My first encounter with Caffe Milano Pasticceria & Bar on Kloof Street, next door to ex hot-spot Manna, for lunch last week made me undecided as to how I felt about it, something that doesn’t happen very often. A return visit for breakfast on Saturday morning made me a firm supporter, enjoying the good food, the good service, and extreme friendliness.
I could not help but compare the new restaurant, the fifth that restaurant mogul Giogio Nava has opened in Cape Town (his other restaurants are 95 Keerom Street, Carne, Down South Food Bar, and Mozzarella Bar, and he is soon to open an events and entertainment venue in the old Art Deco Land Bank building in Queen Victoria Street) with Cassis Paris’ Salon de Thé in Newlands. Both restaurants focus on the patisserie side of their outlets, and both produce beautiful pastries. While they are freshly baked on the Caffe Milano premises from about 2h00 every morning, the Cassis Paris delicacies are baked at a central factory in Montague Gardens. The product display at Cassis Paris is more attractive, in that it has a larger pastry range, and they are neatly displayed in rows in the display cabinets, while those at Caffe Milano are placed on platters inside the display cabinet. As I went to eat after lunchtime, a number of the Caffe Milano pastries on the platters had been sold, and were not replenished, probably waiting for the fresh load to be baked the following day. Caffe Milano’s pastry display is inside the restaurant, whereas it is in a neighbouring shop at Cassis Paris, with no direct client connection. The service is definitely far better at Caffe Milano, and the food, based only on two items at each, definitely was better at Caffe Milano. Brand focus is far better at Cassis Paris. Cassis Paris has a marketing edge on Caffe Milano, in that it started brand building three years ago.
While I was well looked after by the waitress Zoe, I felt something was missing in the restaurant, especially given the rave reviews I had read by blogging colleagues. There is no music. There is perhaps too much open space inside the two restaurant sections, which does not create cohesion. The tables have wooden tops and with the wooden chairs they did not give me the feeling of the latest elegant Milanese design (Nava’s partner in the Mozzarella Bar, Matteo Amatruda, owns a+1 in The Foundry, an interior design shop specialising in Italian furniture and lighting, and I did not see his decor hand at Caffe Milano). The walls are painted a boring beige, and the staff tops are beige and branded, matched with brown aprons, a not very modern colour combination. Downlighters and ordinary looking round lamp shades light up the bar section and display cabinet area. I loved the large LavAzza wall poster (on the right), and would have liked to see more of this theme inside the restaurant – unfortunately the poster is hidden from the view of most clients sitting in the entrance section of the restaurant. I loved the cake displays in the windows. The menu (with winelist) looks boring and old-fashioned with little brown illustrations of food items subtly printed on it, which initially made me think that it had coffee stains on it. It also looks cheap, just being an A3 page which looks heavily used, given that the restaurant has only been open for a month. A white paper serviette is on the side plate and the knife and fork are pedestrian. The teaspoon is Italian designed, and looks far better quality. Zoe brought Morgenster olive oil and balsamic vinegar to the table, the latter bottle having only a last drop in it. A Robertson’s pepper grinder is on the table, as is an ordinary salt cellar.
Nava arrived and was active behind the counter for a while, but never appears to connect with his customers. Vanessa Quellec is the co-owner of Caffe Milano, and the pastry chef, having previously worked at The Roundhouse. She has worked in top restaurants in New York, and went to Germany and Italy before opening the restaurant, to learn more about bread baking. She had left for the day, I was told, as she works with the baking staff in the early hours of the morning. The chef in the kitchen is Brendon Stein, previously having worked at the River Café at Constantia Uitsig. The manager is Charlene van Heerden, and she was very helpful in proactively opening the pastry display cabinet, so that its glass door would not reflect in my photograph.
Breakfast is served until midday, and offers five options: Kloof Street Breakfast (bacon and eggs) at R45; Eggs Benedict R52, scrambled eggs cost R45, and R55 with bacon, and R 65 if served with salmon; French Toast made from cinnamon and pecan brioche costs R58, and a Muesli Mix with fruit and yoghurt R 55. Breakfast pastries such as croissants filled with almonds, chocolate, apricot jam, or cream, or served plain, cannoncino, bombolone as well as sticky buns, range in price between R10 – R18. “Filled” croissants can also be ordered, with mozzarella, parma ham or smoked Norwegian trout on them, costing R30 – R42. The LavAzza cappuccino is excellent, and costs R15 (Nava discounts it to R10 at his Mozzarella Bar down the road). I loved the neat LavAzza sugar sachet holder, which I have not seen elsewhere.
Lunch is served between midday and 16h00, a decent time range, and a bowl of toasted thin slices of some of the Caffe Milano breads is brought to the table. Only eleven lunch items are available, of which five are salads (avocado, smoked mozzarella, roasted chicken, calamari, and caprese), quite expensive at R 60 – R75. I ordered the La Tartare di Mazo (R70), being ‘hand chopped raw prime fillet dressed with Morgenster olive oil, onion, egg, capers and parsley’, and served with three slices of toast, a perfect accompaniment to the tartare, one of the best I have tasted, less fine than that which one can buy at Raith Gourmet. The presentation was rounded off by three half slices of lemon, each of these having a tiny amount of chopped onions, washed and chopped capers, and chopped parsley. When I did not recognise the dried and chopped capers, Zoe brought before and after capers to the table, to explain how they get to look so brown when washed, dried and chopped up. Parma ham and melon costs R95, smoked yellow fin tuna carpaccio R80, Norwegian salmon R85, beef carpaccio R70 and lasagne pasta, spinach and ricotta costs R65. There is only one ‘Dolci’ item on the menu, which is the Il Fondente “95”, from Nava’s 95 Keerom Street restaurant, which he also serves at the Mozzarella Bar. I suspect that most patrons will make their way to the display cabinet, and will chose a dessert from it, the selection including cannoncino (R10); mini apple tarts, lemon tarts, Sacher Torte, Coconut Daquoise, and Portuguese custard tarts costing R15, and lots more. I had a berry pannacotta, which was served in a beautiful glass, and I savoured its creaminess, whilst chatting to an American visitor sitting at a table across from me.
Cap Classiques on offer are Villiera (R40/R160), Graham Beck Brut (R45/R210), Graham Beck Brut Rosé (R50/R230), Steenberg Brut 1682 (R280) and Krone Borealis Brut Rosé (R270). Taittinger Brut costs R720, and Billecart Salmon Brut Rosé R950. No Shiraz is on the winelist, and generally the winelist is weighted to white wines. Wines by the glass include Graham Beck Rail Road Red (R28/R110), Villiera Cabernet Sauvignon (R35/R110), Dombeya Merlot (R48/R190), Felicite Pinot Noir (R41/R165), Kleine Zalze Sauvignon Blanc (R30/R120), Graham Beck Chardonnay (R45/R180), and Kloof Street Chenin Blanc (R28/R110).
One can go home with pastries and artisanal breads under one’s arm, as well as with a beautiful LavAzza cappuccino machine, ranging in price between R2800 – R 3300, depending on the colour scheme of the machine. LavAzza coffee pods can also be bought.
I had mixed feelings about my first visit to Caffe Milano, relative to the hype I had read, and saw no bar counter, as promised in the name of the restaurant. Perhaps the marriage between the restaurant and the pasticceria is not there yet. There is nothing on the menu to encourage one to peek at the pastry display cabinet, especially when one does not see it in the side room, and it would be nice to have the names of these items listed on the menu too, to see them as dessert options, and also to get to know their Italian names with English descriptions. Given Nava’s restaurant experience, I think the restaurant can stretch itself with a greater variety of Italian dishes over time, only two dishes on the lunch menu being cooked, and I have read that it may open for dinner in future. The pastries are good value, especially given their quality, but I felt that the lunch portion of steak tartare was expensive relative to the amount that was served. The food quality is excellent. The main attraction is the pastry section, and perhaps it could do with being fuller for most of the day, with pastry plates refilled, and more neatly presented, as per Cassis Paris. I will be back, and my next visit will be for breakfast. Parking is a challenge however, the popularity of Caffe Milano making it hard to find somewhere close by to park.
I had written the above (with the exception of the first paragraph) after my first visit for lunch, and my return visit clarified some things, and changed my mind about Caffe Milano completely. First, it was buzzing on Saturday morning, and I was lucky enough to get the last table, as well as to find a (creative) parking spot close by, so great is their popularity. Charlene, the Manager, welcomed me back like an old friend, and the waitress Zoe took over some of the service at my table too. The pastry display cabinet was fully packed, and all the trays were filled. The service was fast and efficient, despite the restaurant being so full. The scrambled egg (R48) I ordered was the most delicious and the most yellow I have ever eaten, served with lovely toasted rye bread. When I commented on the colour of the eggs, Charlene brought me an information booklet from Spier BD (for Biodiversity) Farm, whch is their supplier of eggs, chicken and beef. I was fascinated to read their claims that ‘pasture-fed’ animals are “freer than the free ranging” animals and birds, and therefore implies healthier to eat. The chickens, for example, spend 21 days on the pasture in ‘predator-proof houses’. They lay their eggs in ‘eggmobiles”. The pastures have 19 varieties of grasses and legumes, the brochure explains, and the farming is biodynamic. “The chickens are treated as animals, and not as production widgets”, it continues. Slaughtering is done by hand, it says, as ‘humanely as possible’. The chickens are not injected with brine, up to 25 % being allowed in South Africa.
The co-owner Giorgio Nava looked very cheffy in his white chef top, and was behind the counter the whole time that I was there. The biggest delight of all was Vanessa Quellec coming to say hello. She is very friendly and welcoming, and I loved her two pigtails, making her very down to earth. She kept checking that everything was in order, and showed me her new bread ‘baby’, a baguette epi (right), which she had baked for the first time that morning. She also compiled a list of her bread styles for me, which is not in the menu. On weekends she has a greater variety of breads available, and it includes the epi, milk bread rolls and sugar milk bread, in addition to the weekday range of ciabatta, baguettes, 60 % as well 100% rye sourdough, focaccia with sea salt and rosemary, and bialy. Vanessa comes from Minnesota originally, and worked in some hotshot New York restaurants, where she met PJ Vadis, the chef at The Roundhouse. He suggested that she work for Markus Farbinger at Il de Pain in Knysna, who is internationally known as one of the best bread bakers and pastry makers in the world, having worked in New York too, including at Le Cirque. Vanessa spent a year in Knysna, and says that Farbinger has changed breadmaking in South Africa (one of his other proteges is Fritz Schoon at De Oude Bank Bakkerij in Stellenbosch). Through her friendship with Vadis, she worked at The Roundhouse as pastry chef, until the opportunity arose to start Caffe Milano with Nava. While she waited for the restaurant to be ready for opening, she spent time at a sourdough bread and at a roll factory in Germany, and also at a bread factory in Italy, such is the love for her craft. She told me that she only uses the best ingredients, and recently introduced Valrhona chocolate from France to South Africa, using it for all her chocolate requirements, and also selling it in slabs.
Vanessa also told me that the menu will evolve, and this week the first additions to the menu will be introduced. They will focus on creating greater synergy between the pastry and bread side of the business, and the restaurant side, through the menu. Vanessa confirmed that opening in the evenings is on the cards, but not in the immediate future, as she wants her staff to be perfectly trained first. I thought they were doing very well for having only been open for a month.
POSTSCRIPT 13/3: I went back to Caffe Milano today, and enjoyed the most beautiful Eggs Benedict. I asked to have the bacon excluded, and Charlene spontaneously offered me avocado and mushrooms to replace it. The restaurant was so full, that I had to wait for a table. It had a wonderful buzz.
POSTSCRIPT 27/4: Vanessa Quellec leaves Caffe Milano in July, and is heading for Valrhona in France, where she will undergo training in the use of their chocolates. She plans to return to Cape Town as a representative of the company. Giorgio Nava will bring in an Italian pastry chef.
POSTSCRIPT 26/9: The Weekend Argus reports that Caffe Milano will open for dinner from November.
Caffe Milano Pasticceria & Bar, 153 Kloof Street, Gardens, Cape Town. Tel (021) 426-5566. www.caffemilano.co.za (The website is still under construction). Tuesday – Sunday 7h00 – 17h00.
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage