REVIEW: La Mouette: Winter with a French twist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This review appeared in The Times on 18 June 2014.