Borage Bistro has been on my list to try since it opened in May, and on Friday last week my friend Judy and I chose it for our lunch destination. After a hesitant welcome by the waitress, we were well-attended to by front of house manager and co-owner Dennis Molewa, and found a sophisticated haven of German fusion cuisine and service standard.
Dennis told us that three co-owners opened the restaurant in the new Portside Building at the bottom of Bree Street, none of them having any experience in running a restaurant. Major shareholder is Christian Vaatz, a Cape Town based investment manager who loves outdoor eating. He connected with Dennis, who has lived in Cape Town for four years, having worked for Amazon locally, and originally is from Frankfurt. Chef Frank Marks is a German Namibian who studied at Silwood Kitchen, and joined Chef Luke Dale-Roberts when he was still at La Colombe, and then followed him when he set up The Test Kitchen. As if that wasn’t enough rubbing of shoulders with our country’s official best restaurant chef, Frank left his local job, and was accepted to do a stage at Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck in Bray in the UK, before becoming full-time employed by him at Dinner by Heston in London, spending two years there. working with Chef Heston’s head chef Ashley Palmer-Watts, before returning to Chef Luke at The Pot Luck Club. He likes to study the scientific aspects of food, experimenting with foams and gels, and to prepare his ingredients sous vide. The restaurant was set up by the three partners in a short three months, Dennis said proudly.
Dennis and Chef Frank are like chalk and cheese, two very different personalities, Dennis being outgoing and chatty, sitting down at the table intermittently to chat, and providing information and sharing who he is. We laughed when he enthused about Cape Town, calling it ‘Africa’s Disneyland’. He is not very happy with his landlord Old Mutual, sharing the dissatisfaction with parking and security not being included in their rental. The bureaucracy of applying for the liquor licence was a huge challenge, taking five months, after getting their health, fire, and ventilation licences. Chef Frank is very quiet, an introvert who comes across as very shy, who clearly is happiest in his open-plan kitchen. He shared that Chef Heston does not do much cooking anymore. I likened him to my friend Reuben Robertsons Pop Up and Pop In Riffel, who rarely cooks at any of his restaurants anymore, but Chef Frank did assure me that Chef Heston is at his offices connected to the restaurants most of the time, in-between writing books and making TV appearances! In the kitchen a number of Silwood students assist Chef Frank. The trio connected with a German couple Birgit Wiegeman and her partner Ivo, who both have day jobs, but assisted them with the interior and logo design.
Gray is a dominant cool colour for the interior, accentuated with silver in the industrial looking piping, and kitchen equipment seen from inside the restaurant, the extraction fan being a dominant feature and Chef Frank’s pride and joy in the kitchen. Table tops are in a light wood, and chairs a mix of natural and black painted wood. In the centre they have created one long table, with a mix of benches and chairs. Dennis was warned about Cape Town’s cliqueness, and whilst not experiencing much of it himself, he has decided to connect diverse Capetonians with their bi-weekly Supper Club on Thursday evenings, seating them all at the long table. Chef Frank gives a student the opportunity to conceptualise the 3-course meal for the evening, rotating this honour. Two imposing über tall lamps are on either side of the entrance, and one cleverly doubles up as a newspaper and magazine stand. The grey wall on one side is still bare, and is being kept for art dealers Luvey ‘n Rose to fill with some artwork. One can sit outside, under the trees, and whilst on a busy corner, we did not hear the traffic at all. The banquette along one wall is covered in grey linen, with grey scatter cushions. There are material serviettes, no table cloths, cutlery is by Pinti, and the plates are a simple white. A container with succulents is on each table, and wooden crates have been planted with herbs, and visible outside.
I saw a Breakfast menu on the counter whilst I was waiting for Judy to arrive, and Dennis told me that they make their own preserves, including raspberry jam, marmalade, wintermelon preserve, and even make their own 100% hazelnut praline crème, which are offered for breakfast and are available to buy. Dennis explained that they are Halaal-friendly, but not certified. Breakfast prices range between R32 for fruit salad to R60 for a English breakfast. They bake their own Boulangerie items, at R15 each for croissants, brioche and pain au chocolat. Gourmet cold and warm sandwiches are available too, with an interesting mix of toppings, costing between R35 – R45, as are salads at R65,
At the table a lunch menu was rolled up, offering a small selection of dishes, two soups, four main courses, and three desserts. Judy ordered the carrot and ginger soup (R60), which was presented with a splash over the rim, as if by accident, with a baby carrot as part of the composition, and topped with foam in the shape of a heart, the Blumenthal background showing. The other option was the German pea soup (R70), which Dennis brought by to show us, with smoked ham, potato fondant, pickled onions, and Knackwurst sausage, which I’ll try a next time.
I ordered the deconstructed chicken pie, beautifully presented in a pastry case, with a chicken breast and thigh, pickled confit baby onions, baby carrots, peas, and a thyme sauce, cleverly making the top piece of chicken look like pastry casing too (R80). Other main course options are Swiss Beef Stroganoff, described as consisting of risotto, mushrooms, and tomatoes (R105); Fish & Chips, the batter made with beer and vodka, and served with prawns and triple cooked chips (R95); and pork collar, being neck served with greens and a wholegrain mustard sauce (R95). Judy and I shared a lemon tart (R45), which disappointed in the plainness of its presentation, but was refreshing. We had been recommended the sticky toffee pudding (R35) by Dennis, which will have to wait for a next time. There is also a cheese plate of four cheeses served with honey, fruit. and a baguette (R55).
Dennis explained the bureaucratic procedures involved in getting the liquor licence, but most of the steps have been completed, and they are about two weeks away from being able to serve wine. The winelist will be short and sweet initially, with five whites (one of them will be Warwick The First Lady) and five reds. They serve Aquav water too. The biggest surprise was the music. The Germanness of the restaurant became really apparent when I heard the music, it being a Best of Hildegard Knef compilation, so different to any restaurant music one would hear locally, giving a feeling of nostalgia. Knef was an award-winning actress, song writer, and singer, and was known for her chansons in Germany as well as internationally, of which she recorded 320. I asked Dennis about the restaurant name, and he asked Chef Frank to explain it to us. He simply loves borage as a herb, which is available in Spring and Summer, and waxed lyrical about it as being ‘simple, elegant, and unique’, he said. The borage flower features in the restaurant logo.
The owners probably did not intend Borage Bistro to be described as German, but it is unavoidable that their German background comes through, being very subtle. Its service level and customer engagement is refreshing, not often experienced locally. This definitely is a restaurant to watch, being chic, good, and error free (other than the dessert plating) after being open for only three months, and given Chef Frank’s mentors! Both Dennis and Chef Frank are young at 30, and will mature as restaurateurs. I will go back to try the other lunch options, as well as their breakfast, of which I have read good reports.
POSTSCRIPT 18/8: I went back to Borage today to try their breakfast, and it felt different as Dennis had the day off, as he does on Mondays. Chef Frank is so introverted that he does not chat to his customers when Dennis is not there. The Eggs Benedict was very good, the rye toast being my request, as a replacement for the traditional English muffin. The dry cappuccino was not dry, despite an explanation, but was replaced correctly when feedback was requested. I loved the Marlene Dietrich music, but didn’t like the heavy (and loud) rock in-between.
POSTSCRIPT 22/10: From a service high at our first visit, it has usually been good when Dennis is there. However, today it all fell apart in that he could not assist in a simple request to help spoil a friend for her birthday breakfast, and ignored our table and all the other customers in the restaurant when he arrived. Admin is poor, with email and Whats App messages mostly ignored. It is such a shame, as the restaurant needs Dennis at front of house, his staff not yet being at top-notch service level.
Borage Bistro, 7B Ground Floor, Portside Building, corner Buitengracht/Bree/Hans Strydom Streets, Cape Town. Tel (021) 418-0992. www.borage.co.za. Twitter: @Borage_Cpt Moday – Friday 7h00 – 16h00, Saturday 7h00 – 13h00.
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage
wow “german fusion” thats a first and sounds pretty scary
Try it Darren from Hout Bay
As I wrote, the owners probably do not want the German label at all, but as a German I picked it up.
Such a pity they didn’t use the colour of the borage flower – it is a most beautiful shade of blue. It seems almost a waste to use only the name and the star-shape of the flower in the logo. Hopefully they will use the real thing in the restaurant. It’s one of my favourite herbs, so very pretty.
(Incidentally and just for trivia’s sake, the flower was the inspiration for Renaissance painters to often paint the Madonna’s robes in that exact shade).
The Chef loves it too Francoise.
The logo is all in silver, so the blue colour doesn’t show, but I am sure that as soon as it is in season Chef Frank will use borage in his plating.