Taste of Cape Town is part of an international festival of food, run with the same name in cities around the world annually, and is running in Cape Town for the fifth year, at the conveniently located Green Point Cricket Club. The food quality of the dishes prepared in less than ideal conditions by fourteen top restaurants is much improved compared to previous years, when it felt ‘mass produced’, and is excellent this year. It is an inexpensive way to get a taste of what some of the Cape’s best chefs are capable of. Commendable was that the chefs were hands-on and on duty at their stands. We rated Pop-Up stand Tokara tops, when we attended on opening day on Thursday evening.
Parking is an annual nightmare, and if one is not there when the gates open, one has to be prepared to walk quite a distance. The road outside the festival entrance had parking on one side only when we arrived, but had doubled up to the other side of the road on our return. Parking can only get harder to find over the next two days. The lady in the ticket office was unprofessional when selling us the entrance tickets. The entry package is confusing, costing R80 only for entrance and a tasting glass, or R200 for a tasting glass, entrance and 20 crowns (the payment method for food and drinks) but is marked as R120, or R650 for a special package price.
The organisers appear to have struggled to get restaurants to participate, only a handful having committed when Taste of Cape Town 2012 was first announced. We have heard that they had to beg restaurants to participate, the deal being that there is no stand fee payable, and that the organisers and restaurants equally share the crown income. Some high profile restaurants participating in the past (e.g. Le Quartier Français, Pierneef a La Motte, Reuben’s) were visible by their absence. There seemed to be more space allocated for the stands this year, especially the restaurant ones, which allowed them to bring decor elements from their restaurants into the stand. Signal Restaurant of the Cape Grace Hotel (photograph above) was probably the most attractively decorated, but small touches and large photographs of their interior were used by most restaurants to attract attention to their stands. Each restaurant offered a selection of three dishes, which were priced in terms of crowns (1 crown is R5). The average crown price for a main course dish is 6 - 8 crowns, allowing three dishes at most to be bought from one booklet. The stand layout is circular, and one tends to start at the right and make one’s way around. The stands are widely spread over the field, so that one does not feel crowded. The hardest decision is to choose at which restaurant stands to spend one’s crowns. Running parallel to the restaurant stands were wine and beer brand stands, which did not attract as much attention as those of the restaurants, mainly because they were smaller. It took us at least an hour to walk around the field once, with many chat stops along the way, and generous offers of chefs to try their dishes. Chef Henrico Grobbelaar of the Azure Restaurant at the Twelve Apostles Hotel ran out of his makeshift kitchen, and asked us to try his Beef fillet with lentil ragout, almond cream and parmesan crumbs, the steak being beautifully soft.
Tokara Restaurant had taken the Taste Pop-Up stand on Thursday, which will be rotated daily, with Jordan Restaurant with George Jardine hosting it today, and La Mouette tomorrow. Tokara’s stand had by far the most beautiful and sophisticated food of all the stands we tried, and they reflect Chef Richard Carstens’ recently launched winter menu, rich in flavour, and beautiful in colour (left), especially his Bobotie-spiced chicken with eggplant pickle, turmeric crisp and tomato, but his Togarashi beef sashimi tartare, sushi rice, wasabi mayonnaise, ponzu, jalapeno and cashews impressing as well. The Japanese style cheesecake was light as a feather, a lovely medley of tastes of pear, jasmine, green tea, and almonds. The SABC2 Expresso Show was filming Chef Richard when we arrived at the stand.
Chef Bertus Basson shared his Overture stand with partner Craig Cormack of Sofia’s at Morgenster, and their star attraction was one of Bertus’ new projects, being his ‘WORS-ROL’ served with home-made ketchup and ‘wonder-mostert sous‘. Chef Bertus wore the T-shirt as well, and stickers with the fun sub-brand were handed out. Other chefs with stands came to get this special hot dog. The beetroot risotto, beetroot puree, served with beetroot, honey and cumin ice cream looked very striking. River trout pastrami, cocette potatoes, and lemon preserve salad, as well as a Banana split with caramel and peanuts were also served. La Colombe is next to the Pop-up stand, and Chef Scot Kirton served a prawn, coconut and lemongrass velouté, with prawns and chestnut, creatively in an egg shell on a stand. They also offer an Asian style beef carpaccio with shitake mushrooms, sesame crema, avcado and nori puffs. The dessert was a delicious sounding chocolate torte, tobacco caramel, Hennessy marshmallow fluff, coffee meringues and hazelnut crumble. One of the stands with the largest number of food lovers was that of Makaron of Majeka House in Stellenbosch. Chef Tanja Kruger’s Majeka burger is made from Spier pasture-reared beef, in a brioche bun, with foie gras butter, caramelised red onion and crispy coppa. They also offered a prawn laksa with sesame, coconut, basmati rice and sauce; as well as Cauliflower custards, popcorn powder, popped wild rice, truffle caviar, and sweetcorn velouté.
I had an interesting chat with the Food & Beverage Manager of 15 on Orange about whether hotel restaurants can ever reach the standards of independent restaurants. Food & Beverage Manager Andreas van Breda at the Mount Nelson Hotel was at the Planet Restaurant counter, and told me the Titanic dinner had been a great success. Chef Rudi Liebenberg came to say hello, and said that they are running an amended version of the menu until the end of April, at R330. Other restaurant stands were Bistro Sixteen82 with Chef Brad Ball and his team from Steenberg Hotel, Fyndraai Restaurant with chef Shaun Schoeman, the Taj Hotel restaurant collection of Mint and Bombay Brasserie, led by Chef Shyam Langani, Il leone Mastrantonio with Chef Daniel Toledo, 96 Winery Road with Chef Natasha Wray, and The Westin Executive Club Restaurant led by Chef Johann Breedt.
There appeared to be fewer beverage stands this year. Some of the exhibitors included Boston Breweries, De Wetshof, Ernie Els, Gordon’s Gin, Hardenberg Kleiner Keiler Spicy Cherry Liqueur, Hermanuspietersfontein, Idiom, Jägermeister, Neil Joubert, Morgenster, Castle Milk Stout, The Goose, Thelema/Sutherland, Villiera, Vinotria, Warwick, Waterford, Waverley Hills, and Wedderwill. A small market has been set up, as in previous years, and includes Bottega, Buffalo Ridge, Cape Mountain Charcuterie, La Petite France cheeses, ORYX desert salt, Queen of Tarts, Sugar Coated Raindrops with beautiful cupcakes, Yummy Brownies, and lots more. Pick ‘n Pay is a major participant, with a Fresh Living Chef’s Theatre which has demo’s by most of the chefs with stands demonstrating the making of their Taste of Cape Town or other dishes. There is also a Wine and Canapé Experience. Entrance to the Pick ‘n Pay events is free of charge, but is not made clear. There are no announcements about the events prior to their start.
It is impossible to get close to trying all 43 of the dishes offered by the 14 restaurants, and therefore it is advisable to take one’s time to check out the menus of each stand, and then to go back to choose the three most special ones, to buy from one’s booklet of crowns. Eating a top chef’s food with biodegradable cutlery and crockery, ‘mass produced’ under trying conditions is not the best way to appreciate the chefs’ dishes, but Taste of Cape Town 2012 is a good first and inexpensive way to get a bite of what some of our top Cape restaurants have to offer.
Taste of Cape Town 2012, Green Point Cricket Club, Cape Town. 21 April 13h00 - 17h00 and 18h30 - 22h30, and 22 April 12h00 - 17h00. www.tastefestivalssa.co.za Twitter: @TasteofCT
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter:@WhaleCottage
After a closure of a few months for a complete make-over, the old Cape Colony at the Mount Nelson Hotel is no more, and what has arisen in its space is the new Planet Restaurant, based on an extension of the planetary theme of the Planet Bar, opening about three weeks ago. It gives the restaurant, and the hotel with it, a modern feel worthy of the quality of Chef Rudi Liebenberg’s culinary skills.
For a new restaurant to have so much money thrown at it is unusual, with ads in the Sunday Times costing a fortune, even if they are in black and white, and obviously the decor changes were expensive too. Therefore it was a surprise that when we tried to make the booking a few days prior to our dinner, it was such a struggle to make it with Emmanuel, one of the Maître d’hôtel. Chef Rudi has been at the hotel for two years now, but the restaurant staff is refreshingly new. Restaurant Manager Andreas van Breda moved to Cape Town after a long stint at Claridges in London. For the first time the restaurant has a sommelier, and they could not have appointed a nicer person than Carl Habel, whom I first met at Myoga, and who remembered my love for Shiraz when he came to say hello, even though he was off duty, a reflection of how good he is at customer service. He enthused about his new job, and his respect for Chef Rudi, whose focus is on quality produce, and on sourcing local ingredients, which makes it easy for him to pair the Planet Restaurant’s food and wine. It is hard to believe that the Mount Nelson, one of Cape Town’s top hotels, has never had a sommelier before! It was lovely to receive the warm welcome at the entrance to the hotel from Osnat Gropper, the concierge, and a Twitter friend.
The interior design was done by DHK Interiors, and they have used a less-is-more decor approach, removing the piano and the old-fashioned Capescape mural (excellent decisions). As one walks down the passage from the Planet Bar, one notices the panels of strings of blue and clear glass balls, representing the planetary theme, interspersed with massive mirrors with illustrations representing the signs of the zodiac, which is carried into the restaurant itself. Unfortunately not all twelve signs are represented, so I was disappointed to not see Sagittarius on one of the mirrors, having come for a birthday celebration. The new restaurant is a clean crisp white space, with a central chandelier and new carpet that echo the planetary theme. The furniture has been replaced, with brown tables, and velvet-covered cream chairs. In the centre the seating is leather couches. The tables are covered with boring placemats (for the stature of the restaurant and the hotel it could do with a good quality tablecloth), beautiful cutlery from Hepp Exclusive, good light glassware, and a set of modern salt and pepper grinders from Peugeot, which I had also seen a few days earlier at the restaurant at Delaire Graff. The planetary theme is extended into the sparkly covers of the winelist, the menu and the billfold, as well as on the inside first pages of the menu and winelist.
The menu is extravagant, running to many pages, with a few items per page. It is printed on a good quality cream board. It has an introductory statement by Chef Rudi, and is signed by him, stating: “Our kitchen is all about a journey, a journey with many new and sometimes unexpected variables and it is for this reason that we come back inspired and motivated every day. ….The foundation of our process starts with respect, respect for the ingredient, respect for the process, respect for the end product and respect for the guest. The majority of our ingredients are sourced locally and prepared using a wide range of modern as well as classical cooking methods”. An insert offers the “Chef’s Suggestions”. Two tasting menu options are available, strangely a “Vegan Journey” one listed first, followed by the “Journey”, a non-vegan one, both charged at R380 per person for a minimum of two persons to order, and consisting of six courses each. Each wine recommendation for the tasting menu is priced separately. Thereafter the menu has a la carte menu options. Commendably items on the menu are specially marked with a symbol, reflecting them being vegetarian, vegan and containing nuts, where relevant.
Before we could think of choosing anything, complimentary glasses of Genevieve MCC were brought to the table, as was a small plate of canapés (duck rillette, salmon and feta, as well as ostrich tartare). If an amuse bouche is a first presentation of the skills of the chef, then this plateful was a disappointment. We had to ask for the bread. Three bread options were offered - ciabatta, country bread (the waiter could not explain exactly what this bread contained) and garlic bread. Starter options range in price from R65 for a “tomato variation, jelly, cloud, sorbet, greens, basil”, not easy to imagine what exactly is served; to R165 for crayfish ceviche and Namibian red crab remoulade. Duck and quail terrine, smoked salmon trout, and oysters are also available. One can also order soup and salads, including a crocodile salad (R90), a menu item from the old Cape Colony menu.
I chose a cold asparagus soup (R85) as the starter, and it was a surprise to have the plate served with a tower of asparagus mousse topped with thin slices of cucumber. I have seen ceremonious pouring of soup at a table, but the waiter pouring the soup out of the water glass brought from the kitchen by hand, without it being on a tray or in a prettier container, spoilt what I am sure the chef had intended for the presentation of the dish. I found the dish very bland. It was served in an interesting soup bowl, with a hole in it for design effect. The advertised egg yolk was left out of the dish, for no reason. My partner had a slow-cooked free-range egg with local cured ham and mature gouda, served with a pinotage reduction, which he enjoyed, but commented on the runny egg white. This dish was on the old Cape Colony menu too, and clearly is a hit, for it to have been retained. For my main course I chose an extravagant abalone and crayfish dish (R295). The abalone was tiny, making me feel guilty in having chosen something that was clearly undersized (or alternatively out of a can). It was cut into two, cooked, coated with herbs and then sauteed in butter, but did not have a distinctive abalone taste at all, the herbs overpowering the usually distinctive taste. A tiny crayfish tail (more guilt), as well as asparagus spears and sweet corn added colour and taste to the dish, but I missed the velouté advertised on the menu as being part of the dish. No fish knife was served with this dish. My partner’s flame-grilled beef fillet was butter soft, but the sautéed mushrooms, potato foam and mini fondants were so badly over-salted that he could not finish them (R170). Other main course options are a pea risotto (R95); monkfish fillet, chicken, pork cheeks and belly, and mussels and calamari, all costing R150; Karoo lamb (R190); and springbok (R180). For those able to eat more, there is a choice of six desserts, costing around R65, and two cheese options. Friandises were served with the excellent foamy cappuccino (R20).
The 24-page winelist specifies vintages and origin, and is introduced with a page of “Sommelier’s latest discoveries”, which were three Solms-Delta wines: Amalie (R60/R175), Langarm (R35/R155), and Hiervandaan (R70/R310), the serving by-the-glass specified at 175ml, making them expensive. Five “Methode Cap Classique” 150ml wines-by-the-glass are listed, including Pierre Jourdan Brut (R45), Simonsig Brut Rosé (R50) and Genevieve Brut (R60), and surprisingly, the champagnes Billecart-Salmon Rosé (R320) and Veuve Cliquot (R210) were also listed under this heading! Ten white and seven red wines-by-the glass, the former ranging from R35 - R65 per 175ml, and the latter ranging from R45 - R75 per glass, are offered. I was disappointed at the small selection of red wines by the glass, and that none of them included a Shiraz. The rest of the winelist separates white wines into “Crisp and refreshing”, Fragrant and Floral”, “Rich and Opulent” and “Signature and Cellar”. Red wines are categorised into “Silky and Smooth”, “Elegant and Fresh”, “Rich and Concentrated”, and “The Great Reserve”. Unique Vin de Constance and Hamilton Russell Pinot Noirvertical vintage selections are also available, but require big cheque books! Shiraz options by the bottle include Groote Post Reserve (R270), Waterford Kevin Arnold (R430), Saronsberg (R475), Cirrus (R1020), Hartenberg Stork (R1020), Saxenberg Select (R4435), De Trafford (R760), and Fairview Beacon (R515). Knowing my love for Shiraz, Carl recommended the Saronsberg 2007, a wine not usually available by the glass. On tasting, it was acceptable, but it had a taste to it that I did not like, the more I drank of it. We were not charged for the wine.
Having eaten at The Test Kitchen and Planet Restaurant on two consecutive nights, it is clear that the Planet Restaurant is more of a special occasion restaurant, with the staff smartly and professionally dressed befitting the five star status of the hotel, while the food at The Test Kitchen overall was better. The service levels were on a par. The Planet Restaurant still needs time to settle in, and for its quality to be consistent, whether Chef Rudi is on duty or not. The advertising has not yet offered a return on its investment, as we were one of only five tables in what seemed to be a quiet hotel. Having been on the Eat Out top 20 restaurant shortlist whilst at The Saxon, it will be interesting to see if Chef Rudi can take the Planet Restaurant onto the star top 20 restaurant shortlist for 2011.
Planet Restaurant, Mount Nelson Hotel, 76 Orange Street, Gardens, Cape Town. Tel (021) 483-1000 www.planetbarandrestaurant.co.za (No menu or winelist on the website, and disappointingly almost no food photographs in the Gallery). Monday - Sunday dinner only.
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage Twitter: @WhaleCottage