FOODSTUFF: Winelands stayover at Angala

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

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 …

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 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.

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?

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,

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.

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:

  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).

RECIPE: Rustic spiced-tomato lamb shanks


Serves 6

250ml red wine
2 bay leaves
4 garlic cloves, crushed
2 star anise
2 long cinnamon sticks
2 to 4 whole red chillis (remove before serving)
ground black pepper
100ml olive oil

6 lamb shanks
2 tins of brown lentils
2 tins of cocktail tomatoes including the juice (regular tinned tomatoes also work) OR use the equivalent amount in fresh cocktail or Roma tomatoes
fresh thyme sprigs

1. Mix all the marinade ingredients. Place the lamb shanks in a large round casserole dish. Pour over the shanks and refrigerate overnight.
2. Preheat the oven to 160 degrees Celcius.
3. Slow-roast the shanks for four hours, turning occasionally so the marinade covers more meat.
4. Remove the chilli and add the lentils, thyme sprigs and tinned tomatoes. The photo here shows what the dish should look like after four hours. Taste the sauce, add salt and more black pepper.
5. Cook for another 45 to 60 minutes, remove the lid to reduce if the sauce requires thickening. Serve with couscous or mashed potato.

For creative suggestions about a suitable wine to partner this dish, read my post about the Culinaria wine range designed for specific foods here

WINE: Jordan’s Woolworths wines and George Jardine

dsc_0002.jpg I attend a lot of wine tastings where the interest lies in comparing different styles or varieties and the challenge to find wines that offer value. But time allowing, my preferred situation is when talented chefs are challenged to partner specific wines. Often these pairings are systematic and quite academic. Red wines need red meat, sort of thing. The ones that get it right usually combine an ingredient I wouldn’t have considered with a wine I would have.

Chef George Jardine did exactly that at Jordan restaurant this week, using Jordan’s wines made specially for Woolworths, with three courses cleverly combining winter and spring ingredients. And as is so often the case, the dishes completely changed perceptions of the wines served alongside. Solo, the Jordan Woolworths Lightly Wooded Chardonnay 2012 (current release) offered freshness with citrus zing at R109.99. Yet with food, its oakier predecessor, the 2004 Chardonnay vintage (hauled out of the cellar for interest) had no contenders. dsc_0003.jpg The incredible plate in question: heated buffalo mozzarella with burnt butter with the season’s pureed orange and curly-chewy grilled fennel, alongside joyous spring broad beans and wild edible flowers. The oak complemented these delicious salty-savoury-sour and citrus notes. Bowl-me-over stuff.

East coast hake was given red-meat treatment, creating a sensation of richness and smoky depth. Wrapped in pancetta, the braised fish partnered an intense, sauce heavy with wintry braised octopus and smoked marrow, on spinach. Tasted solo, the Jordan Woolworths Exclusive Selection Merlot 2010 (R99.99) was the standout wine with riper red-berry fruit. The Jordan Woolworths No-Added Sulphur Merlot 2012 (R59.99) was a less complex contender, with sharper edges. But then we sipped the sulphur-free Merlot with the pancetta-wrapped fish. Kapow. Instantly superior with the smokiness of the dish.

dsc_0006.jpg The confit duck leg with porcini, softly disintegrating potato, and poached turnip? I’d class this as comforting, classic winter food, not trailblazing. The dish formed a tasty background prop, showing off Jordan Cobblers Hill 2010 (their own label sold at Woolworths) with its clean, beautifully ripe cassis and dark chocolate elegance. Three Bordeaux varieties, planted in a two-hectare single vineyard. The 2004 Cobblers Hill should’ve been the better wine. It wasn’t.

Proving that the chef isn’t the only promising taste-shaper at Jordan in Stellenbosch. Cobblers Hill 2010 shows a winemaking shift in a very smart direction.

HOT TIP: George Jardine is consulting on a new restaurant concept at Newton Johnson Estate in Hermanus’s Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, from the beginning of October 2013. Chef Eric Bulpitt will be running the show (George mentored Eric at Jardine when the restaurant operated in Cape Town CBD). Sounds like a tasty duo.

At Jordan in Stellenbosch, the end of November 2013 will see the opening of a deli adjacent to the wine-tasting area. An on-site bakery, quality coffee and a ‘field to fork’ concept of simple daytime eating is planned. George Jardine will be a busy man during the next few months.

JORDAN WINERY & JORDAN RESTAURANT WITH GEORGE JARDINE, Jordan Winery, Stellenbosch. Tel 021 881 3612.

RECIPE: Have you ever made a helicopter cake?

dsc_0005.jpg Once a year I take on unnecessary stress, indulge in a perfect parent complex and host a children’s birthday party. Onlookers are surprised that catering can be stressful when the average children’s party offers a few bowls of shop-bought sweet and savoury treats along the lines of Iced Zoo biscuits, marshmallows and Flings.

In our house it’s an annual opportunity to catch up with adult friends (yes, the majority have kids) so I enlist grannies and friends to make sure that the edible adult-orientated nibbles are homemade and plentiful, and extend the budget to cover a few bottles of bubbly. It means that people enjoy themselves and most stick around.

By far the biggest time-swallower is baking, icing and decorating (my favourite part) the birthday cake. It would be easier to order one, and take far less time to roll out fondant icing to cover crumbs and cake sections, but I hate the plastic taste. My cakes are iced with butter cream, smoothed over with hot water and a wide knife. For Daniel’s third birthday, a helicopter cake landed on the table. He loves airport trips to watch planes take off, and has a toy helicopter with lights that flash and blades that whirl.


Helicopter cakes viewed from the top often look a bit dumpy, so a side view made more visual sense. I used the same rectangular beer box cake recipe see Daniel’s beer box bus cake, drew a paper stencil off a photo print-out of a favourite toy rescue helicopter, and cut the design off the cooled cake.

I learnt some lessons:

  1. When the unreliable old oven you inherited with the house dies a week before the party and the labour and spares don’t justify the repairs, you borrow from the mortgage and negotiate a deal on a new electric oven with gas hob. Defy was an easy choice because it’s a brand I’ve used previously, and offers value for money and reliability. I can also position the cake tin directly on the black metal tray and use the thermofan setting at 10 degrees lower for the same baking time, saving energy.

  2. After numerous shopping trips for cake decorations, at least two helicopter cake essentials will be unavailable at every local baking outlet you try. After trying four baking outlets, how fantastic to discover a new Cape Town CBD branch of The Baking Tin called Sprinkles. Sprinkles was the only Cape Town store to sell an edible icing face for a pilot/train driver/bus driver (gap in the market here?). And yippee, they stocked the flat liquorice strips necessary for helicopter blades. (To make blades I sellotaped two black straws together, inserted skewer sticks inside to angle into the cake, and cemented a liquorice strip on top of each straw with three small blobs of icing. Square liquorice allsorts were cemented to form pillar supports under the blades.)

3. Piped icing and gel colours will only get you so far. The key to a good children’s cake is lots of coloured balls and good sweet decorations. They’re the bits that are picked off as soon as the candles are blown out. I enjoy the challenge of sourcing the right visual shape for say, the jelly hook on a liquorice wheel ‘cable’, or the round liquorice allsorts ‘wheel’. Informed afterwards that the headlight or wheels or pink doorway didn’t pass muster, I realised it was the flavour of certain sweets that weren’t to my little person’s taste. Okay then.

The look of surprise and glib happiness – You did this all for me? – on a three-year-old face always makes the hours spent so worthwhile.

The Conservatory’s tasty Winter Special 2013

dsc_0008.jpg I have a friend who does a mental juggle about whether the sweet offerings will pass muster, before she decides on the savoury part of ordering at a restaurant. Well The Conservatory’s winter special menu dessert at Cellars-Hohenort in Constantia would have no problem “qualifying”. The sticky apple tart tatin is just right for one, a whole Golden Delicious apple encased in its round flaky pastry case, gooey-thick salted caramel sauce giving it an edge. It’s served with a scoop of homemade vanilla-pod ice cream.

The ‘Cellars winter special’ includes two courses at R155 per person, or three at R190. There are cheaper Cape Town winter menus to be found, but I like this one because it’s not a static three-courser dragging over a couple of months, so it doesn’t feel like the chefs are cutting corners, and diners experience a gracious hotel setting with glimpses of the magnificent garden through the windows. An extra amuse bouche arrives too – mine was a comforting creamy soup with high notes from bits of pickled scallop and shimeji mushrooms. The Jerusalem artichokes are grown in the vegetable garden.

dsc_0002.jpg There about six starter and main course options on the current Conservatory menu - limited yet sufficiently varied - which means chefs can tweak the menu for new produce. I loved the beetroot salad, served carpaccio-style with flavour accents in blocks of peartizer jelly, a clever pecan-waldorf salad, and crumbed deep-fried balls of moist smoked chevre cheese. My main course was tasty beef sirloin, seared and tender from sous-vide slow cooking. A bone marrow reduction added salty-savoury tang, working well with locally-foraged pine ring mushrooms, and a plainer pearl barley risotto. Interestingly chef Chad Blows created the dish, a variation of the creation that recently won him the Chaine des Rotisseurs Young Chef National champion 2013 title.

dsc_0006.jpg Other starters include the likes of duck liver parfait with toasted brioche and baby leaf salad, while main courses extend to seared springbok rump with celeriac puree, red cabbage and boulangerere potato. There is a vegetarian option in wild mushroom and mascarpone risotto too.

The menu is available at lunch and dinner, until 31 August 2013. Quote ‘Cellars winter special’ when making a reservation.

THE CONSERVATORY, Cellars-Hohenort, Constantia. Tel 021 794 2137. Lunch or dinner: two courses at R155 or three courses at R190. (Including a wine carafe at R195 or R255).


dsc_0004.jpg Chenin Blanc is known as South Africa’s workhouse grape. In other words, we have a lot of it, so as a consequence it hasn’t been highly prized by farmers as a grape, or by consumers as a wine. Ken Forrester is a guy who’s dedicated much of his wine career to changing that perception and showing that Chenin Blanc wines can be both special and sought-after.

The Ken Forrester Vineyards Somerset West farm grows lovely old Chenin vines. The wine focus is fashioned around Chenin too, from an inexpensive off-dry commercial quaffer Petit Chenin (around R40) to elegant Old Vine Reserve Chenin with natural yeasts fermented predominantly in older barrels so it doesn’t kill the grape flavours with oak (the 2012 is R75). At the wine geek end of the spectrum, for those who practically want to dive into their glass, the full-blown, rich style called The FMC (the superb 2011 is R325) is the business. Ken Forrester also makes a Chenin dessert sticky Noble Late Harvest T (2010 is R220).

dsc_0007.jpg And now for something fun. With colourful stripes and patterns inspired by a carnival carousel, it’s a wine designed to be drunk and not to be too serious about. Ken Forrester Sparklehorse Chenin Blanc MCC just made its debut. It will always be a vintage wine, and the maiden 2011 costs R120. The catch is it’s available only from the tasting room. Good excuse for a road trip.

The old workhorse grape has been reworked in South Africa, so this is our sparklehorse,” says Forrester. Grapes from a 38-year-old Chenin vineyard block on the farm are picked early, spend 14 months on the lees, and produce only 12.5% alcohol in the bottle. It’s lovely and dry, with yellow Golden Delicious flavours and green Granny Smith apple crispness and acidity. It’s refreshing and I like it. What do you think?

FOODSTUFF: Edible trainspotting: Simonstown, Kalk Bay return

dsc_0036.jpg Sunny windless autumn Sunday.
R30 adult Metrorail ticket for a hop on/off Cape Town - Simonstown return by train.
Window views of Muizenberg swell bursting with bobbing surfers, families playing in tidal pools, and people walking the wave-lapped cliff path to Kalk Bay… Too tempting to ignore. After approximately 45 minutes of being lulled by conductor whistles and doors opening then closing, we disembarked at St James beach and continued on foot. Smart move with the cars entering Kalk Bay all idling or stuck in first gear.

dsc_0006.jpg We made it just in time for a lunch booking at old favourite Live Bait, situated underneath Harbour House. It’s always been more about the panoramic harbour and wave-crashing sea vistas from the glass “walls” than about outstanding seafood or stellar service at Harbour House’s smaller, casual little sister.

dsc_0027.jpg So I’ve learnt to keep orders as simple as possible, and then soak up the seaside vibe here because sauces or vegetable components of a dish tend to be fussy or fit badly (Case in point: today’s calamari batter contained yellow turmeric powder?) The requested children’s grilled hake with chips looked particularly impressive (R55), if somewhat green in tone for a young child, thanks to a handful of red onion-topped leaves, plus a herby mayo? Thankfully the adult elements of the table were happy to snack on the side salad, while the offending green gloop was hastily replaced by tomato sauce.

I’ve forgotten how great Buitenverwachting Buiten Blanc 2012 (R125) is with fishy dishes. This uncomplicated white blend hits all the right notes. Grilled cob was a delight, fresh and cooked perfectly, unlike the shoestring chips cooked in oil that hadn’t been heated sufficiently, leaving some undercooked and most just soggily warm. Apparently operating a basic deep-fat fryer is an art. dsc_0057.jpg

A point on trains: there are only two platforms for stations on the False Bay end, so train timetables are fairly easy to figure out. But they only run approximately every hour on Sundays, so take note of times to avoid a long wait. We continued to the end of the line to Simon’s Town along wave-splashed tracks.

Before the return Cape Town leg, just enough time for a 20 minute walk into town, a decent coffee and some teatime treats from The Sweetest Thing Patisserie. A lemon custard tartlet in a biscuit shell topped with raspberries, and warm scones with jam and cream. What more could anybody want from one day out?

LIVE BAIT Harbour, Kalk Bay. Tel 021 78 5755

THE SWEETEST THING PATISSERIE 82 St George’s Street, Simon’s Town. Tel 021 786 4200

REVIEW: Delicious highlights of 20 hours in Stellenbosch

dsc_0001.jpg I recently spent about 20 hours in Stellenbosch celebrating a significant anniversary. Our experiences were so enjoyable it seemed a pity not to share the recommendations. The options were simple. A long lunch or dinner, with an overnight stay to eliminate any worries about a long drive back to Cape Town. This had to be a make-it-count meal, with only two options qualifying in that department. As an adult dining experience in a great Winelands environment, you can’t beat Overture at Hidden Valley or Jordan Restaurant with George Jardine. We chose Jardine, deciding that valley views made lunch a better option than dinner.

dsc_0003.jpg Chef George Jardine was in the kitchen, and we were delighted to accept his offer of sending out a surprise menu instead of the usual three-course lunch. It was modelled on the six courses usually served to diners at night. We eat anything but mentioned we were particularly keen on the fish dishes listed on the lunch menu. It was a smart move as our meal included delicate trout, farmed fish and skate in creative forms. Without going into great detail, let’s just say these six courses were a brilliant reminder of why Jardine is one of the cleverest, most intuitive chefs in South Africa. His talent is in combinations of gentler ingredients including the likes of cauliflower and celeriac. He smokes food and adds surprise tiny elements – say a cube of pickled aubergine - for flavour hits. The hot-smoked trout was deceptively simple but surprised with orange reductions and dried bits, alongside the vinegar tartness of pickled aubergine and a menthol kick from flower pollen. How many chefs would think up and manage to pull off that sort of stuff?

The standout dish on the day was the grilled farmed Kabeljou with a smear of herb crust, bits of raw curly kale, on a cauliflower puree, pulled together with the saltiness of capers fried with sage and beurre noisette. Equally impressive, pulling back the kitchen paper “lid” over a round glass bowl to reveal a tasty cream-laced medley of smoked mushrooms with confit garlic and sherry, topped with a “crust” of cauliflower espuma and Parmesan. A perfect slice of brioche on the side. dsc_0020.jpg It’s worth leaving the wine pairings to assistant manager William, who made some superb matches with new and older Jordan wines. For instance, the Jordan barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc 2008 showed delicious oiliness against the rich Kabeljou dish.

Our accommodation was chosen because of its central location near Dorp and Church Streets, so we could explore a few drinking holes at night, and have the option of walking access to breakfast along the wide oak-lined streets of Stellenbosch. Time was in short supply but we managed a quick cappuccino and hot dish at fabulous De Oude Bank Bakkerij the next morning. Baker Fritz Schoon apparently trained at Il de Pain, and the aroma of his artisan loaves and pastries lure passing traffic inside.

dsc_0022.jpg This small venue shouts creativity and integrity, from the distressed wood dining tables and novel wood and metal chairs to the novel crockery, wide knives and forks. Pricing is very reasonable (most breakfast options are R40-ish) and there are assorted breads, pastei de nata and chocolate sticks to take home. Young families and couples breakfast with a view of the baking action. There is an emphasis on holistic artisan suppliers, from the Spier eggs in the vibrant yellow scramble topping delicious sourdough toast to the smoked bacon.

JORDAN RESTAURANT WITH GEORGE JARDINE, Jordan Winery, Stellenbosch. Tel 021 881 3612. Lunch: two courses at R275 or three courses at R320.A six-course menu is usually served at night (R450 per head. Optional wine pairing at R270).
DE OUDE BANK BAKKERIJ, 7 Church Street, Stellenbosch. Tel 021 883 2187

FOODSTUFF: apples and pears

dsc_0003-001.jpg What do you think of Perry Packham, Dino Delicious, Danny Smith and Topsy Red?

These cute little critters will soon be included in bags of apples and pears in supermarkets such as Checkers, Shoprite and independent stores. Tru-Cape Fruit Marketing is targeting kids with a campaign called Growing Potential. They’re rightly thinking that more kids will eat fruit because they’ll ask their parents to buy packs of apples and pears, in the hopes of getting their hands on Perry, Dino, Danny and Topsy.

The concept was launched with a series of creative, colourful and tasty apple and pear-inspired dishes at The Tasting Room at Le Quartier Francais in Franschhoek.

It’s good to see that Chef Margot Janse, mother to Thomas, takes her own advice when encouraging parents to make food exciting if they want their children to eat healthily. “Make it look like a party,” she says.

REVIEW: Heavenly helpings at Mogg’s Country Cookhouse

dsc_0002.jpg There are few things as satisfying as revisiting a restaurant that you remember fondly from years before and finding that the current experience lives up to the memory. A table for five at Mogg’s Country Cookhouse in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley during a January holiday weekend didn’t disappoint. The venue is stuck in a country time warp, complete with a dining room ceiling of pine cones and dated bric a brac. It’s the remote location, valley vistas from the rustic outdoor tables, and the wholesome flavours that gives this spot its specialness.

As has been the case for a while, a small selection of starters, mains and desserts are carted around the restaurant for viewing on a chalkboard. Julia cooks while mother Jenny serves and hosts in the front. In the old days this venue was BYO. Now diners pay small mark-ups on a valley-focused list or a corkage charge. dsc_0005.jpg The wine selection is sensible but somewhat uncreative considering the talented winery neighbours. We drank Beaumont’s uncomplicated blend labelled as Raoul’s White 2012 (R80), which could’ve been better chilled. And by the time we’d splashed out on Creation Syrah Grenache 2011 (R195) with the main course, we realised the chunky glasses didn’t help. But that’s part of the charm of Mogg’s. It’s country food in a country environment, with jugs of homemade lemonade on the menu and a plate of reassuring vegetables on offer at an extra R30. In short, delicious dining favouring a luddite more than a city slicker.

Some highlights include starters such as Gruyere cheese soufflé (while small, it had a lovely salty-Parmesan tanginess) with blended watercress sauce, perky bacon and rocket tossed in a sweet vinaigrette (R65). dsc_0008.jpg A beetroot fritter was unusual, paired with avo, rocket and a creamy wasabi drizzle, topped with a swirl of smoked salmon (R60). The calamari salad (R65) with seeds, homegrown herbs and greens from the property’s veggie garden and a not-so-gentle chilli vinaigrette with Thai or Vietnamese leanings, was declared a must-have for any Asian fans. Main course options were a little more limited in scope, but tasty enough. The duck pie (R 90) was comforting under a round puff crust with a chestnut crumble for crunch, the mild tamarind-dosed seafood curry (R110) vibrantly presented with a papadum and Asian rice.

dsc_0008.jpg We tried desserts too, three tasty scoops of vanilla ice cream (R45) probably still from that popular housewife’s recipe made with condensed milk in home freezers two decades ago, where you’ll find crystals at the end. A phyllo pastry basket of summer berries (R48) had fans, partnering a sweetly-sourish white chocolate sauce.

Child friendly? Very. A menu with tasty calamari strips and pasta kiddies’ options combine with a playground, tractor tires of sand, a chicken hatch (with a hen and cute chicks in tow) and unlimited space to run around.

MOGG’S COUNTRY COOKHOUSE, Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, Hermanus, Tel 028 312 4321 Mogg’s. Check opening times.

REVIEW: Poolside Elgin eating

dsc_0014.jpg Most restaurants tweak their menus and ease up a little on staff training after they’ve made it through the first few chaotic weeks. The Pool Room at Oak Valley is certainly still in that test run phase, but a very pleasant lunch during one of the Elgin Open Gardens weekends suggests that they’ve got a winning summertime formula for a daytime restaurant and deli. The light-toned eatery is centred around a sparkling swimming pool (no dipping allowed), with cane furniture, tables and umbrellas lining either side. A raised area accommodates more diners.

The Pool Room menu is small and simple, the presentation classy. Everything is focused on what Oak Valley rears, grows or bakes. In other words, grass-fed beef and acorn-fed pork which the Rawbone-Viljoen family has spent years developing on their expansive farm. Vegetables and herbs are also grown behind the restaurant. dsc_0018.jpg There is good bread from ciabatta to baguettes and sourdough. Former Joburg restaurateur Nicole Precoudis has dry-cured a charcuterie range that includes pancetta, saucisson sec and an orange and walnut salami. Precoudis’ excellent Terre Madre MCC-style apple cider is also on the wine list and worth searching out.

Three of us ordered most of the savoury menu, washed down with chilled Oak Valley Sauvignon Blanc (R85). We shared a charcuterie platter, followed by a grilled vegetable salad with chickpeas and goat’s cheese (R55), and a generous portion of two plump acorn-fed pork loin chops (R95) served with a creamy wholegrain mustard cider sauce. ov_gourmet_burger.jpg The accompanying handcut crispy fries are always served with homemade mayonnaise. Fries also accompany the gourmet burger, made from farm free-range beef, served with a mature Huguenot cheese, red onions and pickle - even the bun is homemade. No evidence yet of the pricy marbled Wagyu beef Oak Valley is producing, but I’m told it will be on offer from time to time. Thumbs up for simple and attractively presented dishes with an emphasis on free-range and farm-grown items. Desserts are on offer - homemade apple tart and lemon tart - but we didn’t get that far.

dsc_0013.jpg At this stage more of the charcuterie seems to be available for purchase in the Deli than on the menu – an R85 charcuterie platter included pancetta with items such as rare roast beef, liver terrine, rillettes and cheese. But then it’s near impossible to leave without Deli shopping. Ready-to-cook meats such as pork belly and shank vie with Precoudis’ stylishly bottled strawberry jam and tomato and chili sauces. There are inexpensive sweet bakes and cut flowers (Oak Valley supplies Woolworths). The legendary Christmas cakes made by Elgin neighbour Elizabeth Wood are worth seeking out, and Wood’s Rockhaven extra virgin olive oil is the house oil on diners’ tables.

THE POOL ROOM, Oak Valley Estate, Oak Avenue, Elgin, Tel 021 859 4111 Oak Valley. Check opening times.

FOODSTUFF: Clever cupcakes and nibbles at The Palms Market

dsc_0005.jpg I can’t remember when cupcakes became trendy again, but isn’t this ‘Happy Birthday’ gift box a clever twist? It would make a fabulous gift for that friend who already has everything who’d appreciate something unusual. Stefanie Antonier (below right) of Tres Chic Catering Tres Chic adds a stylish European touch with her miniature birthday cupcakes in assorted flavours, sold at R75 per box. She also sells cupcakes individually, and this private chef, baker and caterer will happily pipe a different message in cake… dsc_0006.jpg

I found those cupcakes at The Palms Market in Woodstock last Saturday. This weekend gourmet space comes with plenty of free covered parking and you don’t need to arm-wrestle crowds to a stall. Isabella Niehaus is behind the market and the focus is on prepared foods to eat on the spot rather than on gourmet raw materials. dsc_0007.jpg But a few breads, cakes and savouries can be taken away. The outdoor fountain area is a good spot to chat with friends and to let littlies run around.

Other highlights: grilled Elgin free-range chicken wing skewers are ultra tender and tasty, with Darling Slow beer. Savoury nibbles are limited aside from boerie rolls, muffins and samosas. The friendly Plattelandse couple selling tempting curried mince and venison jaffles were apologetic that their bread was already plastered in margarine, but lost me as a customer. I’m a butter or nothing purist.
I preferred plainer biscuit-like round Liege waffle from The Wicked Waffles to the rectangular Brussels version with cream and (too watered down) Belgian chocolate sauce. The pickled fish we took home didn’t quite have the vinegar sweetness ratio right. But it’s those quirks that make this a gourmet market run by real people, not an impersonal supermarket. dsc_0003.jpg

THE PALMS MARKET, 145 Sir Lowry Road, Woodstock Palms Mkt. Open every second Sat during winter, open every Sat from Nov 2012.

FOODSTUFF: Cape Town steak fan? Try Café Dijon

dsc_0005.jpg There used to be a corner of recreated Paris in Stellenbosch, serving lovingly prepared steaks, pretty tomato tarts, French onion soup and comforting marrow bones on griddled garlic toast. The good news is that you’ll now find that spot in Green Point.

Café Dijon opened about five years ago when owners Johan ‘Dup’ and Sarah du Plessis tried to recreate the bistro décor and dishes they loved from their French trips. The hands on owners have closed shop in Stellenbosch and moved their business to Cape Town, with hopes of attracting a buzzy city crowd that doesn’t lessen when the students move out. dsc_0003.jpg Their lovely long dark wood and marble-topped bar has made the journey, but there is a lighter, airier feel to the rest of the space. Wine bottles form light fittings and a wall showing surnames of favourite customers is a fun touch.

I joined a group invited this week over lunch. We were encouraged to order any of their a la carte menu staples, and left impressed. The prices are reasonable, and the menu is full of classics I like, including homemade Toulouse pork-shoulder sausages (very tasty, if less spicy than French versions I’ve tried). They offer a series of steaks (from 200g fillet, 380g sirloin and distinctive liverish-tasting 350g New York Hanger steak - all at R115).

dsc_0003.jpg Dup went to great lengths to source West coast Angus beef that conformed to his high standards.
My personal recommendation is to have their speciality Dijon cut (200g at R95). This thick ribeye is tender and marbled with fatty knots, served simply with a tomato onion salad and the most beautiful handcut chips (slightly uneven, skin still on the tips) I’ve eaten in a while. Sauces (R10) include Bearnaise, caper butter, green pepper or mushroom.

Most starters and salads are around R55 to R65. Some dishes and desserts we tried were tasty in a comforting way without being exceptional, but then the team is settling into a new kitchen and that has its quirks. The steak and handcut chips will have me back for more regardless.

CAFÉ DIJON, 15 Napier Street, Green Point, Tel 021 418 3910 Dijon. Open for lunch Tues to Sun and dinner Tues to Sat.