FOODSTUFF: La Colombe is searing hot

lacolombetuna.jpg Tackling the winding roads of Silvermist Mountain Lodge to reach La Colombe restaurant in its new Constantia Nek location, the gradual elevation and snatched glimpses of Constantia vineyards focus your mind on your appetite. On breezy days, a mass of trees whistle.

Inside the restaurant an intimate private room offers views of the white gum forest on one side, while a bar at the opposite end leads to casual courtyard tables. The open kitchen offers drama for indoor diners, but the plum seats are on an enclosed terrace at the gable end, where windows open to show off mountains, gums and produce-filled vegetable boxes below.

Source Design wanted the new La Colombe to feel like an elevated timber tree house up high on an organic wine farm at the top of Constantia Nek. The design brief used a ‘fresher environment’ to draw attention to La Colombe’s intricately composed dishes. The crisp white interiors tie in with white table linen, while walls mix an array of charcoal and dove greys. Aged oak floors and black cast-iron metal straps hint at the wine barrels hidden in the cellar below.

lacolombe053.jpg Silvermist Estate is the only certified organic wine producer in the Constantia Valley. Andrew and Troy Constandakis own La Colombe in partnership with chef Scot Kirton. Front-of-house manageress Jennifer Hugé takes care of the rest, from staff training to precise food-and-wine pairings delivered in quality stemware. This is a restaurant where you’ll recognise the same serving staff year after year. They effortlessly describe dishes despite multiple elements and seem to know how to make diners feel special but not harassed.

La Colombe ranked second in SA in the recent Eat Out awards and Scot Kirton was named Chef of the Year 2015. Depending on how many courses you are having, lunch or dinner could start with home-made breads and innovative butters. It could partner raw and cooked together in a beef tartare mixed with seared beef tataki and assorted Asian flavours under a crunchy noodle nest. Perhaps a vibrant, unusual cucumber and strawberry dessert, coffee arriving with extra sweet nibbles. This is skilled food that is as beautiful to look at as it is to eat. It requires a higher spend for that privilege.

lcchef.jpg 8 questions to Eat Out Chef of the Year 2015 Scot Kirton

1.’It’s not just a dish, it’s an experience.’ Why? At La Colombe we don’t just serve food; we try to create memories that last a lifetime. We try to be slightly playful with our food so that it will be remembered, whether it is serving our tuna in a sealed can with key ingredients printed on the label, or just a funky way of plating something.

2. What does it cost? We offer an à la carte lunch menu. For dinner we have four courses for R535, or an eight-course tasting menu for R790 (R1 190 including wine).

3. Who thinks up the optional wine pairings with your dishes? Jennifer Hugé is the main force behind the wine pairings. She works closely with me, has an incredible palate and her knowledge of wines wows our guests every day.

4. One of your signatures is scallop and subtle Korean kim chi cabbage with sweetcorn. Other menu favourites? Yes, the scallop and kim chi, and the tuna with ponzu, wasabi and ginger in a can, are our two signature dishes. Other menu favourites are bone marrow and pickled fish on toast, with capers, herbs and truffle. Some favourites remain even when seasons change but others are replaced more regularly. Some dishes may take 15 attempts before they make the menu.

5. When did you plant the veggie garden? During the building phase of La Colombe, the chefs wanted a project to fill time in between menu planning, so they decided to plant a garden filled with all the herbs and seasonal vegetables used in the restaurant. It has been a great success and guests love it.

lcview-001.jpg 6. Is it about awards or repeat customers? It is definitely about regular customers that support us throughout the year, but the awards make it worthwhile for chefs to gain recognition for their hard work. Awards also bring first-time customers to see what all the fuss is about. We seem to be getting more dietary requirements from guests – some come in with cards printed with 20 things they can’t eat – so it becomes quite perplexing at times, but we challenge ourselves to meet them.

7. Is there a typical La Colombe diner? Lunch is a lot more casual – guests are welcome in shorts and slops. Dinner tends to be a lot more formal. La Colombe is not only a destination restaurant for tourists; we have very loyal locals throughout the year and offer great winter specials in the off-season.

8. You said a hypercritical audience judges every plate. Solution? The pressure is huge to deliver on every plate. So the food can’t be over complicated: every item on a dish needs a purpose. It is often very tempting to just keep adding components, but dishes are often better through removing components, keeping it simpler and focusing on flavour.

LA COLOMBE RESTAURANT, Silvermist Mountain Lodge, Constantia. Open Mon to Sun for lunch and dinner. Tel 021-795-0125, La Colombe

A version of this appeared in Homefront magazine in December 2015