A Twitter friendship with co-owner Wilhelm Kuehn, and a challenge from him to visit the restaurant to do a review, was the reason for returning for a meal at Jardine Restaurant in the Cape Town city centre, after 18-months since the previous visit.  

Jardine Restaurant makes me think that it is somewhat ‘schizophrenic’ – a fine-dining ex-Top 10 restaurant, which also has an informal take-away at its Jardine Bakery section, and an informal sit-down lunch at tables and benches outside the door on the pavement.   Restaurant founder and co-owner George Jardine has opted out of city living, to start a new country restaurant on Jordan wine estate in Stellenbosch, and now only cooks at Jardine Restaurant ”2 or 3 times a week”, I am told, but the restaurant still carries his name.   Wilhelm tells me that Waterkloof and Tokara were alternate options George Jardine had evaluated for his new restaurant.

Jardine has handed over the chef reins to Eric Bulpitt, who has worked at the Winchester Mansions Hotel, The Showroom, Ledbury in London, and at Jardine Restaurant with George.  Kuehn was a lawyer, and now is the General Manager, keeping a fine eye on things upstairs, walking the floor to check that all runs smoothly.

Jardine Restaurant had to face the humiliation of falling from 3rd place in the Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant list of 2009 to between 12 – 20th place last November.  One does not know if the judges felt that things had slipped, or because they felt that an award cannot go to a chef when he is not cooking there all the time any more – Jardine’s move to the winelands had been widely announced.   Kuehn says the Top 10 award result last year created introspection, but Bulpitt’s new menu for the restaurant is drawing in regulars.   I heard tourists, and recognised Howard Godfrey, MD of @home, as patrons, on an almost-full Thursday evening. 

When one arrives one is met by Johan.  I had not booked, but he made a plan to make a table available.  I told him I would be out by 9 pm, but Jardine is not for fast in-and-out dining, mainly because the menu requires one to have a minimum of two courses, and I therefore only left after about two hours. 

The downstairs section has never made an impact, and is set up as a bar and lounge.   Upstairs the restaurant space has a central middle area, and tables against the windows, separate from the rest.   It is not a particularly attractive space decor-wise, only a pop-art painting by Richard Scott on the far wall creating a splash of colour, one of a few artworks on the walls, coming from Worldart.   A functional shelf holds functional cutlery holders and crockery.  Close by, an old-fashioned cash register has an untidy collection of paperwork next to it.  The tables have white tablecloths, and attractive and comfortable brown leather chairs. I sense a woman’s hand is lacking in the decor of the room (as I did at the Warwick tasting room recently) – all is very functional here.   The chef and his kitchen crew of five work in a very small space, preparing each dish.  Chef Eric is in the centre, finishing things off. 

Wilhelm comes to chat and we talk about Twitter, other restaurant Twitterers, and the soon-to-open nearby Cookery School.  A waitress brings the menu, printed on strong board, and it changes day by day.   One chooses two (R 230) or three courses ( R 260), a 5 course chef’s menu (R 400) or a wine pairing menu (R350), the last two options not being explained by the waitress.   A side salad is specified as costing R 45 extra, and other (unspecified) sides at R 35.

The menu choice was five starters and mains, and four desserts.  The starters seemed esoteric (‘Evita and Princess figs’ -two varieties of figs, I was told and ’vegetable patch’) or too fishy (oysters, mussels and salmon) for my taste.   Main choices were line fish, Frazerburg lamb leg, seared Kroondal duck breast, rump, and grilled elf mushrooms.  

An amuse bouche is served, almost over the top and ’airy-fairy’, very foamy in general, and is meant to be an olive tapenade covered by a “tomato spoon” (missed the tomato taste), white pepper and a basil leaf.  It is extremely light and aerated, and I am brought another because the air will have escaped while Wilhelm and I talk too much.  I love duck, and was surprised when it was served – I call it “deconstructed”, with four little bits of duck, and little portions of “parfait en croute, celeriac, pomegranate and shallot” spread out on a wooden platter.   The tiniest of tiny flowers, nuts and other ingredients are sprinkled across the plate.   Had I not ordered a side of the most wonderful crunchy green beans sprinkled with flaked almonds, I would have still been hungry after the main course.   The parfait is outstanding, the little that is offered.

The dessert options were chocolate torte, citrus tomato minestrone, pineapple souffle flambe, and a selection of South African cheeses (gorgonzola, camembert, labare-style cheese, ash-rind goat’s cheese and gruyere served with walnut toast and watermelon konfyt).   The cheese platter, served on an extremely heavy granite slab, was an excellent choice, and was an enjoyable slow eat.  It was decorated with the finest apple slices, always great with cheese, and slices of strawberry and raspberries, as well as nuts and blueberries.

The waitress was very efficient in explaining the menu items, but each item has so many components, that when the dish is brought to the table, one has long forgotten what exactly the chosen dish entails (Opal Lounge has the same problem).  But the waitress was patient in running through the ingredients again.  One irritation is the waitress offering her personal recommendation of the duck - I know that many restaurants do not allow their staff to eat the restaurant’s food, so I always reject such “recommendations”, as tastes do differ.  I chose the duck, because I love duck, not because she recommended it.

The winelist is attractively presented in a brown leather cover, matching the chairs.   It is an extensive list, separating bubblies, whites and reds, each sub-divided into varietals and blends, followed by two pages of mainly French and some Spanish wines.    Wines by the glass are reasonably priced – a Villiera by-the-glass costs R 40, a Tribout R 120.   A Jardine (made by Paradyskloof) Unwooded Chardonnay costs R 25, a Lammershoek Roulette Blanc R 40.  The La Motte Millenium and Sterhuis cost R 45 each (for 125 ml).  For the tasting menu one can order 60 ml portions of wines too.   Billecart-Salmon champagne is served in various options, ranging from R 950 – R 7 000 a bottle.  Two Graham Beck Cap Classiques cost R 410, the VIlliera R 190.   Red wine options number 35, and range from R 95 for a MAN Shiraz to R 990 for a Muemve Raats De Compostella 2006; 27 white wine options range from the Jardine Unwooded Chardonnay at R 100 to R 780 for the Platter 2010 White Wine of the Year, the Sadie Palladius.  French wines start at R 1 600 per bottle, to R 8 600 for a Chateau Lafitte-Rothschild 1995.

The sommelier Jaap-Henk Koelewijn is told that I have ordered a glass of La Motte Millenium 2007, and that I would like it poured at the table (I distrust wine-by-the glass service).   Johan tells me that they have actually found a bottle of 2006 – what luck!   Koelewijn comes to the table, does not show me the bottle, as I ask of him twice, and just carries on pouring the small portion. I ask him if I may not taste the wine.  He retorts that he has done so already!   There was no “hello, my name is Jaap, I am the sommelier, let me tell you some more about the La Motte Millenium…” from him.  Why is that sommeliers have such attitude and arrogance (like at Bosman’s and Reubens in Franschhoek)?   The minute I started the cheese platter, he was back to offer me another top-up of the wine or a port.   No question was asked whether I had enjoyed the first glassful.   The empty glass was probably taken to communicate that it was good!  I had to ask for a cappuccino to accompany the coffee, as this was not offered as a beverage option.

The lunch menu changes regularly too, and that of 11 March had four starters (oysters and mussels as per the dinner menu) and two salads, 3 mains (line fish, rump and mushrooms, as per the dinner menu), and 3 desserts (chocolate torte and cheese as per the dinner menu).  Here the prices look reasonable, and one can order per dish.    The sums do not add up if you see the lunch prices for individual menu items, compared to paying for 2 or more dinner courses.  Wilhelm says the lunch menu dishes are simpler.   

If Wilhelm had not come to chat, I would have left without the “connection” to Jardine Restaurant.  There is some very soft music, so soft that it is inaudible.   It gets progressively hotter in the room, as the airconditioning is on but the windows are open, defeating the function of the aircons.   A fan is brought from around the corner, and makes a difference.

Jardine Restaurant, corner Bree and Bloem Street, Cape Town.  Tel (21) 424-5640.          www.jardineonbree.co.za.  Twitter @JardineCapetown.  Open for dinner Monday – Saturday evenings, lunch is served Wednesdays – Fridays.

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