When famous, fabulous friends visiting from the US ask for an incognito dinner with fine food in a relaxed atmosphere, Chef’s Warehouse Beau Constantia was the obvious choice. After dark the sweeping vineyard views too are incognito, but so what, as you will have all the visual splendour you desire on each plate. Your other senses will be equally entertained. Tapas for two, at R700, is an avalanche of flavours served in three swift waves. If you want it slowed down, you can ask to prolong the pleasure. Wines, from the estate and elsewhere, are at palatable prices. Choosing a favourite dish would be like choosing a favourite child…but let me say that the Korean fried chicken, piquantly flavoured, served with corn masa flat bread that you combine and eat with your hands, oh yum, would make me a bad parent. Or the Jerusalem artichoke risotto, which is topped with small, dark discs of artichokes that have been pickled in balsamic vinegar. Our friends could not stop raving about the skirt steak tataki with burnt butter and BBQ corn dressing, served with a salt and vinegar popcorn dust. It was great to have a quick chat to chef Ivor Jones, who is not being given a moment’s rest after an extremely well-deserved, busy season.
Sister restaurant Chef’s Warehouse at Maison in Franschhoek has recently been voted as one of the nine Best New Restaurants in the world by Condé Nast Traveller UK…deservedly. Note that the stunning new Thali recipe book is available at all Chef’s Warehouse restaurants – if you are not a home cook, know that it will look glorious on any coffee table. I was too busy catching up with friends and savouring every mouthful to take photographs, so these photographs are compliments of talented Claire Gunn and Beau Constantia.
Diners have high expectations from Rust en Vrede restaurant in Stellenbosch where there is a legacy left by culinary trailblazers like David Higgs. Chef Fabio Daniel, who worked with him, is digging deep into lessons learnt and his heritage – he grew up in Brazil “where lots of people are talking and eating at the same time,” he says. His Italian grandparents hail from Verona, and his wife (an integral member of the Rust en Vrede wine team) from Citrusdal – no surprise to see quinces, citrus, carrots, strawberries and tomatoes on the menu. He left Brazil at the age of 24 and has cooked all over the world, and is currently gathering inspiration in Spain, Portugal and France to bring back to SA. Fortunately Fabio believes South Africa is the best country in the world. He comes to the table to tell diners of a story or memory that has inspired his superlative dishes, which he starts planning with the vegetables, adds protein and then a dash of fun.
In spite of seamless white linen, dramatic red roses and romantic lighting, there is an air of playfulness at Rust en Vrede. Guests, after having a pre-dinner drink in the beautiful garden, are able to watch Fabio and his small, smiling team deftly at work. Our food and wine pairing started with baby lamb burgers served in a gleaming copper pan before being wowed by cured smoked seabass with cauliflower, lime and fennel.
Tuna with sesame crust, wild rice and coriander followed – both taste and textures were dynamic in this dish. My man relished the pan-seared Cob with chestnut, morel mushrooms and salsa verde and I the honey-glazed duck breast with butternut, pickled bok choy, sunflower seeds and baby corn. The beef fillet with Jerusalem artichoke, Madeira jelly, soy-glazed cashews and grilled asparagus was delightful, as was the transition course of a cheddar mousse with nut butter, apple and sultanas. Service was slick and seamless, informed and at times entertaining – like the tale behind the dessert called ‘movies and dinner’, complete with an edible movie ticket. Why, you may wonder? “Because chefs only have time for a quick movie,” claims Fabio. Popcorn, salted caramel and Coke float almost brought an unforgettable evening to a close. As a wooden box filled with home-made chocolates was presented, we must have looked astonished at the thought of eating another morsel, so were told to take them home. Here hospitality is genuine and generous – worth finding a hot date for. The wine pairings were carefully considered, with only one wine from the legendary Rust en Vrede estate – the only estate in SA to be named in both the International Top 100 Wines of the World and the Top 100 Restaurants of the World.
Checking into what must be one of the glorious estates in the world, with sweeping vineyard and mountain views, our weekday woes instantly dissipated. Delaire Graff Estate, from the first sight of the spectacular gardens (yes, even in winter) dotted with Dylan Lewis sculptures, takes you into another world. A world in which luxury knows no bounds, a jewel in the Relais & Châteaux crown.
A bottle of Delaire Graff wine was on ice to welcome us. I settled down into our large, beautifully decorated suite and found myself making a mental shopping list for updated décor at home. Every detail has been artfully combined, and in spite of being luxurious, feels like home, from the well-appointed and stocked kitchen (in case you get peckish) to good reading material. Tasty canapés arrived with a bottle of Delaire Graff Sunrise Brut MCC, to ‘awaken our taste buds’.
After a perfect night’s sleep we took an early, uphill stroll on one of the three walking routes, to admire the view and work up an appetite for breakfast and lunch at Indochine. But before that, a wine tasting and shopping spree, sadly only on wine – I was whisked past the beautiful gift shop and the Graff Diamonds’ flagship African boutique, but lingered to admire the art. The estate harmonises superior food, wine, art and nature, perfectly.
If dinner at Indochine by night is romantic and intimate, by day one is able to absorb and appreciate the magnificent setting.
Two-plated chef Virgil Kahn finds his inspiration for Asian cooking from looking, researching, always experimenting and books. This he told me prior to visiting Asia for the first time, setting off to get a feel of some top chefs’ creativity, planning to cook with some of his icons whilst there. He describes his cuisine as ‘a new style of Asian cuisine with a balance of Cape and Asian.’ His modern take is because he draws from SA having an Asian influence, seen in sweet, spicy and Cape Malay tones.
Before he brought us an array of dishes on the current menu and some that he is playing with for the future, “we play a lot”, he says, we chatted about spices, which he sources from small suppliers, and when he finds what he wants, he buys everything. His favourite ingredient is cardamom – black, white and green. Virgil does not drink, but tastes the wine and works closely with the sommelier so that they can learn from one another.
We settled down for an flurry of small dishes that were introduced and placed on our copper table, glistening in the winter sunshine. All were sublime, a perfect marriage of Asian and Cape flavours. It started with a few fresh vegetables picked out of the garden that morning (we had seen the chefs ‘harvesting’ on our walk) with the spinach dip making a robust impression, and the best poppadoms I have ever eaten.
The Tuna takaki with activated charcoal, green jalapeno, pickled shallots and fermented garlic were followed by ceviche with spinach chilli bites, giving a good nod to Cape flavours. His beef rendang – brisket with lemongrass, coconut and cinnamon curry, picked tapioca, a cucumber salad, coconut rice and raita, was memorable.
Here is my highlight – a Vindaloo of local seafood – langoustine, mussels, prawn, squid, line fish, Bombay potato, apple, celery and cardamom dressing. Virgil’s Thai green curry too was exceptional – a vegetarian delight with Asian mushrooms, lotus root, water chestnut and purée, purple basil, eggplant and a green peppercorn relish. By the time the Southern Muslim chicken with white cardamom, hanged yoghurt, lemon and ginger rice was served I was unable to find space for dessert. Once Virgil had explained how he bleeds the caramel out of the pear to produce a new dessert of pear and tonka bean, my interest had been piqued sufficiently to declare that my dessert compartment is operated separately, and I would find space! The burnt pear came with a tonka bean panna cotta, chai granola, salted caramel and honey comb. With it, the smart, well informed staff brought Szechuan chocolate and berries – a white Szechuan sorbet with strawberry crisp, meringue, chocolate marquise and a berry gel. Another treat of the day was the Delaire Graff Indopop, served only in Indochine, not for sale.
It would be a struggle to describe Virgil’s cuisine in one word. He likes guests to leave feeling full. Oh yes, Virgil, that we did. Full of fabulous food and good wine and indelible memories provided by a team that is proud to be there, showing it with genuine care.