After spending four hours at the La Motte wine estate, during the Franschhoek Uncorked Festival on Sunday, I had to pinch myself to check that the wonderful time I had experienced there had been real.  The pinnacle of the La Motte experience is the new Pierneef à La Motte restaurant, which opened on Saturday.  It is sure to make the Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant list in 2011/12, and gives Franschhoek a new jewel in its Gourmet Capital crown.   It pays homage to the master artist JH Pierneef, and to the historical roots of South African cuisine, presented with a contemporary twist.

I had booked a few days earlier, and found that one of the weaknesses of the new restaurant was the automated switchboard, which put me through to the selected option for the restaurant, but no one answered.  Eventually I got through to the main La Motte switchboard, and a most helpful lady took my booking, first requesting that it be done in writing.  This resulted in my booking having been made for a table indoors.  I asked Hetta van Deventer, the culinary consultant, if I could sit outside.  She did relent eventually, and I couldn’t have wished for a better table, on a wooden deck opening onto a lawn area shaded by mature oak trees, budding with the freshest green leaves.   The restaurant is green in many respects, and I was impressed with how theming was carried through into many different aspects of the restaurant.  The furniture outside almost looks custom-made, with a green woven-effect, giving it a nature-look.  The placemat was in the shape of a vine leaf.  The silver container had a green glass candle holder (as well as beautiful hand-blown glass bottles for the olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and little silver salt and pepper grinders).

The Pierneef name and theme comes from the priceless collection of 44 oils and other works by JH Pierneef (1886 – 1957), which La Motte bought from Pierneef’s 82-year old daughter Marita, who now lives in the United Kingdom.  The work is displayed in a special new building, housing the Rupert Museum, a general art gallery, and the Pierneef art gallery.   Given that Pierneef is synonymous with the pinnacle of South African art, La Motte honoured the artist by naming the restaurant after him, to demonstrate that they wish to follow his high standards.

The Pierneef name and art has also been carried over into a new range of La Motte wines, called the Pierneef Collection. Some of the collection of 1957 Pierneef lino cuts, which Hanli Rupert had received from her father Dr Anton Rupert years ago, have been used for the back labels for these wines.

The restaurant manager Simon Chennells, a charming young man, brought the menu and the winelist to the table.   They are obviously brand new, and look pristine, with bound covers, as if they are books.   Inside the menu is a photograph of Pierneef and his daughter from 1929, and the same photograph has been printed on the back of the high-back chairs standing at the kitchen counter.   The restaurant is large, divided into the kitchen section, which opens onto the outside seating deck, allowing one to see Chef Chris Erasmus (previously with Le Quartier Francais and Ginja) and his team hard at work in the super shiny stainless steel kitchen.   Pierneef’s work has been printed onto the lampshades hanging over the kitchen counter.  The interior restaurant section is separated from the kitchen, and is dominated by three chandeliers from which dangle crockery from the Dutch East India Company, which had brought Jan van Riebeeck to Cape Town.  The chandeliers are in blue and white, orange and white, and black, white and gold.  La Motte had bought the valuable crockery collection from a museum, and had the chandeliers custom-made for the restaurant.   Christo Barnard is the creative interior consultant who did the decor.

I had the incredible luck that Hein Koegelenberg, the CEO of La Motte, came to chat with me, despite it  being a busy restaurant day.  Other than having invited Hein to our next Food & Wine Bloggers’ Club meeting on 22 September, and seeing him in July at Jordan Restaurant with George Jardine,  I had not spoken to him for more than 5 minutes before.  I do not think he knew who I was, and he therefore impressed me even more by sharing his passion for the ‘new’ La Motte so extensively, and even introduced me to his wife Hanli.  No documentation is available yet for the ‘new’ La Motte, which is a pity, and the gems of information I received from Hein were therefore doubly precious.   Hein impressed upon me that it was early days for the restaurant, and requested that I give him feedback about the menu and winelist.   He will read it in this review for the first time.  Hein was such a gracious restaurant owner, that he came to check on me regularly, repeating his request for feedback.   One is impressed with Hein’s warmth and passion, and even more so that he did not mention the cost of the project at all.  This is not about the income that will be generated for La Motte – this is a project that brings pride in South African cuisine art, the return of the Pierneef collection to South Africa being the foundation of the restaurant, with the related buildings housing the Farm Shop, art galleries and museum, as well as the Tasting Centre, and creating what Hein calls a ‘tourism destination’.

The restaurant being new, word had spread about it, and eating there led to a reunion of the most wonderful people during my lunch there.  First, I saw Cyrillia of Bizerca Bistro, who hugged me as if I was a long lost friend.  Then I saw Bernard and Petro Immelman, an old PR client, who own Clouds wine and wedding estate next to Delaire Graff in the Helshoogte Pass.  Then, the biggest surprise of all, was when John Fourie approached my table, and asked if I was “Christine”, a name I was called many moons ago before I shortened it.  I recognised John’s voice, and he reminded me that he had been a Marketing student of mine at Damelin twenty years ago!   He was there with a group of Harley friends, and invited me to join their table.  The whole table tasted bits of my food (they were having sandwiches and wine), especially loving my dessert.

I never had a chance to try the Portuguese rolls and ciabatta, served with farm-style butter, which got left behind on the original table I sat at.  The menu opens onto a welcome page: “Welcome to Pierneef à La Motte Restaurant.  We have pleasure in hosting you and sharing with you our restaurant’s association with one of South Africa’s greatest masters.”  Homage is paid to both Pierneef, and to his daughter Marita, who has become a friend of the Koegelenbergs. ”Pierneef’s creativity in portraying the beauty of the South African landscape and architecture has served as a model for this restaurant’s creativity in offering cuisine inspired by centuries of variations on cooking – a unique presentation known as Cape Wine-lands Cuisine”.  After extensive research into the origin of South Africa’s cuisine, or “boerekos”, from Dutch, Flemish, German and Huguenot settlers about 350 years ago, and British settlers 150 years later, about 200 recipes were developed for use in the restaurant over time. The cuisine style really is meant to be “Boland Boerekos”, and the input from Professor Hetta Claassens, author of “History of South African Food”, was sought to select the recipes. Hein says international chefs will be invited to translate these recipes into a contemporary context.  TV cooking will be introduced at the kitchen counter.

The menu is short and sweet, with a choice of 5 starters, 6 mains and 6 desserts. It is signed by Hein and Hanneli, reflecting their personal involvement. Starters are reasonably priced, Koningsbrood soup costing R35, served with braised veal knuckle ’karmenaadjie’, roasted bone marrow and pot brood; up to R57 for the Trio of boerbok terrine served with roasted swede puree, apple and sultana chutney, and saffron yoghurt balls.  Other options are a Cape Bokkom Caesar salad, Russian fish pie, and Pumpkin, ginger and walnut cheesecake, two of these being vegetarian-friendly.  The mains peak at R 120 for a Fragrant fish curry, and other options include a roasted endive and goat’s cheese tart, Pumpkin seed and almond crusted Franschhoek salmon trout, Pomegranate glazed smoked pork belly, and Impala neck and stewed prune skilpadjie.  I had the Laquered smoked soutribbetjie, served with an interesting combination of pickled tongue, dried pear kluitjies, verjuice poached pear, wilted boerboon shoots and parsnips, and crispy lamb’s liver biltong.  I was fascinated by the biltong, and could not see it on my plate when served.  When asking the manager, he took the plate to the chef, and returned it with more of it - it was finely chopped and sprinkled over the dish, and gave it a distinctive taste, even when chopped to pieces smaller than peppercorns.  The soutribbetjie had a strong smoky braai taste, and overall it was a most unusual combination of tastes.   The menu does not describe the very South African terms, and this could be a weakness.  I also am surprised about the menu’s spelling of “Wine-lands”.  I would think that the information provided by Hein could be added to the menu, to help one appreciate the effort that he and his team have made in bringing cuisine history back to La Motte.

The dessert I chose was called “Breakfast”, a surprise dessert costing R65.  I cheated by asking a waiter to let me into the secret, so that I could choose whether I should have a starter or a dessert.  It was a most wonderful wacky selection of breakfast foods served in a dessert style – miniature banana muffin, ‘Cornflake’ brittle, yoghurt pannacotta, citrus sorbet balls, berry yoghurt sorbet and ice cream, freshly made “Fruit Loops”, all beautifully presented on muesli crumble.  Desserts seem expensive, but an incredible amount of work has gone into the creation of these.  Other dessert options are Brandy chocolate pudding, Engelen kos, Apple and cinnamon tart, as well as two cheese selections, one of them being goat’s cheese only.   My only criticism is that the ‘Breakfast’ dessert seemed very modern and did not fit the historic foundation of the menu.

Children are catered for as well, with chicken fritters and chips, and fish nuggets and chips, at R30.  One is not obliged to eat off the menu, a blackboard offering chicken and lamb sandwiches, at R35 and R45, respectively, using the lovely breads baked and sold in the new Farm Shop.

Hein told me that they grow grapes for their wines in Bot River, Elim, Stellenbosch, Paarl, Macasser, Darling, and in Franschhoek.  In making their wines, they decide which flavours they want each of their wines to have, and therefore use grapes from the terroirs of their different farms in the making of the wine.  For example, the La Motte Shiraz is made to give white pepper, blackberry and red berry flavours.  For the opening of this wonderful facility, the La Motte Hanli R was launched – a 2005 Shiraz that Hein says is in the league of the best Shirazes in the world.  Only 3000 bottles were produced, of which about a third were given away as gifts to the VIP guests who had attended dinners earlier that week, a priceless gift, given that the wine retails at $100!

The winelist runs to 13 pages, and includes the full range of The La Motte Collection and The Pierneef Collection wines, as well as the La Motte MCC Brut (at R235) and the Hanli R, at R845.  Two pages of “La Motte Vinoteque Wines” follow, and do not explain which wines these are, and only vintages and detailed flavour descriptions, for Shiraz, Millennium, and Cabernet Sauvignon, are provided.  Champagnes range from R600 for Pommery, to R965 for Billecart-Salmon Rosé.   Ten Franschhoek MCC bubblies are listed, almost all under R200.   The rest of the winelist features Meridian Wine brands (Hein founded this international distribution company, with leading wine brands such as Meerlust).  Other Rupert family brands (Rupert & Rothschild, and Anthonij Rupert) are also featured, as is the Leopard’s Leap wine range, a mass market brand that was developed by Hein, selling 600000 cases a year.   A small selection of wines from New Zealand, Argentina, Germany and France is also available. Hein is aware of some typing errors in the winelist.  In the Tasting Centre one can choose an unusual Food & Wine Pairing, with a choice of five out of eight La Motte wines, with a specific dish paired per wine, at R195.  The dishes for the pairing also carry the Winelands Cuisine theme.

The wonderful afternoon had to come to an end.  Not only had I received the greatest gift of all – the time Hein Koegelenberg devoted in chatting to me, with Chef Chris joining him later - but I was also given a bottle of the new La Motte Hanli R, something I will keep for a very special occasion.  The La Motte team is to be congratulated for their vision in bringing history back to La Motte and for making it come alive. I’ll be back!

Pierneef à La Motte, La Motte, R45, outside Franschhoek.  Tel (021) 876-8000. www.lamotte.co.za.  (The website needs a page just for the restaurant, as well as an Image Gallery of its beautiful food and facilities – it does not do justice to this amazing project).   Twitter @pierneeflamotte.  The restaurant is open for Breakfast on Friday – Sunday; for lunch on Monday – Sunday; and for dinner on Thursday – Saturday.  The Tasting Center is closed on Sundays.

POSTSCRIPT 23/9:  We enjoyed another wonderful meal at Pierneef à La Motte, this time a dinner and inside the restaurant.   I had not paid enough attention on the restaurant interior on my last visit, and was in awe of the Dutch East India Company crockery chandeliers, with a modern interpretation.  Each of them has downlighters built into it, and the way in which the crockery is hung in the chandeliers makes them chime when the airconditioning is on, a most soothing ‘music’ in conjunction with the soft classical background music.    There is a large fireplace, and a lounge seating area, at which one can have coffee.   I saw the Chef’s Table, a separate room close to the kitchen, seating 8, for which Chef Chris will cook his choice menu, at R1000 per head.   In addition to the “Boerekos” menu (which now has definitions of the traditional “Boerekos” items), there were three specials – sweetbreads, an excellent steak served with mushrooms and shiraz chips, and wonderful chicken with sorrel sauce.

POSTSCRIPT 6/3: I met Dutch friends for lunch, and was blown away by a chilled butternut soup, which I had as a starter, both in its presentation, and also by its refreshing antidote to the hot Franschhoek day.   I was however disappointed that I could not taste the advertised crayfish.  Hein Koegelenberg was at the restaurant too, and came to greet my guests.  They were very impressed with his friendliness.   For the main course we all had the pork, a dish which did not blow me away.

POSTSCRIPT 8/3: I took a colleague to La Motte, to show her around, and we had a sandwich as we arrived just on 15h00.  I remember the lamb sandwich prices being R 25 when the restaurant opened about 6 months ago, so was rather shocked when the sirloin and mozzarella sandwich cost R 75, and the salmon and avocado paste one cost R70, served with a small green and parmesan shaving salad.   It did not match what the restaurant stands for in its presentation or its content.  I also was rudely dealt with by the security person Inge when we signed in at the boom – rudeness is not something I associate with La Motte at all.   I was disappointed about the reaction to the feedback I gave Chef Chris about the lack of the crayfish taste in the butternut soup, and he gave me an unsatisfactory reply, saying that European palates are more sensitive to an over-strong fish taste, and therefore he had to tone down the crayfish content!

POSTSCRIPT 26/1/12:  Our dinner tonight was disappointing – tiny table for two, waitress who did not know her desserts, and she sounded a little like a tape recorder.  Grateful to Manager Anne for organising a table, even though they were full.  I am disappointed that the Cape Winelands Cuisine recipe basis of the menu appears to have almost all gone, with only the Bokkom salad and trio of Cape desserts reflecting the origin of the Cape Winelands cuisine.  Enjoyed the steak (a taste of my son’s) and wild mushroom ragout. Very disappointed with ‘Sweetie Pie’ dessert, with hard sugar crystallised crust around soft meringue, on summer fruit and guava cream, the sugar crust being very hard to eat.

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