I went to the Babel restaurant at Babylonstoren just after it opened over a year ago, and was in awe with it, but never wrote about it at that time. Hearing about the opening of the Babel Tea House, it was a good opportunity to return to Babylonstoren, and I was lucky to obtain a table outside for lunch after visiting the Babel Tea House on Sunday.
Babylonstoren was awarded to ‘vryburgher’ Pieter van der Byl in 1690, and he started planting vineyards on the farm. The current gardens were inspired by the Company Gardens, which Jan van Riebeeck had developed to supply ships of the Dutch East India Company, and ‘hales back to the mythical garden of Babylon’, its website says. Patrice Tarravella from France, who owns a property with a garden layout which impressed the owners Karen Roos and Koos Bekker, was contracted to do the garden layout at Babylonstoren. The massive garden contains about 350 fruit and vegetable varieties.
The menu is most unusual – first, in terms of its presentation, written on a tiled white wall with a bull’s head painted on the side. It is also available in printed form for those patrons sitting outside, and the paper looks recycled, in a beige colour, added as a loose sheet within a cover with a decorative drawing of vegetables. The same drawing is also on the billfold. Second, the menu has two sections, one more traditional, in offering main course and dessert options, and the other something one has never experienced before, salads forming the base of the meal, to which one can add smoked trout (R45), home-made yoghurt cheese (R25), warm smoked chicken (R35), or cured moist biltong (R40). The Green salad costs R50, and contains green kohlrabi, green beans, cucumber, fennel, pear, celery, avocado, asparagus, and garden greens, served with a mint geranium and yoghurt dressing. The Red salad costs R55, and contains beetroot, watermelon, strawberry, radishes, plums, bloody sorrel, tomato berries and garden greens, served with a strawberry, pink peppercorn and rose dressing. The Yellow salad costs R60, and contains, carrots, granadilla, pineapple, paw paw, apricots, corn, butternut, gooseberry, melon, nectarines and garden greens, with a nasturtium, mustard and verjuice dressing. The menu introduction states: “At Babylonstoren we have luxury offerings of freshly picked fruit & vegetables, as nature intends, from our gardens. We would like to inspire you with our menu suggestions. Our gardeners will introduce you to new cultivars and our chefs will offer you new, exciting flavour combinations”.
The more standard menu contains main courses only, the idea being that one orders a salad as a starter, one assumes, and the choices are lightly smoked Franschhoek trout with strawberry and lemon thyme crème fraiche served with a strawberry and Babylonstoren viognier drizzle (R125). What the menu does not state is that the very large portion of trout is served with bowls of delicious and crispy hand cut chips, tzatziki and carrots, a tamarillo (which is a tree tomato but tastes of peach too), a baked onion topped with herb pesto, cauliflower in the most delicious goat’s cheese white wine cream sauce containing shredded roasted hazelnuts, herb pesto, and two slices of bread, an absolute feast and far too much to eat. There is also a choice of 300 gram of sirloin (R135) or fillet (R155), served with calamata olive and shiraz butter sauce and olive salt. Lamb cutlets served with gooseberry, lemon, caper and mint pesto and fresh pear julienne cost R140 for 300 gram. An artichoke tart with tamarillo, caramelised onion, chevin, fresh bloody sorrel and basil costs R85. For dessert one chooses between a type of taste: Bitter is a white chocolate and bay leaf crème brûleé with warm almond brittle and almond wafer (R50); Sour is an apple, lime, yoghurt, mint and pea popsicle with radish carpaccio (R35); Savoury is a gorgonzola soufflé, served with beetroot infused cream, fresh apple and walnut as well as a Cabernet Sauvignon drizzle (R45); Sweet is a chilled plum soup served with beetroot sorbet and crystallised basil (R40). Wines by the glass are the first Babylonstoren wines, at R20 for Chenin Blanc and Dry Rosé, R33 for Shiraz, and R40 for Viognier.
On Friday and Saturday evenings dinner is served, at R300 per head for a 4-course meal, and the menu is varied for each dinner. If the restaurant picks up that one has been there for dinner before, they will make sure that the menu is different to the one experienced on the previous visit. The dinners appear to be excellent value, and Chef Simoné Rossouw printed out three past dinner menus, to give me an idea of what she serves: a ‘petal salad’, and a starter of beetroot carpaccio with goat’s cheese mousse and yellow plum relish, or even a nectarine-poached crayfish tail with cauliflower and vanilla puree, mizuna and crisp leeks. For the main course a choice of meat (probably a 300 gram steak, or lamb shank), fish (trout with Kei apple hollandaise and eureka lemon) and vegetarian (Gorgonzola soufflé with apple and walnut relish, or grilled parsnip with poached duck egg and gratinated blue cheese) are offered. For dessert one could expect a nectarine and smoked chilli tart tatin, a plum sorbet, scarlet peach mousse and an almond crisp; or a peach brioche with cardamom and citrus-scented ice cream; or a hazelnut meringue with Port-poached plums, white chocolate yoghurt and fresh berries. It is the innovative dinner menu that could earn Babel its first Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant listing in 2012. Chef Simoné sat with me for a short while, being very busy, and explained that they serve ‘honest food’ at Babel, their menus designed around what they can harvest from the garden, and even having to buy in produce on occasion, if the garden produce is not yet ripe. She sources her meat from Tomi’s abattoir in Hermon, and they have their hens laying eggs, but not enough to meet their demand. Babel Restaurant is ‘inspired’ by ‘food fundi’ Maranda Engelbrecht, who previously owned Manna Epicure on Kloof Street, says the Babylonstoren website.
I sat outside in the courtyard, these tables being unreserved, and arrived early enough to book one last-minute. A cooling water spray system has been installed, helping to cool one off on the hot Boland days. The Reserved sign was put in a wreath made of woven twigs, no doubt from the farm, and they are sold in the Babylonstoren shop too. The shop stocks an interesting collection of Panama and crocheted hats, fig and brandy paste, spiced plum jam, yellow plum chutney, strawberry and sage jam, scented candles, books (including the book ‘South’ by Karen Roos and Annemarie Meintjies, beautifully ‘wrapped’ with a ribbon), wines from the Simonsberg terroir, toffees, rusks, fresh produce from the Babylonstoren garden (carrots, rhubarb, beetroot and cauliflower), green fig preserve, Boeremeisjes, strawberry and lemon cordial, pickles, and lots more. Next to the shop is the Library, a quiet space in which one can sit and read or page through the extensive collection of books. The bathroom is done in cream tiles with a green line, and reminded me of my school facilities, yet the basins are very modern.
The service was slow, with the waiter serving outside struggling to serve all our needs. It was noticeable how many group tables of 6 – 10 guests there were, so the service speed probably was less important to them. The serviette was tiny, compared to the generous size of the serviettes at the Babel Tea House. Impressive was the waiter’s knowledge about the exotic fruit and vegetables served, the preparation thereof, and of the garden. The visit to Babylonstoren was memorable, in seeing the new Babel Tea House, meeting up with Koos Bekker again, also chatting to the very humble Karen Roos, and enjoying the outstanding food at Babel Restaurant.
Babel Restaurant, Babylonstoren, R45, next to Backsberg on road to Franschhoek. Tel (021) 863-3852. www.babylonstoren.com Twitter: @Babylonstoren Wednesday – Sunday lunch, Friday and Saturday dinner. R10 entrance fee.
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage