For the last two years or so we have been waiting to see who would fill the space of Chef Craig Cormack’s Sofia’s restaurant at Morgenster, which closed down without explanation. It was exciting to hear that top UK Michelin star restaurant owner and Chef Michel Roux Jnr was rumored to open in the space on the Morgenster wine and olive farm in Somerset West.
Whenever I saw Morgenster Managing Director Judy Dyer she was very secretive about the restaurant plans, but it was clear that Chef Michel was no longer opening at Morgenster. It was a big surprise therefore when I saw an announcement in an olive newsletter that Giorgio Nava would be opening 95 @ Morgenster on 1 September. The opening was delayed by two weeks, and opened on Tuesday last week.
My relationship with Nava has been very tempestuous ever since I wrote about his dishonesty in claiming that all his meat used at Carne is organic and comes from his farm in the Karoo, a claim which he had to withdraw. I heard last week that Nava is in Milan, so it was a golden opportunity to try the new restaurant without any unpleasantness from Nava’s side. I did make a booking, using the name of a friend, with Jamie the Manager, who had the line diverted to his cellphone, efficiently taking the details.
The restaurant could not be set up in the former Sofia’s, Judy told me, who happened to be lunching there too yesterday. The building lies in a flood line, and therefore they did not receive permission to use it as a commercial building, so they have rented the building out as a private residence. The dam size has been increased and the reeds cut back, so that one looks out onto the dam and the lovely mountain behind it. The restaurant has been set up in a former office building very close to the wine tasting venue, and one has to (cleverly) walk through the tasting room to get to the restaurant. Service is very efficient, as a staff member in the tasting room opened the door as one walks towards it from the car park (I liked the wall with the vines trained along its exterior). One of the staff walked with me in the direction of the restaurant building, which is a direct replica in its roof and reed pergola over the outside terrace, and the size and shape of the building. Inside the buildings differ.
One arrives in the bar area, which was enclosed for the restaurant. I loved seeing the interior grapevine, which has a roof over it, and is trellised inside the bar. Here Jamie and his assistant Anna were waiting for new arriving guests, and opened the door before I got to it. I provided the booking name, and Jamie asked if I would like to sit outside, which almost all the guests had chosen, given the warm (31° C) day. The terrace area is sheltered from the South Easter with one complete glass wall on the Eastern side. On the deck there are trellised grape vines, still new due to the recent finish of the building work. Marble tiles in brown, beige, and white are a new quality finish. Jamie told me that the deck can take up to 60 guests, and about 48 inside.
Inside the restaurant the two opposite ends have strong blue banquettes along the full wall length. Tables are the same as outside, white-topped square with blck legs that look a little like those from old Singer sewing machines. Jamie told me that they will move all the white tables outside, and bring in wooden top tables for the restaurant interior. The new tables will match the wooden ‘trellis’ holding the downlighters running along the length of the restaurant. Fun is the ‘porthole’ window opposite the restaurant entrance door! The walls with the banquettes are bare, needing some art work, while the other walls have been decorated with art works which belong to Morgenster owner Giulio Bertrand, unfortunately not being Italian in theme or artist origin. Artists whose work have been hung are Bettie Cilliers-Barnard, a trilogy by Diane Victor, and even a Simon Stone in the passage leading to the multi-gender bathrooms. There is no obvious link between the works of art at all.
Waiter Ernie brought focaccia to the table, three unexciting pieces, and the herbs used not explained. An impressive-looking five-bottle Morgenster holder accompanied the bread, but the different types of olive oils and balsamic vinegar were not explained. The menu was a plain A4 photocopied page, and the wine list was similar, but blue type has been used for the wine names. The table had an oval-shaped plastic woven placemat, TP 18/10 sterling silver cutlery, and a heavily used but clean 95-branded beige napkin, clearly previously used at sister restaurant 95 Keerom. No salt or pepper is on the table, but small white containers of pepper and salt were brought to the table when I requested salt. It was a most unusual request from me, as I find most South African restaurant food over-salted. To my taste no salt has been added to any of the dishes at all, very commendable!
Irritating was that Ernie thought that he knew my taste and could recommend the avocado salad with rocket, cherry tomatoes, pears, pecan nuts, blue cheese, and Morgenster olive oil as a starter. Each salad – there are five offered out of six Antipasti starters – offers Morgenster olive oil, despite the Morgenster holder on the table. Beef carpaccio is the only non-salad starter. I found the salad prices to be very high, touching on R100 each. I compared the Morgenster menu (currently Lunch only) with the one at Keerom Street (Dinner only), and the latter’s Starter list of eight dishes only has two salads, and also offers steak tartare, salmon tartare, asparagus, and veal tongue, not available at Morgenster! Keerom Street offers five raw and three seared carpaccio options too, under a separate heading, each offered with a different additive. I ordered a Butternut ravioli with Ricotta, topped with sage butter and Parmesan (with extra Parmesan brought to the table by Jamie), excellent but missing a slight touch of salt, and expensive at R85. This dish is available with spinach too. One can also order ravioli with Karoo lamb shoulder (R90), penne pasta with a tomato sauce (R75!), and gnocchi with Gorgonzola cheese sauce and walnuts (R90). At Keerom Street all three pasta dishes other than the lamb shoulder are also offered, with additional choices of crayfish linguine, cannelloni with ham and cheese, and spaghetti and mussels.
My main course choice was seared ‘calves (sic) liver’ with balsamic caramelized onion (Chef William Mkubukel, seconded from Keerom Street, kindly prepared a fresh portion without the balsamic), as well as mash potato (R160, expensive I thought). A little twig of Rosemary was the only attempt at plating design! Two slices of liver were offered, and were prepared more well-done than the pink Jamie and I had discussed. Overall it was a good dish, but very filling, with an additional whole caramelised onion and a potato croquet, overkill with the mash and potato rings already on the plate. Other meat choices offered are Tagliata (R195), seared rib eye steak (R180), chicken breast (R140), chicken schnitzel (R120), and grilled Karoo lamb chops (R195), all of which are on the Keerom Street menu as well. Liver is not available at Keerom Street. Keerom Street has 12 meat dish choices, with game, roast pork, Osso Buco, and T-bone offered too. Linefish (R160) and Norwegian salmon (R185) are available at both restaurants, while Keerom Street also offers tuna, mussels, and two crayfish dishes. Sides are offered, in a price range of R30 – R40.
The dessert menu for Keerom is not on its website. I ordered ‘La Meringa 95‘, with meringue chunks and berries wrapped in Marsala Zabaglione crème, a very large portion at a very affordable R50, looking better on the menu than on the plate! Other dessert options range from R40 to R65, and include chocolate fondant, gelato and sorbet, and Crème Brûlée. An Italian and South African cheese platter costs R100. I ordered a dry cappuccino, and Jamie knew exactly how it should be prepared. The bill was accompanied by a tiny nut meringue, lost on a white plate, and not sweetening the bill! Keerom Street demands that a minimum of two courses be ordered, which is not a requirement on the Morgenster menu.
The wine list will not win any awards, being boring and functional, every single vintage being listed, some wines going back to 2000. Wine by the GLS and BTL (glass and bottle I worked out) are listed. The Morgenster Caruso, Tosca, Nabucco, Reserve, and Lourens River Valley wine compositions are not specified. Sparkling wines offered are Donelli Prosecco (R45/R220), Graham Beck Brut (R280), and Steenberg Brut Chardonnay (R65/R325). Moët et Chandon (R190/R1050) and Louis Roederer Brut (R1750) are also offered. Only Morgenster white and red wines are available, ranging from R30 to R180 per glass and R120 to R720 per bottle. No BYO is allowed.
Jamie will stay on at Morgenster until the end of October, when he returns to Carne Constantia, from which he was seconded. Anna will take over as a Manager from him, but is still currently working out her notice at Stables at Vergelegen. I recognized Anna from the neighboring restaurant. Jamie shared how difficult it is to find staff in Somerset West, but word is spreading that the restaurant has opened, and now they are receiving enquiries from potential waiters. The waiters need training and experience, the menu and wine list presentation needs to be vastly improved, and the portion sizes reduced, which will help to adjust prices too. The desserts are very well priced. The terrace area was hot as the wind was blocked off yesterday. There was no music at all, noticeable by its absence. I had asked for a replacement napkin, but it was not brought to the table for the dessert course. One wonders why Nava would open a fifth restaurant (two 95 restaurants, and three Carnes in Cape Town), each new opening meaning further lack of control by him!
POSTSCRIPT 23/9 : I checked the website for 95 @Morgenster and found another Nava dishonest marketing claim, being the opening paragraph on the Home page: ’95 at Morgenster, Giorgia Nava’s new world class (our underlining) restaurant with best of both worlds. The new restaurant’s menu is a mix of the already proven succes (sic) dishes of 95 Keerom and Carne’s menu’! We have provided a link above to the infamous dishonest claim he made when he opened Carne in Keerom Street! What is shocking is that Eat Out has used this outrageous marketing claim in its introduction to the restaurant on its website!
95 @ Morgenster, Morgenster Wine and Olive Estate, Vergelegen Avenue, Off Lourensford Road, Somerset West. Tel (021) 204-7048. www.95atmorgenster.com Twitter: @95atMorgenster (advertised on menu but not active yet). Monday – Sunday Lunch; Thursday, Friday, and Saturday Dinner (to come).