the wine will be stripped of its fruit.
    My dish: rustic spiced-tomato lamb shanks. I watched plump pieces of lamb shank being cut from a whole sheep and trimmed at a Beaufort West butchery on a recent overland trip. The low Karoo price per kilo made lamb shanks into an affordable splurge for this dish. Mine are slow-baked with cinnamon sticks, then tinned tomato, chilli and brown lentils are added near the end of cooking. Learn to make the Rustic spiced-tomato lamb shank recipe here The Plaisir de Merle Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 brought by a lunch guest possibly pipped the Shiraz Grenache with the lentil shank dish, showing this wine up as simpler and fruitier. But then the Plaisir de Merle is made in a more serious style, and costs double at around R160. Score for the Culinaria Shiraz Grenache 2010 with my rustic spiced-tomato lamb shank: 8 out of 10.

  2. On to the Leopard’s Leap Culinaria Grand Vin 2010 (R89). Leopard’s Leap recommends Chateaubriand or grilled, plain aged steak with this Bordeaux blend (it’s almost half Merlot, with fairly similar amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon Cabernet Franc, and a dash of Petit Verdot).
    Other foods: slow-cooked meats and stews, roast chicken, turkey, duck and quail, or liver in all its forms.
    Food no-no: venison, strongly-flavoured cheese such as a blue, or spicy-hot foods as these could ‘make the wine taste astringent and accentuate its alcohol and tannin’.
    My dish: Because they also recommend ‘herbal and earthy ingredients such as garlicky, herb-strewn meat roasts’ and ‘lamb with rosemary or thyme’ I mixed up some of those elements. This red blend showed nicely understated oak (new and second-fill barrels). And it worked very well with aged rib-eye, braaied simply in olive oil, studded with chopped garlic cloves and dusted in fresh rosemary.
    Score for the Grand Vin with my rosemary-and-garlic rib-eye: 8 out of 10.

  3. The next meal included Leopard’s Leap Culinaria Pinot Noir Chardonnay (R69). With a 60% Pinot Noir in this blend, the recommendation is for dishes with rich textures and flavours – butter, cream, melted cheeses – as well as ingredients such as white beans or polenta to add texture.
    Other foods: Smoked, grilled or lightly charred dishes. A variety of fish types, especially tuna and swordfish, or mild and sweet crayfish or prawns. Also given the thumbs up were white and brown mushrooms, especially if butter is used in the preparation. dsc_0006.jpg
    Food no-no: any sweet foods, or recipes that are too bold or showing extreme levels of spicy heat.
    My dish: I threw together a fishy pasta we often make for friends: leeks and mushrooms panfried in butter with a hint of dried red chilli, cooked down with a splash of Pinot-Chardonnay, and then finished with half a carton of cream. Towards the end we add bite-size pieces of lightly smoked Franschhoek trout and baby spinach, and mixed it through linguine. Score for the Pinot Chardonnay with the creamy trout linguine: 9 out of 10.

  4. The last wine was my favourite. Sipped alone, Leopard’s Leap Culinaria Chenin Blanc Grenache Blanc 2012 (R65) has a lovely sensation of silky texture from the Grenache Blanc. With old vines originating in the Voor Perdeberg and older oak, it makes for a very appealing white blend. The Culinaria Chenin Blanc Grenache Blanc is designed to partner cold shellfish, plain grilled white fish, and cold tomato-based salads.
    Other foods: white meats ‘with ample fresh herbs’ but excluding rosemary and thyme, dishes including citrus juice, dill and sour cream, or stuffed baby marrow and green beans. The ingredient list also includes stirfried calamari with lots of lemon, and seafood salads with freshly prepared mayonnaise.
    Food no-no: Savoury Chinese or Latin American dishes that tend to be sweet, or dishes based on caramelised onions, sweet butternut or root vegetables. Rich sauces might be overpowering here.
    My dish: I didn’t have any exotic ingredients lying around, so we baked readymade chicken schnitzels, squeezed over a lot of lemon, and jazzed it up with homemade mayonnaise freshened by chopped Italian parsley. On the side, thin oven-baked potato wedges and panfried onions, courgettes and baby spinach. Score for the wine: 10 out of 10. Score for the Chenin Blanc Grenache Blanc with the chicken schnitzel, parsley mayo and greens: 9 out of 10.

In short the Culinaria wine range for food is a great idea. Most of us don’t want to think too hard about what to serve at each meal. This range makes food experimentation fun, and is fairly reasonably priced. It’s also rewarding trying to match complementary instead of clashing ingredients. Our toddler thinks the wooden wine box makes a nifty garage for his toy cars too.

LEOPARD’S LEAP WINERY, R45 Main Road, Franschhoek. Tel 921 876 8002. Contact Liné for wine info or food-pairing suggestions at 021 876 8843. All Culinaria wines are exclusively available from the estate (A Méthode Cap Classique and a Muscat de Frontignan 2013 dessert wine are also in the range).