Savoring South Africa

by artfuldiner on March 14, 2020

in Artful Diner Mini Review, Breaking News, Opinion, Romantic, Wining and Dining

My Traveling Companion and I just returned from a two-week sojourn to South Africa. We spent five wonderful days tasting wines and sampling restaurants in areas around Stellenbosch, Hermanus, and Cape Town – the heart of the wine country – before embarking on a 10-day cruise of ports on the east coast of South Africa. Noted below are the restaurants we visited in the order in which they were experienced.

Basic Bistro - ExteriorBASIC BISTRO, 31 Church Street, Stellenbosch, South Africa, Every town needs a basic bistro… Maybe not this particular Basic Bistro, but certainly one like it. A bistro is the ultimate culinary escape hatch. No matter what the occasion – business or pleasure… or amalgam thereof – it always seems to fill the bill. And after our fifteen-hour flight, Basic Bistro looked like the perfect spot to unwind and grab a bite before turning in for the night… especially since it happened to be located just across the street from our hotel.

Basic Bistro - Santorini BurgerThe restaurant’s menu offers a bit of everything – from gourmet sandwiches & burgers to bountiful pastas and classic curries – and, for the most part, does not disappoint. My Santorini Burger (pictured) was, in reality, a moist & tender chicken filet garnished with red onion, tomato slice, bacon, arugula, and a fabulous tzatziki sauce (a creamy Greek yogurt sauce buttressed by cucumber and fresh garlic). Certainly, no complaints.

My companion’s Italian Meltzer was also up to the mark. grilled eggplant slices companioned by pan-fried baby marrow (a type of summer squash) and mushrooms in an Italian tomato sauce with melted cheddar cheese. Very nice… But then things really get interesting with a tiara of toasted ciabatta slices slathered in a delightfully pungent basil pesto. It doesn’t look like much; and a rather odd combo of tastes and textures… but… it works. It keeps the taste buds standing at attention. And that’s what counts.

Basic Bistro - Lemon Blueberry CheesecakeDessert? Some intriguing possibilities, but we settled on the Lemon Blueberry Cheesecake, home-baked and rife with lemon ganache and plump blueberries. A good choice, indeed.

The restaurant interior is casual and cozy; but, since it was a beautiful night, we opted for al fresco overlooking the street. At one point a group of wandering musicians even came by to entertain. A perfect evening… especially when fortified with a Bistro Blanc, the restaurant’s own white wine cocktail, several glasses of Niel Joubert Chenin Blanc, or a bottle of DeMorgenzon Syrah. Cheers!

 Roca Restaurant - InteriorROCA RESTAURANT, Uitkyk Street, Franschhoek, South Africa, Located in the midst of the Dieu Donne Wine Estate, Roca had come highly recommended – not only for its picturesque setting but also the superb quality of its cuisine – from a variety of sources. So, following a morning of wine tasting at the Rupert Estate, we were looking forward to a thoroughly enjoyable lunch.

Unfortunately, this was not the case. For starters, it was a warm summer day… and inordinately warm in the restaurant proper. The AC, or so we were informed, was not working. Floor fans were pressed into service, but they did little to ameliorate the situation. Then there was the service, which just felt a bit off, a bit out of sync. It wasn’t exactly “amateur night,” but it lacked a certain degree of polish – savoir faire, if you will – which patrons had every right to expect in an establishment with such a lofty reputation.

Roca Restaurant - Mushroom FettuccineThe food – I chose the Mushroom Fettuccine (pictured) with slow-roasted cherry tomatoes and wild mushrooms with lemon zest, feta cheese, and basil pesto; my dining partner opted for the Gnocchi – was good, though hardly exceptional. And, once again, you expected a good deal more than you received.

Then there were several other matters… A woman who was obviously part of the restaurant’s management (as she kept conferring with the host on a regular basis) was constantly chattering on her cell phone, either while seated at an empty table or walking in the middle of the dining room, which was quite distracting. If she wanted to discuss restaurant business, or simply chat with her friends, couldn’t she do so in private? As for the host… he was, in my opinion, rather sloppily dressed and a bit on the scruffy side. Yes, I know this is a value judgment. However, once again, in a restaurant of this caliber, you would expect a tad more sophistication. Overpriced, overhyped, overwrought… and underwhelming, in my opinion.

Helena's Restaurant Stellenbosch - InteriorHELENA’S RESTAURANT, 33 Church Street, Coopmanhuijs Boutique Hotel & Spa, Stellenbosch, South Africa, While lunch may have been a disappointment, dinner at Helena’s more than made up for it. The atmosphere was cozy, the food and service first-rate. Throw in an excellent bottle of wine – Ken Forrester 2018 Reserve Chenin Blanc – and you most certainly have a recipe for a thoroughly enjoyable evening at table.

Helena's Restaurant Stellenbosch - Bread BoardDinner began with a delicious breadboard… a scrumptious array of several types of bread, butter, hummus, and a dish of assorted olives. A promise of the good things yet to come. After much debate, we finally settled upon the restaurant’s summer special menu, three courses for 345Rand per person (that’s approximately $23.00 US dollars and change; like most other things in South Africa, an incredible bargain).

IMG_0900My dining partner’s appetizer was a beautifully prepared Seafood Bisque (pictured), replete with kingklip (a popular local fish prized for its delicate flavor and firm white texture) and prawns bathed in a light curry broth spiked with ginger, lemongrass, and coconut cream garnished with lightly toasted ciabatta. My Braised Baby Fennel and Citrus Salad was every bit its equal. In additional to orange segments the baby mixed greens were tossed with slices of saffron-poached pear, red onion, toasted almonds, and finished with Helena’s beguiling signature vinaigrette.

The main course offered three possibilities: Risotto with Fresh Wild Mushrooms from the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, Norwegian Salmon (pictured), or Slow-Cooked Karoo Lamb Neck. My dining partner choose the Karoo lamb (certified Karoo, South Africa, meat of origin), which is considered by many, this writer included, the finest, most flavorful lamb in the world… And the presentation here did not disappoint. Extraordinarily tender and superbly complemented with an exotic splash of thyme and cumin jus, this was as close to perfection as it gets.

Helena's - SalmonOf course, my Salmon seemed rather tame by comparison… but the dish had its own unique charms. It was beautifully pan seared precisely as I requested: cooked through, not translucent at the center. Set on a seabed of tomato & red pepper quinoa, it was garnished with steamed prawns, a tender stem of broccolini, and finished with a positively addictive sweet corn purée.

Helena's - PavlovaDesserts carried on the kitchen’s good work… The Pavlova – (pictured) a meringue dessert named after Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova – was adorned with passion fruit curd, tropical fruit, and a crown of homemade Amarula (a South African cream liqueur) ice cream. My dining partner’s Malva Pudding ­– a South African sweet pudding containing apricot jam – was served warm covered in crème anglaise and garnished with homemade vanilla ice cream. Both were outrageously delicious.

Jordan Restaurant - InteriorJORDAN RESTAURANT WITH GEORGE JARDINE, Stellenbosch Kloff Road, Stellenbosch, South Africa, Celebrity chef George Jardine is former South African Chef of the Year; his eponymous restaurant in Cape Town was recently listed in the San Pellegrino World’s 100 Best Restaurants for the second year in a row. In December 2009 he joined forces with Gary and Kathy Jordan and opened a new restaurant on the grounds of the Jordan Wine Estate.

Chef Jardine’s gastronomic kudos and our pleasant wine tasting here notwithstanding, I found our lunch somewhat disappointing. Once again, like Roca noted above, the restaurant was uncomfortably warm. So much so that when we asked about the air conditioning, our server opened a window instead. And while the view from our table was quite picturesque, the dining area itself could only be described as utilitarian; it offered very little in the way of ambiance.

Jordan Restaurant - MusselsThe food also garnered mixed reviews… some items were just fine, though hardly exceptional, while others fell short of the mark. The Steamed Saldanha Bay Mussels “Papillote” were excellent, swimming to table in an exotic lemongrass coconut milk broth tinctured with chili, lime, ginger, and garlic. The Mozambique Prawn Risotto with prawn butter, fried zucchini, and sorrel was also quite good.

IMG_0865On the other hand, the Pan-Roasted Hake had a bit too much going on. The hollandaise would have been quite sufficient, thank you; but the combo of shaved zucchini, olive salad, and tiara of fried zucchini flowers gave the impression of riled up strangers fighting for our attention. And, as if to add insult to injury, the hake, which should have been the center of attention, tasted inordinately “fishy.” The Grilled King Oyster Mushroom, the kitchen’s nod to vegetarians (pictured), also had a lot going on – white bean velouté, greened quinoa, caramelized & dehydrated onions – but was unaccountably bland.  Many of the offerings certainly looked the part. Unfortunately, a feast for the eyes often meant famine for the palate.

Jordan Restaurant - SouffleDesserts, in my opinion, leave the entrées in the dust. The Valrhona Chocolate and Caramelized White Chocolate Torte garnished with poached summer berries is sublime in its simplicity and extraordinarily delicious. And the Honey and Poppy Seed Soufflé companioned by crème anglaise and vanilla ice cream (pictured) is even better and constitutes the kitchen’s most impressive work.

Tokara - InteriorTOKARA RESTAURANT, Tokara Wine Estate, Off R310 Helshoogte Road, Banhoek Valley, Stellenbosch, South Africa, Tokara is located 1,300-feet above sea level at the top of the Helshoogte Pass just outside the village of Stellenbosch. The building housing the restaurant is a Cape architectural icon, utilizing glass, steel, and stone and offers dramatic views of the vineyards, Stellenbosch, and False Bay. The enclosed deck is also a favorite with locals, who gather to sip preprandial libations and take in the beautiful sunset. A prominent feature of the restaurant’s interior is five large-scale tapestries by internationally renowned artist William Kentridge.

But Tokara is infinitely more than the view, the ambiance, or the artwork. The star of the show is clearly Chef Carolize Coetzee’s extraordinary terroir-driven cuisine – the indisputable high point of our recent gastronomic jaunt through the restaurants of the South Africa wine country. The night of our visit, the restaurant offered two dining options: a four-course set menu or a six-course chef’s tasting menu. My dining partner and I choose the former. I also elected to include Tokara wine pairings with each course.

Tokara - Snacks & BreadSnacks & Bread: Delights from the Garden, Croquette, Savory Doughnut, Ciabatta & Kapokbos (Wild Rosemary) Butter (pictured); Wine Pairing: Tokara Blanc de Blanc 2012

Salt-Baked Beetroot Carpaccio: Raspberry, Fennel, Roasted Walnuts & Celery; Wine Pairing: Tokara Rosé 2019

Cured Ocean Trout: Watermelon, Goat’s Milk Cheese, Fig Leaf & Sea Succulents; Wine Pairing: Tokara Stellenbosch Reserve Chardonnay 2018

Tokara - Springbok LoinSpringbok Loin (Medium-Sized Antelope): Peach & Apricot Mebos (Dried Apricot made into a pulp and flavored with Salt & Sugar), Green Beans, Pomme Anna, Apricot & Orange Buchu (Aromatic Plant indigenous to South Africa) Jus (pictured); Wine Pairing: Tokara Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2016

Frozen Pineapple Gelée: Pineapple Coconut Gelato, Faux White Chocolate, Almond Coconut Crumble, Litchi & Mint; Wine Pairing: Tokara Sauvignon Blanc Noble Late Harvest 2017

Just a few thoughts about the menu… All items were carefully prepared and beautifully presented. Many diners, I am certain, would consider the portion sizes on the small side. Bear in mind, however, that in a restaurant of this caliber, one is paying for the quality of the cuisine, not the quantity. The food here is meant to be lovingly savored, not gobbled; and, as such, the portion sizes are more than sufficient.

As noted above, Springbok is a type of antelope. The texture of the loin is very similar to that of filet mignon with a touch more flavor, although the taste is not as pronounced as that of venison. The apricot/orange buchu jus added just the proper assertive touch to the proceedings.

Tokara - DeckI was very impressed with the overall quality of the Tokara Estate wines; and the wine pairings were particularly well-chosen, especially the 2018 reserve chardonnay with the ocean trout and the 2016 cabernet sauvignon with the springbok. Kudos to sommelier Jaap-Henk Koelewijn.

The restaurant just seems to do everything right – the view, the ambiance, the cuisine – but also the service. The servers are young, enthusiastic, and personable; but they are also professional and exceedingly knowledgeable… without being stuffy.

A marvelous dining experience!

Char'd - InteriorCHAR’D GRILL & WINE BAR, Shop 4, Village Square, Hermanus, South Africa, My travel companion and I had planned to dine at a different restaurant for lunch, but Conroy, our trusted driver/guide/companion suggested that we try Char’d… And, once again, we were glad we followed his advice.

Chard’d is a restaurant specializing in “Matured Steaks”; and utilizes both dry- and wet-aging methods. Patrons may choose whichever method they prefer for their steak and then complement their selection with one of the restaurant’s excellent sauces. Conroy chose the dry-aged Rib Eye paired with garlic bone marrow butter and was more than satisfied.

Char'd - Cheese Fondue BurgerThe restaurant also offers up an array of meaty dishes other than steaks… Items such as Smoked Chipotle Pork Belly Ribs and Braised Short Rib come to mind. Ditto a number of “Messy & Sloppy” burgers. The Brisket, for example, is bathed in tzatziki sauce and smothered in fried onions… The Cheese Fondue (pictured) is topped with fries, beef trimmings, and a rich & creamy cheese sauce… And their signature dish, Mash and Gravy, is topped with thick beef gravy, creamed potatoes, and deep-fried onions. Messy, indeed!

Char'd - Chicken SaladLike many steak-themed eateries, Char’d is also quite adept at matters piscatorial. My dining partner’s Kingklip, a mild-tasting, white-fleshed table fish common in South Africa, was served up with a luscious garlic lemon butter, fried capers and herb-crushed potatoes. And my Corn-Flake Crusted Chicken Salad (pictured) was equally praiseworthy. The chunks of chicken breast were exceedingly moist and tender, aided and abetted by the subtly-seasoned crust, quinoa, chickpeas, arugula, and a fabulous honey & mustard dressing.

Char’d also boasts a select collection of wines, many from local vineyards, by the bottle and by glass, as well as an interesting array of craft beers, cocktails, liqueurs & aperitifs.

Wine Glass, Hermanus - InteriorTHE WINE GLASS, 2 Harbour Road, Hermanus, South Africa, I discovered the The Wine Glass quite by accident while searching for restaurants in Hermanus, where we would be spending an overnight before returning to Cape Town to embark on our 10-day South African cruise.

The Wine Glass is the brainchild of Jacques Le Roux and his two partners, Mark Kahts and Brennan Davis, all Hermanus locals who decided to leave the financial services industry and seek investment opportunities in their picturesque hometown. After much research, Mr. Le Roux and his partners came to the conclusion that Hermanus was the perfect place to promote the Walker Bay wine district and, thus, The Wine Glass was born. The new wine tasting venue and restaurant proudly showcases only local wines that have been exclusively produced in the Walker Bay region. The current wine menu lists 124 wines, 9 varietals, and 33 wine estates.

Wine Glass, Hermanus - EllenThe wine tastings here adhere to the “formal” – some would say old-fashioned – method. That is, the wines are arranged in varietal tasting flights consisting of 6 glasses per flight. They are also arranged according to price: Lifestyle Flight (entry-level pricing); Savouring Flight (medium priced, more serious wines); and Premium Flight (top-end wines). We decided on the premium flights; my travel companion had a go at the chardonnay (pictured), I preferred the pinot noir. The winner in both categories…? Without question, Hamilton Russell.

But The Wine Glass is more than just a wine bar… The menu also boasts locally produced craft beers, as well as premium gins, Scotch whisky, and brandy. The restaurant also has a barista on duty, serving up custom cups of their house blend coffee.

Wine Glass, Hermanus - CuisineThe food, however, is not given short shrift. It is of the highest quality and seasonally-driven, featuring fresh seafood, as well as tasting plates that are ideal for sharing, cheese and charcuterie platters, and fresh oysters. Our dinner, for example, began with the Vietnamese Garden Spring Rolls, a delicious array of julienned vegetables and herbs wrapped in rice paper and served with an addictively spicy ginger-ponzu-soy dipping sauce. We then moved on to the Grilled Aubergine with White & Red Miso, grilled eggplant halves in a Japanese glaze. This was followed by delightfully crispy Zucchini & Rosemary Fries kissed by a grana Padano tempura crust; and last – but certainly not least – by the Spicy Paprika & Tomato Ostrich Meatballs stuffed with feta cheese and served with toasted garlic ciabatta.

A thoroughly-rewarding wine tasting, fabulous dinner, and memorable evening. And, judging by the happy crowd the Sunday night of our visit, many others felt as we did. The Wine Glass is highly recommended on all counts.

Creation Wine - Nanette Ranger SculptureCREATION WINES, Hemel & Aarde Road R320, Hermanus, South Africa, Jean-Claude and Carolyn Martin established Creation Wines in 2002 and opened their celebrated award-winning restaurant several years later. With beautiful artworks by sculptor Nanette Ranger on the tables and surrounding areas, their breathtaking restaurant/tasting room overlooks the vineyards. The sculptures were created especially for Creation Wines, with inspiration being drawn from everything that is within reach on the farm and its environment.

Gastronomically, the emphasis here is on innovative cuisine with a variety of options to immerse yourself in the estate’s wines. Interesting food & wine matchups include pairings with brunch, cheese, charcuterie, gelato, and chocolate. Vegans have a dedicated option; and a non-alcoholic tea pairing and five-course children-friendly tasting are also available. The showstopper is the FynArts Story of Creation menu, which includes seven chapters, each dish creatively coordinated with a wine and artistically offered to complement Nanette Ranger’s intriguing sculptures. Each food tasting is carefully paired with Creation wines; and the newest addition to the menu is a small plate pairing that allows diners to choose the number of courses they wish to enjoy.

Creation Wine - Cheese pairingThe presentation of Grilled Vegetables with Goat Cheese paired with Chardonnay was a positive winner. The asparagus, cauliflower florets, and mushrooms were perfectly prepared and artfully arranged, their taste and texture beautifully complemented by luscious orbs of herbed goat cheese The Filet of Beef paired with Pinot Noir was every carnivore’s dream, moist, tender, and loaded with flavor. However, it was the beautifully presented Cheese Pairing (pictured) that was enough to take one’s breath away. And dessert-wise, nothing quite matches the marvelous interplay of sweetness and acidity in the extraordinarily delicious Key Lime Tart.

No matter what your culinary preferences may be, at Creation you may rest assured that they will be as artistically pleasing to the eye as they are gastronomically agreeable to the palate… Worth a journey!

Miller's Thumb -Interior MILLER’S THUMB, 10B Kloofnek Road, Tamboerskloof, Cape Town, South Africa, Established in 1995, Solly & Jane Solomon’s casual, slightly quirky seafood restaurant is something of a Cape Town institution. It’s hard to miss the startling orange and green exterior, and those striking hues spill over into the interior’s three diminutive dining rooms… But there’s a quaint, cozy feel about the place; the service is friendly & first-rate; and while Solly labors in the kitchen, Jane entices diners with mouthwatering descriptions of the evening’s special menu items.

Miller's Thumb - Blue Cheese SaladThe shared appetizers got things off to a great start… The Blue Cheese Salad offered up assorted lettuces and pristinely fresh shaved vegetables teamed with a dynamite blue cheese dressing. This was countered by the sheer decadence of Fried Chicken Livers swimming in a sherry cream sauce tinctured with paprika and hint of chili. Unbelievably delicious.

Entrée-wise Miller’s Thumb is best known for two signature dishes: Chili con Pesce and Yaki Soba. The former is an innovative south-of-the-border take on bouillabaisse, a fish stew loaded with chorizo, peppers, red pinto beans, and chili topped with spiced nachos, melted cheddar, and fresh coriander. The latter is comprised of marinated chicken strips, prawn & cashews wok-fried with vegetables, sprouts, and ginger in a soy & oyster sauce combined with Japanese-styled yakisoba noodles.

Miller's Thumb - Kingklip in Malay Sauce My travel companion and I, however, decided to take a different route… The chalkboard lists the fish that are available on a particular evening, the printed menu indicates how they may be prepared. My travel companion chose the Kingklip and requested that it be prepared Malay, grilled then baked with a sweet chili, soy and ginger glaze (pictured).  I decided upon the Dorado (Mahi Mahi) and preferred it Grilled: with lemon juice and olive oil and served with lemon butter sauce.

I have always been of the opinion that finny fare is best served by those sauces and other accoutrements that intrude the least. In other words, sauces should gently caress rather than smother the objects of their affection. Unfortunately, that was not the case here. The Malay sauce adorning my dining partner’s Kingklip was so cloyingly sweet that the fish was nearly inedible. And my Dorado was literally drowned beneath a flood of entirely too rich lemon butter sauce.

Miller's Thumb - Pecan Chocolate TartThe quality of the seafood here is impeccable, as is its preparation… Regrettably, however, that good work is nearly obviated by an overzealous saucier. And this is, indeed, a shame, as the appetizers here are first-rate; ditto the desserts… particularly an extraordinarily delicious Chocolate Pecan Tart (pictured) garnished with a generous dollop of vanilla ice cream.

Oyster Box, Durban - EntranceOYSTER BOX HOTEL, 2 Lighthouse Road, Umhlanga, South Africa, Situated on the picturesque Umhlanga beachfront on South Africa’s east coast, the Oyster Box Hotel is a scant twenty-minute drive from downtown Durban and seventeen minutes from the King Shaka International Airport.

Oyster Box, Durban - Palm CourtThis beautiful hotel has a decidedly Colonial feel about it, boasting palace staircases, whirling ceiling fans, and four magnificent ceramic chandeliers purchased from the Savoy in London. Facilities include two restaurants, a lounge for afternoon tea, three bars, one of which is a rooftop affair offering views of the adjacent lighthouse, a cinema, two swimming pools, a spa, and a gym.

Oyster Box, Durban - High Tea 2I mention the Oyster Box at this point because one of the shore excursions during our ten-day cruise was a tour of Durban and the surrounding area, culminating with high tea in the hotel’s alluring palm court. This was, indeed, a delight for the senses, a leisurely visual and taste extravaganza of sumptuous treats, featuring everything from freshly baked scones, pastries, quiches & cakes, to finger sandwiches and savories.

High tea at the Oyster Box is nationally famous and must be booked several months in advance. If you are traveling anywhere in the area, this is a sybaritic gastronomic experience that should not be missed.

Bon Appétit!


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