My Big Eat in the Winelands

Friday, 1 November, 2013
Graham Howe
Chefs in the winelands are holding their breath in the countdown to the annual Eat Out DStv Restaurant Awards 2013, the “Oscars” of the South African restaurant industry. Fifteen wineland restaurants are competing for a prestigious place in the national Eat Out Top 10 Restaurants Awards to be announced at a gala dinner at the V&A Waterfront on 10 November.
The greater Stellenbosch winelands leads the pack with nine Eat Out contenders - namely, Camphors at Vergelegen (new), Delaire Graff and Indochine (new entry), Jordan, Makaron, Overture, Rust en Vrede, Tokara and Waterkloof (with the shock omission of Terroir). Franschhoek has four nominees - Bread & Wine at Môreson, The Tasting Room, Pierneef à La Motte and The Kitchen at Maison (new); while the Constantia Wine Valley has La Colombe and The Greenhouse. The other Eat Out nominees are Planet at The Mount Nelson, The Test Kichen (2012 restaurant of the year), DW Eleven-13 and Five Hundred (Gauteng) and Hartford House (KZ/Natal).

I’ve been privileged to dine at twelve of the twenty Eat Out nominees in 2013. One of the finest lunches I experienced in the Cape winelands this year was at Jordan restaurant in Stellenbosch. Chef George Jardine, consistently rated one of Eat Out’s Top Ten chefs, created one of the best food and wine pairings of the year at the release of a new vintage of Jordan private label wines made for Woolworths. Adding to its cellar attractions, this month Jordan opens a new “field to fork” charcuterie, deli and farm bakery along with picnics, mountain bike trail and ten luxury cottages.

Foraging in his kitchen garden for fresh, natural flavours, Jardine created a fabulous seasonal salad of grilled fennel, broad beans and buffalo milk mozzarella (paired with lightly wooded Chardonnay) - as well as an adventurous combination of hake with pancetta, red wine braised octopus and smoked marrow (paired with Jordan’s No Added Sulphur Merlot 2012 and Woolworths Selection Merlot 2010). Showcasing the earthy flavours of farm ingredients, Jardine paired confit of duck, porcini, turnip and sultanas with the spicy dark berry flavours and dark textures of Jordan Cobblers Hill 2004 and 2010 - one of the most expensive local reds (R219) on Woolworths shelf.

A memorable lunch at Waterkloof, another Eat Out Top 10 nominee, was one of the highlights of my big eat in the winelands in 2013. A contemporary menu focuses on locally-sourced ingredients foraged from artisanal growers and fresh, organic produce from farm to plate. French chef Gregory Czarnecki - regular Eat Out and Klink finalist - demonstrates the techniques he learned at Michelin restaurants in his interpretations of “eco-conscious produce” from farm eggs, wild mushrooms, herbs, flowers and micro-greens to free-range lamb, beef, venison and sustainable fish.

Gregory’s seasonal menus showcase the natural flavours and textures of ingredients in dishes that bear his hallmarks of simplicity and finesse. I enjoyed his elegant interpretation of South African ingredients in signature starters like soft-boiled farm egg or lime-cured trout sashimi - while farm fare like springbok, duck and quail are enhanced by intensely flavoured sauces. The artisanal suppliers of ingredients are listed on a menu focused on provenance. The organic focus reinforces the biodynamic brand identity of Waterkloof wines paired by the glass to every dish with a skilled sommelier explaining the basis of each food and wine match. The wine and cheese tasting of Waterkloof’s legendary Healey cheddars is another cellar draw card - as are the spectacular views of False Bay and the vineyards from the glasshouse cellar.

Another highlight of my big eat in the winelands this year was Camphors, the new Eat Out entry at Vergelegen (1700), one of the newest fine dining venues set on one of the Cape’s showpiece tourist destinations - with its 300 year old gardens, camphor trees, adventure playground, game drives and homestead. The focus is on offering visitors (over 80 000 in 2012) contemporary winelands cuisine paired to Vergelegen’s iconic wines. The rare vintages of Vergelegen V on the wine-list add value - with low mark-ups of cellar door wine prices. The fare created by top chef PJ Vadas (ex-Roundhouse) is as site-specific as Vergelegen’s wines. I enjoyed the delicate, natural flavours of hake with Jeffrey Bay squid, buffalo mozzarella with elderflowers, and almond milk, Kokstad porcini, hay-smoked beetroot and greens from the garden.

Lunch at Indochine at Delaire Graff was another high spot on the circuit in 2013. Delaire Graff has achieved a rare double-header in the Eat Out Restaurant Awards - winning places for both its main winery restaurant under Christiaan Campbell and Indochine, its specialist pan-Asian restaurant. The Chenin Blanc Association presented a superb seasonal showcase - an example to the industry as to how to promote a specific variety. The kings of Chenin showcased the different styles of wine made from the variety in seven flights of Chenin Blanc made by 26 producers. Jeff Grier of Villiera says, “Chenin Blanc can’t be easily pigeon-holed”. If you put ten winemakers around the table you won’t get agreement on different styles -whereas many consumers can only identify two styles: fresh and fruity vs rich and ripe.  

The taste and texture of Chenin across the spectrum were exquisitely complemented by the layers of Asian sweet, sour, salty, spicy and savoury flavours at Indochine. Talk about that elusive sense of umami, the fifth “delicious” dimension of taste. Wine writers were able to mix ‘n match all 26 Chenin Blancs with a special menu prepared by chef Virgil Khan - a first-time nominee for the Eat Out Top 10. The zesty, robust flavours of signature dishes such as Thai duck with pickled radish and cashew nut brittle and pork with seven Thai spice and sticky black rice proved a fine match for the spectrum of Chenin categories. Chef says the authenticity of the fare is inspired by the use of freshly picked Asian micro-greens, herbs and vegetables from the estate’s kitchen greenhouse, infused with ground spices, served with homemade noodles.

A sunset swirl of MCC, Chardonnay and Shiraz - the three signature varieties of Laborie - in the old manor house (1750) beneath Paarl Rock was another stand-out tasting of 2013. The wineland landscapes of Cecil Skotnes - and creative chocolate, olive oil and brandy/wine pairings in the tasting room are cellar-door attractions. This KWV showpiece estate is enjoying a modern makeover under renowned winelands chef Matthew Gordon whose menu focuses on the seasonal flavours of organic, free-range produce - with herbs and veg from the garden. We enjoyed signature dishes such as calamari and chorizo, Saldanha mussels, farm-smoked salmon trout and posh frites with smoked salt. The winelist showcases Laborie, KWV and fortified wines.

I also indulged in one of the finest food and wine pairings of 2013 over a degustation menu at Bosman’s at The Grande Roche Hotel in Paarl - another surprise omission from the Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant nominees. Fine dining in the silver service style is alive and well under Austrian chef Roland Gorgosilich who conjures up haute cuisine in the continental style. Creating flavour combinations with simplicity, subtlety and balance, the fare is elegantly plated and demonstrates a mastery of classic culinary technique. I enjoyed his sublime compositions from a playful interpretation of Caesar salad to Asian flavoured tuna in a dashi consommé, a divine duo of scallops and sweetbreads. The tasting menus are the best way to go. The sommelier matches wines by the glass from one of South Africa’s top wine-lists (70 pages, 450 labels).

And at Makaron at Majeka House in Stellenbosch, I enjoyed one of the most innovative food, wine, craft ale and cider tastings devised by wine judge and sommelier Josephine Gutentoft. Chef Tanya Kruger - another winelands nominee for The Eat Out Top 10 - brings a classical French training (try her fun interpretation of vichyssoise) and a touch of theatre (sear your own fish on hot Himalayan rock salt) to a contemporary dining space. She expresses the new culinary zeitgeist in the natural flavours of organic ingredients from pasture-reared beef and chicken to biodynamic lamb and Paradyskloof quail. Don’t miss the game bird terrine, fish chowder and prawn laksa - and allow Josephine to pair every dish with unusual wines by the glass..

One of my surprise wineland discoveries of 2013 was Dish at Le Franschhoek Hotel & Spa. Talented chef Oliver Cattermole has seriously elevated the culinary offerings of the hotel on the hill. His globe-trotting culinary influences with a playful touch are on show in the glasshouse kitchen. I enjoyed posh nosh on the cutting-edge of modern British cuisine over smoked pea veloute (paired with Aurelia MCC), “Mac cheese” (crayfish macaroni with DMZ Chardonnay 2012), woodland mushroom soup with a doughnut (Groote Post Pinot Noir 2009), scallop korma (Post House Chenin Blanc 2012), aged beef with duck-fat barrel chips (Nitida Calligraphy 2011) and apple tart tartin (Nitida Modjadji NLH 2011). Note: Oliver has reportedly moved to Mondial, Peter Tempelhoff’s new restaurant at the old Green Dolphin at the V&A Waterfront.

Foraging my way through the winelands in 2013, I also enjoyed wonderful farm fare at the cellar-door at Diemersdal (under chef Nic van Wyk) and De Grendel (over a stunning Pinot Gris tasting) in Durbanville, The Black Oystercatcher in Elim, the fabulous farmhouse fare of Kim Melck at Muratie, and Hartenberg (over a fabulous flight of Gravel Hill Shiraz with cellar master Carl Schultz), Terra del Capo’s Italian wines at the new Anti Pasti Bar at Anthonij Rupert in Franschhoek, and vertical flights of Bouchard Finlayson Galpin Peak Pinot Noir at La Colombe and Kleine Zalze Chenin Blanc at Terroir. Phew! I could keep going but there’s always next year.       

See www.eatout.co.za | Graham Howe has been a reviewer for Eat Out for ten years - and is a judge for the new Klink Awards and restaurant reviewer for Wine Tourism South Africa Handbook 2014: see www.winetourismsouthafrica.co.za

Graham Howe

Graham Howe is a well-known gourmet travel writer based in Cape Town. One of South Africa's most experienced lifestyle journalists, he has contributed hundreds of food, wine and travel features to South African and British publications over the last 25 years.

He is wine and food contributor for Eat Out and WINE.CO.ZA, which is possibly the longest continuous wine column in the world, having published over 400 articles on this extensive South African Wine Portal.

When not exploring the Cape winelands, this adventurous globetrotter reports on exotic destinations around the world as a travel correspondent for the Intrepid Explorer and www.blog.getaway.co.za - and for the weekly travel show on SAFM radio.

Over the last decade, he has visited over fifty countries on travel assignments from the Aran Islands and the Arctic to Borneo and Tristan da Cunha - and entertained readers with his adventures through the winelands of the world from the Mosel to the Yarra ."