Top Ten Cellar-Door Restaurants 2016

Food, wine and travel writer, Graham Howe survived over sixty food and wine tastings on the winelands circuit in 2016 - and picks his top ten favourite cellar-door restaurants of the year.

Lunch at Faber at Avondale (+27.21 863 1976) in Paarl was one of the highlights of my big eat on the food and wine circuit in 2016. Opened in October by acclaimed winelands chef Eric Bulpitt, Faber (meaning artisan) is one of one of the hottest cellar-door newcomers of the season. Inspired by the chef’s farm childhood and the bio-dynamic ethos of Avondale, much of the fare, from free-range eggs and micro-herbs to fruit and vegetables are sourced from the farm’s organic garden and orchards.

FABER Chef Eric Bulpitt and Pickled baby squid, watermelon, crispy onion, watercress and olive tapenade

Set in the manor house under soaring wooden-beams, Faber is a contemporary space for fine dining in a relaxed winelands setting. Chef Bulpitt says he will focus on sustainable, ethical, free-range produce - on a changing menu which names the provenance of the main ingredient from Joostenberg Vlakte duck to Graaff-Reinet Nguni beef and east coast hake. “Celebrate the vegetable” is his motto - “Vegetables have the same place on a menu as meat”. Our starter of cauliflower - a composition of pureed, fermented and pickled cauliflower - was one of the best dishes I’ve eaten this year - along with a summer dessert of watermelon carpaccio, sorbet and consommé.

The Vine Bistro (+27.21 809 6444) at Glenelly wine farm on the outskirts of Stellenbosch is another hot new winelands venue to watch. The brand-new domain of chef Christophe Dehosse (Au Jardin, Joostenberg), the most experienced French chef in the Cape winelands, reflects a perfect brand synergy between the French-owned winery and authentic Provençal cuisine. The terrace and glasshouse restaurant and tasting deck afford stunning vineyard views - while the bistro menu matches the elegant wines of Glenelly made by talented winemaker Luke O’Cuinneagain.

Tuna Tartare and Glenelly Estate Reserve Chardonnay

Glenelly has undergone a makeover from the restyled modern wine labels and new tasting/restaurant decks to a museum of the priceless Glass Collection of owner May-Eliane de Lencquesaing which traces the history of glass vessels from the Roman era to the tsars and emperors. A new tourism destination, The Vine Bistro menu tempts with Christophe’s classic country cuisine - duck pistachio gelatine and brioche to trout gravadlax, sweetbreads and pork cheeks in red wine and thyme. The dressings, sauces and purees are gastronomic - balancing taste and texture. Christophe is back.

Lunch at The Postcard Café (+27.21 861 7700) after a vertical flight of Cabernet Sauvignon at Stark-Condé in Stellenbosch was another highlight on this year’s winelands circuit. The rare tasting of benchmark single vineyard Cabernet from 2000 - 2014 from the celebrated Three Pines vineyard was led by family winemaker Jose Condé. “Cabernet Sauvignon is about a marriage between oak and wine - and evolving our own house style” comments José. We enjoyed lunch on the long terrace with incredible mountain views hosted by three generations of the global South African, Japanese and Spanish family. The tasting centre on the lake is so very Zen.

Starke-Conde view of the tasting room

The Postcard Café is one of the many hidden gems of the winelands. We sampled a piquant range of starters inspired by the Afro-Japanese synergy of the family owners - fried oysters, savoury egg custard with prawn and Asian mushroom, and yakatori chicken kebabs with soy and mirin. The new field blend of Roussanne, Chenin, Viognier and Verdelho, one of the most exciting white blends I’ve tasted coming out of the Cape, enhanced the savoury, umami flavours of the fare. Over a family-style sushi lunch, we rolled our own - in the spirit of the chopsticks and Cabernet event. The beef teriyaki with wild mushrooms was a perfect match for the velvety Cabernet.

Haute Cabrière (+27.21 876 3688) in Franschhoek was another outstanding culinary experience. Chef Nic van Wyk (ex Terroir) is a familiar face on the winelands dining scene - heading up his own Bistro 13 at Stellenbosch Vineyards. In a new partnership with the von Arnim family, chefs Nic and Westley Muller have taken over this pioneering cellar-door restaurant in the winelands - and created an exciting new menu inspired by Cabrière’s terroir philosophy of “sun-soil-vine-man”. Working closely with cellar master Takuan von Arnim, the chefs have created a six-course tasting menu to promote “the marriage of food and wine”, pairing every course by the glass.

Haute Cabriere Cellar Restaurant - Chef Nic van Wyk, Cellarmaster Takuan von Arnim, Chef Westley Muller

Van Wyk says “We see the restaurant once again becoming one of the best; not just in Franschhoek, but in South Africa.” Inspired by Nic’s classical French training, the new Cabrière menu we sampled showcased one of the most creative winelands menus of the year - caprese salad in chilled summer soup, divine beetroot cured trout, rabbit terrine with tarragon and ratafia prune chutney, red rum (like sea bass) in a piquant sauce vierge, and lamb cannelloni with herbed labneh in a cumin vinaigrette. Many ingredients are sourced from the estate’s own vegetable gardens - inspiring a ‘garden menu’, a daily table d'hôte built around whatever is fresh from the fields.

Haute Cabriere Cellar Restaurant
(left) Glazed pork belly, smoked ham hock, cannellini puree with Haute Cabriere Pinot Noir Reserve 2013
(right) Summer souffle with Pierre Jourdan Blanc de Blanc

They say you can take a horse to a well but you can’t make it drink. Bringing the winelands to the city, Nederburg held a benchmark tasting of its flagship II Centuries and Ingenuity blends at Bouchon Bistro (+27.21 422 0659) - a tapas bar at Dorrance Wines cellar-door on the inner city wine route. Winemaker Natasha Williams led a tasting of old and new vintages of The Young Airhawk and II Centuries Sauvignon Blanc, Ingenuity white, Spanish and Italian red blends. In a lesson in cool climate wines, she demonstrated how the signature aromas and flavours of Darling, Elgin and Agulhas are blended together to create wooded white wines with balance and texture.  The delicious tapas complemented the Spanish and Italian blends perfectly - from beef tataki with mango puree to pork fillet in pepper jus and pulled lamb with gnocchi    

Talented winelands chef Michael Deg of Delaire Graff (+27.21 885 8160) restaurant on Helshoogte in Stellenbosch created one of the most challenging food and wine pairings of the year. For the annual Standard Bank Top 10 Challenge - one of the major events on the wine calendar - he prepared a five-course menu, skilfully pairing two of the winning wines with each course. I particularly enjoyed the citrus cured trout, duck ravioli and free-range chicken. Chef highlighted the signature notes of different styles of Chenin Blanc - picking out oak and fruit nuances in his use of almond, citrus, pear, quince, honey, vanilla, melon and ginger purees, foams and jus.

Chef Michael Broughton of Terroir at Kleine Zalze (+27.21 880 8167) in Stellenbosch, rated one of the top ten chefs in the winelands created a tour de force at the twentieth anniversary of the landmark wine farm. Over a vertical flight of Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, I enjoyed the matching flavours of Broughton’s signature dishes which express the same classic elegance and balance as the wines. The memorable dishes were tomato tart with goat’s cheese (and a 64 degree yolk!), prawn, corn and basil risotto, lamb tortellini, and rib-eye beef with salted roasted celeriac and truffle jus.

Kleine Zalze Tasting

I enjoyed one of the most innovative tasting menus of the year at Camphors at Vergelegen (+27.21 847 2131). Inspired by a paddock to plate philosophy, chef Michael Cooke - who won an inaugural place in Eat Out’s Top Ten Restaurants 2016 (eight of the restaurants are located in the winelands from Franschhoek to Stellenbosch) - has created an origin menu. Foraging on the farm, Cooke uses acorns, chestnuts, pine needles, pine nuts, wild herbs and mushrooms to create earthy fare such as smoked duck and guinea-fowl served in a marrow bone broth. I also enjoyed his sensational green sunflower risotto, Karoo lamb and sweetbreads in fynbos jus - as well as an Asian-inspired seafood potjie with miso-glazed fish, scallops, seaweed and samphire.

(left) Chocolate , rosemary, granadilla (right) Exec Chef Camphors Michael Cooke
Pictures: Gabrielle Holmes

I’ve especially enjoyed revisiting the Constantia Wine Valley this year - home to two out of eight Eat Out Top Ten Restaurants 2016 (La Colombe and The Greenhouse at Cellars-Hohenort). New tourism hubs on the booming gastronomic scene on the historic wine route include La Parada and Harbour House at Constantia Nek, Foxcroft, Kirton’s new restaurant at High Constantia, and others.

Out and about in Constantia I enjoyed the best fine food and wine pairing of the year at a Saronsberg launch created by chef Scott Kirton at La Colombe (ranked #2 in the Eat Out Top Ten Restaurants 2016); an exotic menu over a flight of Magna Carta created by new chef Archie Maclean at Catharina’s at Steenberg; a superb tasting of chef Edgar Osojnik’s contemporary fine dining at Buitenverwachting wine farm; authentic Cape Malay fare at Jonkershuis at Groot Constantia;  and superb vintner platters at Constantia Glen. Last but not least, at Carne Constantia Giorgio Nava created the best Italian menu of the year over a memorable tasting of Alto’s big reds.  

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.

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 - 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 ."

Graham Howe at Catharina's at Steenberg

Faber at Avondale

Faber at Avondale

The Vine Bistro, Glenelly

The Vine Bistro, Glenelly

The Vine Bistro, Glenelly

The Vine Bistro, Glenelly

The Vine Bistro, Glenelly

Glenelly Beef Fillet and Glenelly Estate Reserve Red

Postcard Café - Matcha Green Tea

Postcard Café seating outside

The Postcard Café - Seafood Paella

Crispy Fried Prawn and Calamari Salad

Haute Cabriere Cellar Restaurant - Cape bouillabaisse

Kleine Zalze

Scot Kirton, chef at La Colombe, Constantia Uitsig

Catharina's at Steenberg - crocodile

Catharina's at Steenberg - new chef Archie Maclean