I was not sure what to expect from Dear Me restaurant, which opened about three weeks ago in the city centre, from its name. When it got a thumbs up from Michael McKenzie, whose judgement I value, we decided to have lunch there last week.
From outside on Longmarket Street one cannot appreciate what creativity is inside the three storey building, having a demure canopy with the Dear Me branding on the outside, and that is it. One enters a spacious open plan restaurant, which leads to a small deli space as well as the counter on which the coffees are made by barista Nash. The overall colour scheme is green, with green plastic moulded chairs, and a fun green flower pattern running from the bottom of the wall, even painted over mirror tiles. Magazine and newspaper holders have been erected onto the columns, a clever use of space. Even more interesting are the herb holders attached to the ceiling, each holder with a different herb, which can be pulled down, and watered every 10 days or so, the holders being cleverly designed in that they have their own irrigation system. Similarly chef Vanessa Marx can cut some herbs for her dishes from these holders. This clearly is a ‘green’ restaurant in more ways than one. The wall alongside the staircase is a rough brick one, the unplastered effect adding an unusual dimension to the restaurant.
Dear Me and its upstairs bar Tjing Tjing belong to ex-accountant Ilze Koekemoer, very humble about her ownership of this beautifully restored 181 year-old building, which is predominantly painted in grey. Ilse utilised South Africa’s übermaster interior decorator Francois du Plessis (he does all Newmark Hotel properties, for example, the Queen Victoria Hotel being his latest project). Ilze says she always wanted to have a restaurant. She said that she can cook, but that Vanessa does it better. On the second floor is a little seating area with couches, as well as a boardroom table, with chairs as well as a couch around it for seating, over which a collection of plates has been hung. A large function room in white, including the flooring, the curtaining and walls, leads off the landing. It is used for Thursday evening dinners, and for events such as wine tastings and art exhibitions. I loved the crispness of the green chairs, the same as in the restaurant, in contrast to the white. On this level is a most impressive large painting by Matthew Hindley, which one sees as one comes up the staircase. Hindley is a graduate of the Michaelis School of Fine Art, and spends time in Berlin regularly. He has been a disciple of ‘Gesamtkunst’, combining painting, sculpture and drawing, writes Wikipedia. I was particularly impressed by a smaller painting by the same artist, which was hung in an alcove which was unpainted and looked unfinished, but so by design, and brought out the best of the painting. On the third level is the Chinese-inspired Tjing Tjing bar, which opens at 16h00, and at which tapas dishes are served when the roller doors of Dear Me have closed after the lunch service. Clients access the bar from the restaurant entrance, by going upstairs. The Tokyo wall in this room attracts attention, filled with photographs of a recent visit to Tokyo by Ilze and her husband, and over a part of which the designer has placed a logo. This loft room is open plan, and has an interesting wood ceiling. It opens to an outside balcony, with pizza oven, and here one can sit on warm evenings. The name Tjing Tjing is a ‘South Africanised’ version of the words one uses to toast one’s friends when having a drink, Ilse explained.
There is a strong presence of ex-staff from Caveau in Newlands: Chef Vanessa’s ex-link to this restaurant is a surprise, given the poor image Caveau has, and her wonderful creativity at Dear Me. She worked for Pete Goffe-Wood previously at his PGW Eat and Kitchen Cowboys, and then worked in Europe as well as in London. Returning to Cape Town, she worked at Cassia on Nitida wine estate, before joining Caveau. What is interesting is that Vanessa is a diabetic too, and is working closely with the Netcare Christiaan Barnard Memorial Hospital just up the road in the setting up of a Diabetes Unit. What was impressive is that the menu offers Dear Me guests vegan, lactose-free, gluten-free and starch-free options, and diabetics can be catered for as well, if Vanessa is informed. The very efficient waitress Rumby, and the very knowledgeable wine hostess Ronel, are from Caveau Newlands too. The waitress wore a grey overall with yellow piping and pockets, a refreshing break from the black and white waitress dress one normally sees. I liked Ilze’s pants, fitting into the decor theme both in terms of design and colour.
The menu feels crisp and new, and this is because the menu is changed daily, with the date identified. It has a full page introduction of its ethos: “Our aim is to provide you with high quality food reflecting our core values of integrity, respect and diversity in an informal and accessible environment”. Recognising that not all patrons have the same requirements in what they eat, Dear Me states that “our menu is designed to be flexible enough to always provide options for individual dietary requirements and our kitchen has a can-do flexible attitude”, which we experienced on our visit. Only fresh and seasonal produce is used, and they follow “artisanal principles and will prepare all our food naturally to ensure maximum benefit to our customers”, preserving nutrients and ensuring goodness of the food that is served. Dear Me has chosen smaller suppliers who share the commitment of Ilse and Vanessa to ‘sustainable and ethical food production practices’. The sustainability extends to another ‘green’ side of the restaurant, and it is conscious of its carbon footprint and impact it may have on the environment, and “wherever and whenever we can, we reduce, reuse and recycle our waste”.
The last sentence in the introduction explains the origin of the unusual name of the restaurant: “You should be able to eat with us every day and never feel guilty about compromising your personal food value and beliefs – the ideal was the inspiration for our name, Dear Me”.
The wooden tables have no table cloths, but quality material serviettes. The cutlery is by Pintino from Italy. I loved the presentation of the wholewheat and sourdough bread, wrapped in a napkin and held together with an old-fashioned wooden peg, presented on a beautiful green lotus-shaped plate. Nine main courses were offered, and six of these could be ordered as starter portions too. Each item on the menu, bar the soup, had a wine suggestion, with a bottle and wine-by-the-glass price. Six of the dishes were indicated as having a health alternative. Michael ordered the roast sweet potato, caramelised onion and goats chevre tart (R45) as a starter portion, very creamy, and the salad served with it had a good dressing, while I had organic Elgin tomato soup, basil and pecerino croute (R35) to start, perfect for a rainy day.
For his main course Michael had grilled spatchcock quail (R110), and proclaimed it to be delicious, to be full of flavour, and none of the flavours jarred, he said. I had slow roasted free-range pork loin served with butternut fritters, wilted greens, crispy sage and cooked apples (R98), the pork being somewhat chewy. It was served with a very serious looking knife. Other menu options were organic baby fig and shaved bresoula salad (R58/R78); home-cured trout gravadlax (R65/R85); grilled aubergine, curried split pea vinaigrette and feta salad (R46/R66); seared Lourensford trout (R105); and Chalmar beef sirloin (R125).
I could not resist trying the desserts, even though they are relatively expensive compared to the good value starter/main course prices. I managed to encourage Michael to share a quince and apple crumble topped with shaved almonds, with almond milk ice cream and walnut praline (R50). We were surprised to be generously served a dessert each, but to be charged for one only, mine coming with diabetes-friendly ice cream, proactively organised by Chef Vanessa, without us having asked for it. I found the crumble to be a little dry, but liked the quince and apple combination to which raisins had been added, and the ice cream tasted as good as that which Michael would have been served. Other dessert options were a chocolate torte (R60), lemon posset (R45), rhubarb soft-serve (R35), a selection of local cheeses (R65), and chocolate truffles can be ordered at R10 each. Nash came to our table once I received my cappuccino (R16), and he spontaneously talked to us about the coffee, which comes from the Espresso Lab at the Old Biscuit Mill, where he did his barista training. My cappuccino was made from a blend of organic coffee beans from Ethiopia, Brazil and Panama. He said that the blend makes a full-bodied, distinctive tasting coffee, as the beans are not over-roasted, comparing it to food that should not be overcooked. There are no additives or pesticides used in the production of the coffee beans, Nash assured us.
The two-page Breakfast menu looks wonderful, and is presented on a pay-for-what-you-choose basis, which is innovative and rarely offered. Different muesli options, including the wonderful Bircher muesli, cost R 30, and one can add fruit (R18), and/or lactose-free or low lactose yoghurts at R8 each. A fruit plate costs R35. Porridge costs R18, to which can be added seeds or nuts (R8), or fruit (R18). French Toast comes in three options, ranging from R35 – R50. Boiled eggs and soldiers cost R22, to which can be added bacon and vegetables, costing R18 each. Poached eggs cost R45, to which can be added hollandaise sauce (R8). Eggs Benedict, Eggs Florentine and truffled scrambled eggs are also available, the latter costing R70. Plain scrambled/boiled/poached/fried eggs cost R10 only, while a basic omelette costs R15, to which one can add bacon, charcuterie, smoked trout, anchovies, mushrooms, spinach, capers, avocado and more, the cost of each specified.
Dear Me offers its patrons free filtered tap water. I liked the wine storage area underneath the staircase, and the attractive impactful storage containers. The wine prices range from R20/R77 for Cape Atlantic Sauvignon Blanc 2010, to R68/R270 for Glen Carlou Pinot Noir 2009 on the menu. The winelist is bound in a leather holder, and looks impressive. Each page has the Dear Me logo on it. There are eight MCC’s, ranging from R43/R170 for Simonsig Kaapse Vonkel to R455 for the Cederberg Blanc de Blanc. Graham Beck Brut Rosé (R49/R195) and Colmant Brut Reserve (R65/R260) are also served by the glass. There are five Shiraz choices, Rickety Bridge costing R42/R165 and Migliarina R300. Tamboerskloof Shiraz is also available by the glass, at R49/R195.
Dear Me is one of a number of new exciting restaurants to open, where the focus is strongly on the interior, making a strong visual impression, and allowing one to escape from a busy and stressful outside world. There was nothing to fault at Dear Me at all, and one could not believe that the restaurant had only been open for two weeks when we ate there. While it is the type of brasserie at which one would want to pop in regularly, parking (or lack of) during the week is a deterrent, but one is advised to park in the Netcare hospital parking garage on Loop Street. Dear Me is refreshingly different, admirably green, admirably health-conscious, good value for money, and very friendly and welcoming.
POSTSCRIPT 4/4: I returned to Dear Me today, to finalise the winelist and Breakfast write-up, which I had missed last week, probably in talking too much! I have added it above. I had Chef Vanessa’s refreshing Caprese Salad starter portion, with Buffalo Mozzarella and fresh basil (R55).
POSTSCRIPT 14/4: I returned for Thursday dinner, with my colleague Marianna, so that she can recommend it to our guests. Interior designer Francois du Plessis was having dinenr there, and came for a chat. He told me that Gregor Jenkins made the dining table upstairs, and he also crafted the tables at Dash restaurant at the Queen Victoria Hotel. One pays R 240 for three courses, which is excellent value, as an amuse bouche and a palate cleanser are brought to the table as well, making it a five-course meal in fact. If wine is added per course, it costs R 350. Five courses cost R 350, and R 480 paired with wine. Ronel looked after us most of the time, the first time that I had met her. Four choices of starter and main course are offered, and three desserts. For her starter Marianna had the Tataki of yellow-fin tuna with pickled cucumber and ginger, oshi toshi and soy, while I chose the Wild mushroom risotto with parmesan and truffle oil, both outstanding. The palate cleanser was a thick and creamy ginger and fig sorbet. Marianna’s main course was Asian broth, kob, shitake mushrooms, noodles, lemongrass, ginger and chilli, a colourful and tasty dish. I was most impressed with my Chalmar beef fillet, tender to cut, loved the crisp green beans and sand-less spinach with the most unusual glühwein-poached pears. I didn’t like the gorgonzola cream on the steak, finding it too overpowering and rich. Marianna had Buttermilk panna cotta with roasted rhubarb compote for dessert, while I chose the cheese platter, which I was less happy with, mainly due to the very dry and hard Melba toast. I enjoyed a glass of Rickety Bridge’s Shiraz 2008 for R42, and had a small taste of port with the cheese, with the compliments of the restaurant. The service was attentive and informative. A surprise was the noisiness of the downstairs restaurant, which Francois said he is working on to contain.
POSTSCRIPT 16/2: I have received an e-mail, announcing a new Pantry addition to Dear Me, with home-made breads, also available in wheat-free and gluten free variations, diabetic-friendly treats, relishes, cookies, buttermilk rusks, muffins, almond torte, and macaroons
Dear Me restaurant, 165 Longmarket Street, Cape Town. Tel (021) 422- 4920. www.dearme.co.za (The website reflects the green interior design theme, and contains the most current menu. There is no Image Gallery to reflect Chef Vanessa’s lovely food. The winelist is not on the website. There is no information about the Tjing Tjing Bar). Twitter: @DearMeFoodWorld. Monday – Friday 7h00 – 15h00, dinner on Thursday evenings. Tjing Tjing opens at 16h00, until late.
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.comTwitter: @WhaleCottage