REVIEW: one country restaurant that goes the distance

The Place: Are you also feeling irritable after too many holiday meals where the food was poor and the wait was long? I spent good money in steakhouses eating gristly burgers and cardboard-like chips; endured family restaurants drizzling melted margarine over my fish without prior warning. Winery lunches with portions so tiny we all left hungry. I was after food for the soul.

I’d called The Restaurant at Newton Johnson before Christmas and snagged the first available table in early January – at 2pm. Seasonal demand for two lunch sittings then. After achieving ninth place in Eat Out’s Top 10 within 14 months of opening in touristy Hermanus, could they deliver?

We arrived to a fast-filling restaurant with beige walls and an open kitchen at one end. Country scenery was the obvious drawcard, large windows and a wind-swept deck showcasing Hemel-en-Aarde vineyard, tree and mountain panoramas. Tiled floors made for poor acoustics, but the holiday mood worked its tricks. Shorts didn’t seem out of place amongst the chatting groups.

The Food: A single-page menu listed 12 dishes, diners choosing between two courses (R240) to six courses (R480). Our three-courser (R310 per person) worked out just right. Some observations. Chef-proprietor Eric Bullpitt was moulded under Stellenbosch restaurateur George Jardine, and like his mentor, Bullpitt is a master with vegetables.

Take the turnips. I mostly avoid them. But Bullpitt’s lightly pickled turnip slivers stole the show alongside coarse beef tartare. And in a later dish, carrot puree sweetness and kale bitterness cleverly cemented salty-soft pork belly under stand-to-attention crackling, with a garlic-ginger sauce.

I loved the novelty of spice-cured fresh mackerel too, caught as a by-catch in local waters. This fishy starter’s delicate cucumber ‘froths’ liquefied too fast, but with perky cucumber ribbons, crispy onion and citrusy-soy Ponzu dressing it tasted grand.

Foraged dune lettuce and other unusual greens
Who would guess artichoke-miso puree added a base note to an excellent hake dish? On the same fish, our waiter identified foraged dune lettuces, worm-shaped samphire greens and goosefoot, all scrounged from the countryside or beach (he had collected some of it).

But the basil meringue dessert was the game-changer. Tasting weirdly masculine, it combined savoury basil oils together with sweet, wobbly, unset meringue balls ‘branded’ with the bitter char markings of hot charcoal. Bullpitt said he’d borrowed the charring idea. It was what he did with it that counted.

The Rest: Family-owned Newton-Johnson winery operates alongside Bullpitt’s restaurant. They’re making some of the Cape’s best wines, a plethora of Platter five stars falling on their Pinot Noirs. The whites aren’t shabby either. With small mark-ups, we drank the very seafood-friendly Resonance white blend (R158), and a glass of lighter, second-label Felicité Pinot Noir (R40).

nj_1.jpg The Verdict? Bullpitt used old-fashioned smoking, pickling and open-fire cooking, and his clean plates were appealing to the eye. His knack was purity of flavours, layering of textures and delivering a sophisticated rural take on what sounded like a straightforward plate of meat or vegetables. His waiting team understood his menu and served it swiftly – weak coffee was the only sore point.

You’ll pay good money to dine on repurposed wine-barrel tables at this upmarket restaurant. But I say eat out less often, find a good reason to splurge and then take a drive and make it count.

THE RESTAURANT AT NEWTON JOHNSON, Newton Johnson Winery, Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, Hermanus. Open Tues to Sun for lunch, Friday to Saturday for dinner. Tel 021-200-2148, Newton Johnson

A version of this review appeared in The Times on 28 January 2015.