The Waterkloof wine estate in Somerset West, which belongs to one of the largest wine distributors in the UK, Paul Boutinot, who calls himself the “Custodian” of the wine estate, according to its website, with chef Gregory Czarnecki in the kitchen and Julian Smith, previously from Grande Provence, managing the restaurant. Czarnecki was previously at The Big Easy in Stellenbosch, the restaurant belonging to Johan Rupert and Ernie Els, amongst others, and left when he was expected to cook hamburgers, it is said. He worked with 3*** Michelin chef Alain Senderens at Lucas Carton. Waterkloof’s website states that it makes ‘slow wines’, with fermentation taking place between one to eleven months instead of the usual 20 days.
One takes a dirt track off the road to Sir Lowry’s Village, and passes an empty security hut. Soon the road is tarred, and it is clear that one is entering Waterkloof, in that the road is neatly tarred as it winds its way up the mountain on which the winery perches. At first one cannot see the vineyards, but they are high up, suddenly visible around a corner. One sees the very modern “block” building almost hanging off the edge of the Schaapenberg Mountain as one drives higher and higher, and the comparison to Hidden Valley cannot be avoided. The winery juts out further than the restaurant does, blocking the view from the restaurant on its west side. One’s first reaction to the wonderful view over False Bay (and the townships of Strand/Somerset West below) is of wonderment – one probably is only this high up on Sir Lowry’s Pass, but from a different angle.
As one enters the building, one is dazzled by the view. There is familiarity, in that the inside has a lot of glass, allowing one to see the vats and tanks, as at Tokara. What is unusual is that the restaurant and tasting room are one large open space, separated by an unusual large brown leather couch with fireplace, over which towers a massive fire extractor – one can imagine how cosy winetasting and lunch will be at Waterkloof in winter, accompanied by a roaring fire.
The occasion was a birthday celebration, and we felt lucky to have known Julian from the years of dining at Grande Provence. He is a gentle soul, always eager to please. His wife Mandy, also previously at Grande Provence, now co-ordinates events at Waterkloof. He made a huge difference to the service received and information provided, some of the waiters still a little unsure of themselves.
The Waterkloof logo of a face blowing furiously is meant to depict the southeaster, which must blow strongly from the Helderberg mountains. The logo is proudly displayed outside the building, on the menus, on the staff aprons, and on the wine bottles.
The restaurant is buzzing and close to full. One is offered a table inside or outside, but the outside tables with shade from the building have been taken already, and at 30 C or more it is too hot to sit in the sun. The air conditioners cool the interior, and we are given a lovely table near the outside sliding door, and a cool breeze blows in when the door is opened. The chairs are an unusual light beechwood with black leather seats, and the black leather theme is carried through in the menu and bill folders.
A platter of olives, hummus and bread sticks is brought to the table. We see some rolls passing, and are brought these to the table, and they are lovely. We are offered complimentary mineral water, a choice of still or sparkling, brought in a decanter. The water comes from a spring on the estate. Julian tells us that slow and organic dominates wine-making at Waterkloof. No tractors are allowed, and horse-drawn ploughs develop the land.
The menu presents a selection of 5 starters, all costing R 60, and include ink and squid tagliatelle and asparagus risotto. There are 7 main courses, ranging from R 95 for the pastilla of duck leg confit to R 150 for the lamb shoulder confit and baby rack. Kingklip and Red Roman are also on the menu. The duck comes shredded, wrapped in a (small) pastry parcel with sultanas, and 6 tiny roast potato slices, topped with a coriander foam. It is very tasty, but the portion is VERY small. For dessert one has 4 options, all costing R 55, as well as a cheese platter, to choose from. Here the chef is at his most deconstructionist, in that the lime pie has separate bits of almond crumble, the lime content, topped with a tequila sorbet ball. The rooibos tea poached apple dessert is the tiniest miniature apple balls on a plate with cabernet reduction jelly, with a ball of plain sorbet.
A special Waterkloof coffee blend of 40 % Mandheling from Sumatra, 40 % Yirgalheffe from Ethiopia and 20 % Linu from Ethiopia is roasted for Waterkloof at Lourensford, and is brought to the restaurant warmly roasted.
We were told by Julian that the Waterkloof wines are made to suit a European palate, and therefore the Waterkloof Circumstance Shiraz 2007 was a disappointment, being very light-bodied – it tasted like non-sparkling grape juice with alcohol. Only Waterkloof wines, with their Circumstance and Peacock Ridge secondary labels, are included in the menu cover, but they do appear to have other wines in stock, e.g. the Steenberg 1682 bubbly, as Waterkloof does not make a bubbly. The owner wants to sell his wines first and foremost, and therefore these are the only wines offered. The wines range from R 91 for a bottle of Peacock Ridge Sauvignon Blanc (R 23 per glass) to R 245 for the Waterkloof Sauvignon Blanc. All wines in the range are decanted three hours before the dinners and lunches, to allow them to breathe.
The newness of the restaurant and its staff was most visible when we asked the waiter as well as the friendly Maitre’d to explain what each element of the dessert was, but both said they did not know, and that the chef had not yet had a chance to explain the menu to them! Our waiter had a very shaky wine-pouring hand, and messed some as a result. His Lithuanian colleague was very professional, and clearly far more experienced. Julian came to the table regularly, and made a big difference to the service satisfaction.
The total cost of two mains, two desserts, a cappucino, 2 glasses of red wine, 2 glasses of Steenberg Brut and the sparkling water was R 402.
Waterkloof restaurant, tel 021 858 1491, off Sir Lowry Village Road, Somerset West, www.waterkloofwines.co.za
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com