The V&A Waterfront is running a spicy winter restaurant promotion to encourage locals and tourists to try out 27 of its restaurants, and to vote for the restaurant with the best ‘fusion, winter-style dish’ that is affordable too.  The promotion runs until 22 August, and reflects the Cape’s culinary roots over the past 360 years, including Indian, Malay, Chinese, French, British, Dutch, Portuguese, and French, the port of Cape Town being the melting pot of the flavours of the Cape.

The promotion was designed by the V&A Waterfront’s advertising agency Jupiter Drawing Room, and its communication quality reflects the V&A’s leadership as the best shopping mall in the Cape.  The Culinary Challenge is communicated via a Sunday Times insert, the electronic boards and posters in the V&A, and a ‘Master of the Trade Routes’ display emblem resembling a plate at participating restaurants.  Dash at the Queen Victoria hotel, Signal at the Cape Grace, The Atlantic at the Table Bay hotel, Nobu and Reuben’s at the One&Only Cape Town, Willoughby’s, Wang Thai, Harbour House, San Marco, La Playa,  Quay 4, Balducci’s, Meloncino, OYO at the V&A Hotel, The Quarterdeck (Portswood Hotel), Primi Wharf, Clipper at the Commodore Hotel, Den Anker, City Grill Steakhouse, Krugmann’s Grill, Karibu, Jewel of India, Greek Fisherman, Hildebrand Ristorante, Sevruga, Tasca De Belem, and, interestingly, The Grand on the Beach, are the participating restaurants.  In addition, but not participating in the Culinary Challenge as such, are Emporio Leone, offering a trio of South African dessert classics (malva pudding, a milk tart macaroon, and peppermint crisp tart truffle) at R35, and Gelato Mania, offering a gelato flavoured with vanilla pods from Mauritius.

Each restaurant will offer a ‘signature dish‘, and other dishes may form part of a winter special for the Culinary Challenge.  Nobu’s Winter Bento Box costs R275, with a cold and a hot section of three dishes each and a dessert; Reuben’s at the One&Only Cape Town is offering a Steak & Guinness Pie at R125; Willoughby’s signature dish is ‘The Bomb’, a tempura prawn roll with spicy seared Tuna and Avocado wrapping, at R129; Harbour House is offering a free-range short rib at R120; The Atlantic has a 2 course offer, being Lamb Parpardelle, preceded by a cauliflower puree with smoked Franschhoek trout and poached quail egg for a good value price of R120; Hildebrand Ristorante charges R90 for its signature Chocolate and Ginger Venison; Quay 4 has Malay Kreef Curry as its signature dish for R90; and Dash is serving pan-seared magret duck breast on spiced pear purée with sage and quinoa, at R95.

Not having been to Signal restaurant since it changed from Bruce Robertson’s One.Waterfront, I chose the Cape Grace restaurant, which has painted wall murals reflecting the Cape’s historic origins, done when the restaurant changed its name, and these make Signal a forerunner for the V&A Culinary Challenge on its decor and interior design alone! There is no shortage of staff at Signal, and each one of them greets one as if one is there on daily basis.  The tables have tablecloths, with a mix of traditional wooden chairs, ghost chairs, and leather upholstered chairs. Each table has a vase with a protea, and throughout the hotel the national flower is used, suiting the ‘Proudly Cape’ promotion theme too. Cutlery is posh Hepp Exclusiv.  Three chandeliers have small copper pots with the crystals.  Seating sections in the restaurant are divided by what look like sash window frames, giving the room a Cape Dutch feel.  Its A la Carte menu states that it offers ‘Cape Cosmopolitan Cuisine’, being ‘global contemporary dishes with a unique Cape twist’. The menu introduction echoes the theme, stating that sailing boats braved the high seas to introduce the ‘world to the wonders of fragrant herbs and spices’. Using marine-inspired terminology, it continues about its approach to food: ‘Signal encourages the global traveller to plot a course over the Cape’s ancestral landscape. With ingredients encompassing responsible and sustainable food practices and dishes crossing worldwide borders, we welcome you and hope you enjoy your journey’. The black leather covered winelist contains an extensive collection of 40 wines by the glass, and 150 wines by the bottle, complementing the cuisine served. The wines are not inexpensive, but there is a wide price range offered.  For example, in the Shiraz category, the thirteen wines offered range from R72/R195 (Glenwood 2008) to R925 for Haskell Pillars 2008.

As the V&A had booked the table on my behalf, the staff handed me the beautifully designed Culinary Challenge menu automatically, but I did ask to see the A la Carte menu too.  The restaurant offers as its Culinary Challenge signature dish a ‘De-constructed Bobotie‘, being a very rare prepared bobotie-spiced Springbok loin, roasted parsnip, pickled mango purée, almond crumble, and a curried lentil jus, costing a mere R95.  One can also order 3 courses, at R195, very good value. As I am allergic to mussels, the Assistant Restaurant Manager Sean O’Brien kindly allowed me to substitute a starter from the A la Carte menu for the Aromatic coconut and ginger broth with steamed mussels and coriander foam.  The dessert was a typically South African Peppermint Crisp Tart, served with fresh peppermint ice cream, and Pastry Chef Lorraine Meaney had made gold-dusted Valrhona chocolate discs to place on top of each individual tart.  With the cappuccino friandises, being an apricot jelly slice, a beetroot chocolate blondie, and a caramel macaroon, were served.

Voting for the ‘Master of the Trade Routes’ is done by food bloggers, writers, and critics, as well as by the public, for the People’s Choice Award, in selecting the winning restaurant(s).  Food writers were spoilt with a most beautiful spice box, to encourage them to review a restaurant of their choice. A beautifully designed locked box collects the evaluation sheets diners have to complete for the voting.  Various aspects have to be rated, including presentation, taste, interpretation of the fusion theme, service, ambience, and value for money.  Clients eating at a participating restaurant stand a chance to win meal vouchers and attendance at the gala event aboard the SA Agulhas II, at which the winners out of the Top 8 restaurants will be announced.

The quality and value for money offer experienced at Signal restaurant for the ‘Master of the Trade Routes Culinary Challenge’ will make me try other restaurants that I have not been to in the V&A Waterfront in the next two months, not only for their good value, but also for the creative and spicy interpretation of the winter promotion theme.

POSTSCRIPT 3/8: The Top 8 restaurants in the V&A Waterfront’s Master of the Trade Routes Culinary Challenge have been announced in the Cape Times today: Signal at the Cape Grace hotel, Dash at the Queen Victoria hotel, Reuben’s at the One&Only Cape Town, Den Anker, The Grand on the Beach, Sevruga, Harbour House, and Willoughby’s.

POSTSCRIPT 31/8: Signal restaurant at Cape Grace won the Master of the Trade Routes Culinary Challenge, with Dash at the Queen Victoria Hotel coming second.  Sevruga won the People’s Choice Award, with its Miso-marinated kingklip dish.

V&A Waterfront ‘Master of the Trade Routes Culinary Challenge‘, see www.waterfront.co.za for the list and menus, and operating hours and days of the 27 participating restaurants. 1 June – 22 August.

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage