The 5-star and recently accredited Relais & Chateaux Asara Hotel outside Stellenbosch has a beautiful location, with a dam at the edge of the restaurant, and the Stellenbosch mountains as a backdrop. I had visited Asara Hotel in its early days, but had not been back in over a year. When I was sent information about a recent refurbishment of Raphael’s Restaurant by the Hotel’s PR agency, it was a good opportunity to invite my friend Geraldine for lunch, as she lives close by. The restaurant’s recent make-over is not only decor-wise, but also in terms of management. The pay-off line “Ordinary is everywhere but here”, printed on the menu and which is visible on every page of the website, currently is an overpromise, in terms of what we experienced yesterday.
The Asara Hotel has belonged to Markus Rahmann, an Austrian whose Germanic hand seemed stronger in the past, for close to ten years. The Hotel has seen a number of senior staff changes this month, with GM Horst Frehse, who was at the hotel for about a year and implemented the Relais & Chateaux accreditation, leaving ahead of his departure date of January, and he will start at the Twelve Apostles Hotel as GM in February. No one wanted to elaborate on the early departure. Frehse was particularly well-known as the cigar-smoking GM of the Grande Roche in Paarl, and then went to Singita, before joining Asara Hotel. We were told that the Restaurant Manager as well as the F&B Manager had joined the hotel in the last two weeks, as has the new GM, Pete Gottgens, who has spent the last 19 years in the UK. Gottgens comes from a hotelier family, he says, and he proudly told us that his dad was the first FEDHASA member while he was at the Edward Hotel in Durban. Gottgens cut his teeth in South Africa, amongst others at Mike’s Kitchen in Tyger Valley and at the Heerengracht Hotel, and then left the country to open Fish Hook and Springbok Café in London. He also was responsible for all catering for then-President Nelson Mandela when he was on state visits in the UK and Europe. He also established a hotel in Scotland seven years ago. A yearning to return to South Africa led him to accept Asara’s offer. Gottgens was honest about all not being perfect at Asara, and has made some immediate marketing changes – all focus will be on the domestic market, and the R3 million international marketing budget will be redirected to domestic marketing. He has also decided that the premium top of the range market is not what they are aiming for anymore, and he even hinted that they may drop the Relais & Chateaux accreditation when I asked him, due to the cost perception that it is associated with. I admired Gottgens for his honesty, as he did not know who we were. He wants to move the association with Asara from “not great value for money” to “exceptional value”. His mantra will be to under-offer and over-deliver, the smartest approach to customer relationship development. He understands the value of Word of Mouth, and that the local visitors will recommend Asara to international visitors if they have had a good experience. He wants to offer Asara wines below R100 a bottle in his restaurants on the estate. He understands the value of Social Media, and Asara is on Twitter, and Gottgens will start a blog in the new year. Gottgens also says that too many staff were appointed (mainly from Spier and Lanzerac, when the hotel first opened), and that he will be changing this to fewer but higher quality staff. A lovely concept he plans is the appointment of the farmworkers’ wives to start a fruit and vegetable co-operative on the estate, so that the hotel can buy all their fresh ingredients from their own workers, thereby enhancing their incomes. Gottgens gave me a feeling of complete professionalism, and of comfort that a number of the rough edges that we observed and experienced will be taken care of and fixed. Gottgen’s goal is to ‘improve the game by 40%’, he said.
Raphael’s is a large space, and one can sit outsideto be close to the dam. We had not booked, so accepted an inside table, but it was probably for the best, as the South Easter was pumping. Crystal chandeliers dominate, and some chairs are in a deep violet upholstery. Glass screens give some privacy to the entrance. I saw a piano, and wondered about its use, having recently applauded the Mount Nelson Hotel for having got rid of its piano in the new Planet Restaurant. The tables have excellent quality napery on them, and cutlery is by WMF, which is also sold in the Asara shop on the estate. Our champagne glasses did not ‘ping’ when we toasted our getting together, and sounded like plastic, even though they were not. The jug for my water was a very ordinary one, not in keeping with the rest of the glassware in the restaurant or in the shop. The salt and pepper holders were tiny and ordinary. The architect for the Asara Hotel building and its restaurants was Ray Killian, and Arctic Circle was the interior design company for Raphael’s, a name I know as the design company for Tourism Grading Council plaques.
One of our biggest problems was with waitress Martha, and even though she tried very hard, and grew on us in the three hours that we spent at Raphael’s, she reflected the lack of management in the restaurant. She had a shirt on that was too tight, and one of the buttons had popped open. She had a spot of dirt on the white shirt and her black apron had a big dirty mark on it. She had been outside in the wind, we think, judging by her hair. She told us that she had worked at Grande Roche previously, and at the end of our meal she had the confidence to tell us what every employer would fear – that Raphael’s is not five-star standard as far as the staffing goes, that there are too many inexperienced staff members working in the restaurant, who are unable to do justice to the good quality food served. The irony was that Martha herself was an example of what she was referring to. She also stated that ‘her’ 5-star restaurant should not be serving guests coming in with shorts, casual shirts and slip-slops, examples of which we saw, and with crying babies, which we heard too.
As Martha handed us the leather menu holder, she matter-of-factly told us that they were out of oysters, Chateaubriand, and haloumi cheese for the Baby Leaf salad starter. This gave us a bad feeling about the restaurant and the hotel, and its professionalism. We were later told that the kitchen had done 120 covers for lunch (we only arrived at 13h30), had a wedding later that day, a private dinner for 60 persons, and the normal dinner service. Geraldine and I skipped the starters, as we wanted to try the Asara ice cream sold in the shop on our departure. Geraldine ordered the Beef Fillet (R180) and I had the Kingklip (R135). The Beef Fillet was ordered Medium and was very tender, and was topped with herb-crusted oxtail ragout, rich in taste, she said, and was served with cauliflower mash, dauphinoise potatoes and port wine jus. My oven roasted kingklip was meant to be served with a horseradish and vanilla sauce, but was replaced with a white wine foam, with Martha’s help, and tasted slightly salty. I enjoyed the kingklip served with baby asparagus and parsley mash. Other main courses are Duck breast, Duo of pork, Impala, and Quail, all at R165, as well as Rack of lamb (R175). The Chateaubriand costs R340, a 400 gram serving for two. Wild mushroom risotto and home-made ravioli filled with ratatouille both cost R70. A delicious sounding butternut and coconut soup costs R55. Starters start at R45 for Chicken bobotie in rooti, up to R95 for grilled tiger prawns and scallops. A trio of oysters costs R85, and an interesting sounding “foie gras crème brûlée and ice cream”, as well as a smoked salmon trout terrine cost R85 and R65, respectively. Due to having the ice cream in the shop, we skipped the desserts, which cost between R45 for three scoops of ice cream to R65 for a Kaiserschmarrn Austrian soufflé.
Head Chef Carsten Härtel came to say hello, and invited us to visit his kitchen, only the third such invite I have received (Tokara and Societi Bistro), and is a special honour. The Asara kitchen is massive, and incredibly hot, so much so that we felt sorry for the 40 or so kitchen staff, of whom 23 are chefs. Chef Carsten came to Asara directly from Germany, and has been at the hotel for two years, enjoying the good weather, even though he stays in touch with Germany via his DEUKOM German TV channel subscription. We were impressed by the different sections in the kitchen, including the bread and roll baking, as well as the ice-cream and chocolate-making sections. A hotel kitchen is not a romantic place at all, looks very industrial, and we saw the photographs of the chef’s plating directives per dish.
I do not know the Asara wines, and do not recall ever drinking any. My Platter’s 2011 does not rate them too highly, mainly around the 3-star mark, with only the Spirit of Chenin achieving a 4-star Platter rating. The winelist is extensive, and every page has the Relais & Chateaux logo prominently displayed. It is much more discreet on the menu. The winelist has a leather cover too, and is an extensive document, tracing the history of Cape Vintages from 1990 until 2010; a brief history of South African wines is sketched; a map of winegrowing areas is provided; and food and wine pairing suggestions are presented by type of food. The Asara wine range features extensively on the winelist, especially for the wines-by-the-glass. Five Asara white wines range in price from R28 per 175ml glass for the Ivory, up to R63 for their Chardonnay Reserve. Seven Asara red wines are offered, starting at R33 per glass for the Cape Fusion, peaking at R110 per glass for their Bell Tower. Their Rosé costs R28, and the Noble Late Harvest R30. We had a glass of Villiera Tradition Brut each, at R45, and Peter van Staden, the Restaurant Manager, refilled one of our glasses when it was knocked over in error, without charging extra for the refill. Poor Peter seemed uncomfortable and very hot in his black jacket and tie. I have never seen champagnes referred to as “Champenoise” on a winelist before, and 375 ml Laurent-Perrier costs R440 and Moet & Chandon R575. Pommery Pop Blue costs R385 for 200ml. A section focuses on the “Sommelier’s Rare Selection”, which starts at R135 for the Vondeling Babiana Nortiflora, up to R 655 for the Deetlefs Family Semillon; and at R185 for the Lammershoek Red Blend (R185) – R1100 for the Ernie Els Red Blend. The Asara Sauvignon Blanc costs R140 per bottle, and Iona costs R240. The Asara Shiraz costs R190, while that by Saronsberg costs R300. A vertical collection of Vin de Constance is also offered, something I had seen recently on the Planet Restaurant winelist at the Mount Nelson Hotel. A change from my last visit is that the room underneath Raphael’s is now called the “Vinoteque”, and is the area in which one can taste wines, and buy branded Asara promotional clothing, as well as order tapas dishes.
Geraldine and I ended off our long and relaxed lunch with a strong cappuccino served in an attractive cup and saucer, and was made with Genovese, a brand of coffee I have not heard of before. We had kept the best for last, by walking through the shop, which sells WMF cutlery sets and kitchenware, Le Creuset pots in many shapes, sizes and colours, lovely hand-made chocolates, at R45 per 100 gram, and ice-cream scoops at R10 each. One can choose between Vanilla, Stracciatella, Chocolate and Hazelnut flavours. We sat in the courtyard, enjoying our ice cream, and watched a bridal couple being photographed.
Our food was excellent, but GM Gottgens has a huge task to almost start from scratch to train up his staff and managers to the level that is befitting the standard of the hotel, and to meet his admirable goals. It will be interesting to see how things have improved at Asara and Raphael’s in a few months from now.
Raphael’s Restaurant, Asara Wine Estate and Hotel, Stellenbosch. Tel (021) 888-8000. www.asara.co.za (The website covers all aspects of the Asara wine estate and hotel. For Raphael’s the menu is available, but there are not many food photographs on the page. There is no restaurant winelist on the website). Open Monday – Sunday for Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner.
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @Whale Cottage