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.