A GASTRONOMIC CARPE DIEM
As the political climate deteriorates in both the USA and SA, and unbelievably that is still possible, I continue my efforts to look on the bright side. Fortunately, the diversity and excellence of places to eat in Cape Town and its surroundings offer one powerful way to stay positive. My letter this month therefore focuses on what is on the menu.
On the high end in Cape Town, I have to start with The Waterside. Scot Kirton, chef-owner of La Colombe Restaurant, rated the best restaurant in South Africa, launched his new restaurant with a view of harbor activity in Cape Town’s Waterfront 2 months ago. Sophisticated but more casual than his main restaurant, Moira and I experienced a perfect lunch marked by the most extraordinary dishes and tastes. The menu is prix-fixe, expensive, but worth it. Apologies for illustrating every course, but the meal was so special I thought it worth sharing. Promise, I will not do it with the other places I describe.
Another newcomer to Cape Town is the Grand Pavilion in Sea Point. Pleasant ambiance, but our preference is the nearby La Perla that has been a favorite of ours for decades. Wonderful to sit on the deck and enjoy a La Perla salad and white wine and watch the world go by.
An excellent Japanese meal can be enjoyed at Himitsu in The Retreat in Camps Bay. During a long lunch with friend’s special courses could be selected from a 4-part menu of fish, meat, vegetable, and dessert options in mid-size portions. Everything we tried was delicious.
On the other end of the spectrum is the Gardeners Cottage in an historic setting in Newlands. One eats in the garden in front of the cottage, meals are casual but delicious, and the whole environment totally relaxing. We met friends for lunch at 12.30 and left at 4 in the afternoon when they were closing. On its website it describes itself as “a haven of tranquility in the heart of Cape Town’s southern suburbs,” and it is just that. For a main course I recommend their chicken in folds of puff pastry (sautéed chicken in a creamy herb and white wine sauce, and puff pastries that dissolve in your mouth), served with garden fresh vegetables, and enjoyed with a crisp cold local white wine. For dessert we indulged in their perfect scones, whipped cream, and raspberry jam, enhanced by hot Ceylon tea.
Somewhat between the two are the eating options at the Constantia Uitsig Wine Estate. This is an historic wine estate, nestled in Constantia, the oldest wine-producing region in the Southern Hemisphere with roots that extend back to 1685. There are multiple eating options. Housed in an avenue of cottages are individualized options such as sushi, fish and chips, an Italian ice cream café, and a general café. We chose to have lunch with friends at the separate La Grotto Ristorante which serves Italian food. While certainly not one of the best places to eat in Cape Town, a visit to the estate is worthwhile to experience the ambience of Constantia and to tour the region.
To my mind a better option for lunch in Constantia is Jonkershuis, the original restaurant at Groot Constantia. Groot Constantia is the oldest wine farm in Africa, established by the first Governor of the Cape, Simon van der Stel, in 1685, and operative ever since then. Mythology has it that when Napoleon was sent into exile on St Helena, he said he could sacrifice everything, but not his Constantia wine. The menu at Jonkershuis offers traditional South African and Cape Malay dishes, including an excellent curry and wonderful melktert for dessert. Go on a good day and sit out front enjoying the view of the main homestead, the vineyards, and the mountains beyond.
There are innumerable options for breakfast, perhaps my favorite meal of the day when I am on vacation and can take time to relax. Top of the list here is to languish over a La Belle breakfast under the oaks at the historic Alphen Hotel in Constantia, the pearl in the crown of the Kove Collection. The hotel is our favorite in the Southern Suburbs of Cape Town, especially recommended if you want to get away from the hurly-burly of the Gold Coast.
Of course, you can always avoid restaurants and stock up on the most amazing take away foods from the plethora of delicatessens and roadside stalls that abound. The Chardonnay Deli in Constantia is a perfect example.
Another option, remarkable given that Cape Town only has a Jewish population of about 12,500 representing about 25% of the national total, is the Kosher counters prevalent in supermarkets in most suburbs with a Jewish presence. The Kosher counter at the Sea Point Spar, just yards down the road from where we live, has a particularly good selection of parve (meaning dairy free) baked goods like gingerbread, marble cakes, cinnamon buns, Challah on Fridays, and tempting salads and other delights.
Clearly, I could continue ad infinitum with Cape Town’s diverse eating options, but you get the drift, and for something as personal as food you need to visit this beautiful city and taste for yourself. So, let’s move on to another historic town, Stellenbosch, just an hour’s drive from Cape Town.
There are two directions one can enter the historic university town of Stellenbosch from Cape Town. The route via the N1 reveals how the town has grown, with a sprawl that is clearly Africa, and crowded streets, outside markets, and j-walking pedestrians from every direction. The route via the N2 provides a far more picturesque way of getting into the historic old area, but on the N2 for well over 10 kms. before and after the exit to the Cape Town Airport the extent of poverty in South Africa is really in your face with endless vistas of corrugated iron shacks baking in the fierce summer sun.
Stellenbosch itself, the wine capital of South Africa, is totally charming, clean, and with little evidence of homeless living by the sides of the road as in Cape Town. The center of town is vibrant and the sidewalk cafes, boutiques, art galleries, and multiple historic sites all make for a charming and dynamic university town. Just sitting at a sidewalk table sipping a beer or glass of wine is a treat of its own.
Although close to Cape Town, to enjoy and relax in the ambience of the old town, we stayed at the Coopmanhuijs Boutique Hotel, “built in 1713 as one of the first grand residences in Stellenbosch, it underwent three years’ painstaking renovation before emerging as the 5-star Coopmanhuijs Boutique Hotel & Spa in 2010. Since then, it has consistently ranked #1 on TripAdvisor among all hotels in Stellenbosch, placing it in the top 10% of hotels world-wide.” After valet parking there is no need for a car again until visiting the outlying countryside and wine estates. In a previous newsletter I have described the key sights and places to visit.
Good restaurants abound in town. On our first day Moira, lactose intolerant and a non-meat eater, indulged me with trying one of the top steak restaurants, the Fat Butcher. Fortunately, the owner and chef, Rita, with whom we had engaged in deep discussion about her history and how she started the restaurant after returning from London, promised Moira she would do something special for her. The result was a mouth-watering butternut and goat’s cheese salad, and Moira then was amazed by a mushroom risotto while I enjoyed a dry-aged sirloin.
An absolute must for any visit to the region is lunch at the Postcard Café on the Stark Conde wine estate on the high elevation of the Jonkershoek Valley. As Marie Conde related to me, “When I decided to open a little cafe back in 2010, it was the very first name that came into my head, and I liked it! We are blessed with the kind of scenery that you see in old-style picture postcards…bright blue skies and dramatic mountains, and it brings to mind the phrase “postcard perfect.” That is an understatement. The views are jaw-droppingly spectacular. We just gaped for almost 3 hours over our excellent lunch. I should mention that this “little café” is nestled in the midst of a vast wine estate whose high elevations have allowed for the production of international award-winning wines.
A good way of working off a wonderful lunch is to simply browse the boutiques and galleries that abound in the old town.
I hope I have tempted you with the selected eating holes I have included in my newsletter. We have travelled widely all over the world, but there are really very few places to match the Western Cape for diversity, variety, beauty of surroundings, and options of local wines, foods, freshness, and taste, as we experience here. But, as the popular song goes, “it is so nice to go traveling, but it is oh so nice to come home.” In my senior years, as I am rewarded with the luxury of time, I have found that I enjoy cooking. There is something special about shopping for fresh ingredients, accumulating everything on the cooking island, and just getting to it. I do not use a cookbook or recipes. We know what we enjoy, and I just flavor to our tastes and cook to our preferences. Pictured is me searing truly fresh tuna, preseasoned at room temperature with a little salt, pepper, and massaged with Morgenster Don Carlo single varietal extra virgin olive oil (local and consistently rated one of the world’s best), on a very hot pan, to be accompanied by a watermelon salad (diced watermelon, quartered and sliced fresh cucumber, feta cheese, and sprayed with a Mazzetti balsamic vinegar), boiled small Apache potatoes, opened and topped with the same olive oil, and paired with a chilled Babylonstoren Candide white wine. Perfection!
As for cooking, the same goes in our choices of places to travel, and next month we hope to have some adventurous places to add to our experience as we return to active exploring.
Until then, continue to look on the bright side.
Cape Town and Stellenbosch, February 16, 2022.