This will likely be our one and only post targeted to serious foodies.
We stopped chasing the latest chefs years ago and have become far more relaxed and much less easily impressed by the latest food trends, though we still love a good meal. Tired of tip-to-tail, sous vide, molecular gastronomy and culinary theatrics, we rarely seek out the “fine dining experience of the moment”.
But so many people raved about the vibrant culinary scene in Cape Town and the surrounding Winelands, that we wanted to see what all the fuss was about. So we chose to dine at two “of the moment” fine dining restaurants during our trip: The Test Kitchen in Cape Town and The Tasting Room in Franschhoek, often compared as two rivals with similar sensibilities, both offering only fixed tasting menus.
The Test Kitchen is in Woodstock, a fairly sketchy, former light industrial area that’s seeing redevelopment into a funky area with shops, restaurants and cafes. Located in the former Biscuit Mill factory behind a gated entryway, down a small alley; the restaurant doesn’t have a sign, yet we found it. The room itself is as you’d expect in these surrounds – exposed brick, high ceilings, raw concrete floors and a very large open kitchen. The staff are The staff are exceedingly helpful and knowledgeable and the service was superb.
We chose the three course menu (375 Rand or $47) with a bottle of a red wine blend called Ataraxia, rather than the wine pairings, though a five course option with or without wine pairings was also offered. There was a choice of 4 apps, 4 mains and 4 desserts. Michael and I both felt the menu was a bit limited and ended up choosing the same dishes.
The amuse was a fun and inventive play on dessert bites executed in a savoury fashion and beautifully presented.
The homemade bread was a fabulous selection including: seed bread, pretzel bread, warm ciabatta and olive bread served with in-house freshly churned butter.
We both started with:
“Home dried tomato, black sesame and aubergine purée and dust, burnt aubergine jelly, smoked goats cheese and aged balsamic”. While the presentation was pretty, there was an awful lot going on on the plate and we kept trying to figure out what was what.
Our main was:
“Slow cooked breast and pan seared loin of lamb, harief glaze, white bean hummus, ewe’s milk labneh with dry fig (dust) and cinnamon jus”. Sigh. Once again the chef was out to impress with how much he could dab or dust onto the plate. Flavours were good, and the lamb perfectly cooked, but the analysis was tiring. The plate took effort.
Dessert felt the same, and we both had the: “Nyangbo chocolate fondant, Cabernet Sauvignon berry sorbet, grappa dressed berries with Manjari mousse”. What?
All the dishes had additional things on the plate too, most notably a “dust” of some sort – pistachio dust, porcini dust, gold dust, macadamia dust. Everything was good but just tried way too hard, though we did enjoy the evening.
Our first night in Franschhoek we went to The Tasting Room, right in town on the main street. Located in Le Quartier Francais, a small, boutique guest house, the restaurant is quite famous and we had to reserve a couple of months ahead and guarantee the rez with a credit card. The room is quite plain with a contemporary feel, but a bit bare. Tables are spaced very far apart and there are shots of vibrant colour here and there.
We were welcomed with a sparkling rose Cap Classique, or the local version of a champagne style wine and an interesting assortment of very tasty nibbles, none of which I could describe. Like The Test Kitchen two fixed price tasting menus (5 or 8 courses) are offered, either with or without wine pairings, though no actual menu is presented until after the meal, as your souvenir. You are at the mercy of the chef, something I am not usually interested in. When we made the reservation we were asked about food allergies or dislikes.
A tiny tomato paste tin arrived and inside a cylinder of corn bread was revealed. Mmmmm.
Michael started with “Beetroot, buttermilk labne, dill and cucumber granita”. He said it was very good and though I hate beets, I did taste it and had to concur as there was no discernible taste of beets. This course was paired with 2012 Graham Beck Game Reserve Chenin Blanc.
I started with “Tomato tartar, young hen yolk, asparagus shavings, aged sherry vinegar”. This was paired with non vintage Silverthorn Genie Brut Rose. Light, flavourful and refreshing, this course was very tasty and perfectly, though surprisingly, complimented by the sparkling wine.
Our next course was “Curry dusted (there’s that dust again) monkfish, yellow Dahl, purslane, braised spices, confit tomato” accompanied by 2010 Stony Brook Ghost Gum, a white, Bordeaux-style blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. I do not like monkfish. This was the BEST, most perfectly prepared and seasoned monkfish I have ever had! Every bite was so delicious I wanted to lick the plate! What a surprise!
The meat course freaked me out a bit, as I am not a big meat eater. Get ready….it was “Great Karoo wildebeest loin, wild grains, sorghum, rainbow carrots, celeriac” served with a lovely 2011 Moreson Pinotage. Three small medallions of the most perfectly cooked, mildly flavoured, tenderloin graced the beautiful plate and was absolutely delicious and totally memorable.
Then came a cute little cheese course of finely shaved local, “Klein River gruyere, risks, mebos custard, currants” served with a 2008 Allesverloren Port. The cheese was quite aged and sharp, nutty and flavourful, and the rusks add the perfect crunch.
The denouement was the incredible dessert described as “Baobab, coconut, honeybush, caramel” with a teensy sip of a lovely 2008 Ezibusisweni Straw dessert wine. A large white dome was placed in front of us and hot caramel was poured on top as we watched the shell crackle open to form a lacy pattern revealing the ice cream and nuts inside. One of the best desserts ever!
Though we didn’t know many of the ingredients, as they are unique to this part of the world, and some of the flavours were new to us, this meal rates in our top 5 of ALL time! Every plate was beautifully composed. Every flavour and taste sensation melded perfectly, the wines matched to completely enhance the flavours of the food. Even though the plates had many ingredients, no analysis was required and everything balanced together to create perfect tastes and textures. No one component fought with another.
The staff were all local, extremely enthusiastic, fun and engaging and worked together seamlessly. They often brought out an ingredient in its raw form to be tasted or smelled before the dish was served to enhance the experience.
The best way to compare these two restaurants is to say that The Test Kitchen is like a Jackson Pollack painting – a riot of colour and texture on big canvases. You need to stand back and think about the dishes and invent what they say to you, trying to determine what the artist meant. The Tasting Room is like a fine Pointilist painting, detailed, thoughtful, a bit blurred, soft and pretty with a dreamy quality that’s all technique but you know what you’re eating and enjoying. No analysis required, only appreciation for the hand holding the brush.
Both were great experiences but only one will be remembered.
P.S. You’ll note not every dish at The Tasting Room was photographed because we were too enraptured by the meal and the experience. A very good sign, don’t you think?