REVIEW: Foodie fuss about Babel?

dsc_0024.jpg Pretentious foodie spot. Silly. Faddish. These thoughts came to mind on reading about designer white spaces and colour-coded salads at Babel restaurant at Babylonstoren farm. But after four of us experienced lunch recently I’ve changed my mind. I like this place and the intentions of those involved. This is why:

The food will satisfy those who enjoy vegetables and fruit in a meal, aside from heartier fare. Freshly picked every morning from the 3.5ha garden, it couldn’t be fresher. It’s creatively presented too. Sure, snacking on halved plums and raw fennel sticks with a garlicky aubergine and pesto dip, sprinkled with roasted macadamia nuts, takes getting used to. But the nutty dip is delicious on slices of farm loaves (unfortunately the bread lacked salt). If your idea of vegetables is tomato sauce on a pizza slice, this isn’t your spot.

I guarantee you’ll try an edible something you’ve never eaten before, or a new spin on an ingredient. Babylonstoren brags about producing over 300 edible plants, nuts, seeds and honey. Our edible find was tiny, hardy spekboom leaves in the chilli glaze over the pork belly main course. The claim: they’re good to combat cholesterol.

dsc_0021.jpg Starters sound faddish on the menu yet taste very good. We shared two salads - the only starter options. A Green salad (R55) was a tasty collaboration of textures and flavours, consisting of salad greens, basil, rocket, apple slices with cucumber ribbons, courgettes in a spiced dressing, and delicious shah-ma rah-spiced lentils (apparently that’s a herby leaf of Iranian origin). A roasted fennel, lemon verbena and yoghurt dressing was drizzled over. The Red salad received the most table votes. Watermelon slices, black olives, beetroot, roasted red peppers and aubergines, raw red cabbage, radish, red salad leaves and bronze basil leaves were served with mint geranium-infused chickpeas with a dressing made of rose geranium, strawberry and pomegranite. Are you getting the picture? Some essential oils and raw edible plants take getting used to, yet you don’t mind because they are creatively combined as a whole dish.

You can shrug off lunch with a lovely stroll through the extensively planted grounds modelled on Cape Town’s original Company Gardens. You might spot basil plants, aubergines covered by leaves and pumpkins cosily packed on the ground. It’s a thoughtfully planned garden that effectively makes the connection to what you’ve just eaten. The gardens are divided into 15 clusters, grown as biologically as possible.

dsc_0028.jpg With so much designer style in the décor and starters the main courses are thankfully conventional poultry, fish and red meat dishes. The menu includes Franschhoek trout with Babylonstoren Viognier grapes or baked aubergine with melting gorgonzola and gremolata. We tucked into nicely marbled and expertly charred rib-eye steak, although the accompanying sauce of soy, sesame, mustard and green apple sauce was too vinegar-acidic. Roasted pork belly fans will find a twist in a prickly pear and ginger glaze, plus a spekboom and smoked chilli dressing; the crackling nicely crisped. Accompanying bowls of hand-cut chips – surely farm potatoes too? - were the best we’ve eaten. And how lovely to be served innovative veggie side orders: pumpkin flowers stuffed with saucy Swiss chard and mushroom, and assorted green and yellow string beans.

Desserts are divided into sweet, bitter, sour and savoury. Clearly foodie consultant Maranda Engelbrecht’s signature style dominates sweet stuff too, expertly executed by exec chef Simoné Rossouw who is having a lot of fun with her food. From the dark chocolate terrine with bitter olives, with walnuts and espresso sabayon, to the refreshingly pleasant table favourite of fresh pineapple carpaccio drizzled with lemongrass and mint syrup, with carrot cake ice cream, candied rhubarb and a shot of Babel lemoncello adding a sour element, desserts are no standard issue. Yet they work.

Co-owner Karen Roos, former Elle Deco editor, is a co-owner. Apparently Engelbrecht is responsible for the restaurant’s pristine white and glass décor in an old farm building. No surprise: it looks ready for a magazine photo shoot and is easy on the eye, with clever decor tricks here and there. I was amused when I looked for a baby’s nappy-changing area in the ladies bathroom and found a black, sleek Gregor Jenkin table. In criticism, cool mist sprays outside are a necessary luxury for outdoor tables but stylish glass walls need air-conditioners for those seated at interior tables on sweltering Paarl days.
Spend: R55 for salad starters, R85 to R130 for most main meals, R55 for most desserts. Most wines on the board are very well priced and sourced from the immediate Simondium area. Sip a Noble Hill Sauvignon Blanc at R60, or Vrede en Lust Syrah at R130.

Value: Good.

Flavour rating: Top marks for deliciously fresh food with biological leanings. Vegetarians and open-minded carnivores will be satisfied.

BABEL, Babylonstoren farm, Simondium Road off R44, Simondium. Tel 021 863 3852, Babylonstoren Open Wed to Sun 10am to 4pm. R10pp for garden visits but restaurant patrons with a reservation are admitted free.