The Cape is on the southernmost tip of Africa geographically and only just attached to that continent spiritually, politically, socially and, in this context, gastronomically. The Cape is mainly sophisticated, organised, hip and cosmopolitan. Its centrepiece, the beautiful city of Cape Town, is 2014’s World Design Capital.
Physically, it’s more spectacular than California and the Mediterranean, with a ring of magnificent mountains that cut it off from the rest of Africa and plunge down onto spectacularly white beaches and the churning Atlantic Ocean. At the foot of these soaring mountains and in the verdant valleys in between are luxurious hotels and restaurants that match any in the world. Both the Tasting Room at Le Quartier Français hotel in Franschhoek and The Test Kitchen in Cape Town’s hip Woodstock suburb have just been included in the World’s Top 100 Best Restaurants list.
However, it’s not just that the restaurants are as good as any in the world – they’re simply the best value for money in modern gastronomy. By my calculations, you’re paying half the price that you’d pay in a top restaurant in London, New York or the UAE. That’s because of South Africa’s softening currency, which has fallen in value against the US dollar by 30 per cent over the past two years.
This food revolution is relatively new, one of the many benefits that have come in the post-apartheid era. For most of the late 20th century, this country suffered from a monumental inferiority complex, believing implicitly that everything was better if it came from “overseas”. No more. Finally, it’s coming to terms with its own excellence, wonderful produce and indigenous creative zeal. What travellers will find here is a spectacular destination at very affordable prices.
As the chefs I met were at pains to point out, the emphasis here is on this unique South African terroir, fresh herbs, fresh vegetables, produced with minimal interference, allowing the food to speak for itself.
Your choice is either to hang around Cape Town and dine there or to be a little adventurous, take to the excellent highways, which unlike the rest of Africa are noticeably devoid of potholes, and head out to the historic towns of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek. They’re only 40 minutes away and the setting is as dramatic as Cape Town itself.
The Test Kitchen / The Pot Luck Club
There’s an informal atmosphere and easy-going buzz in this ground-floor restaurant in the city’s old biscuit mill. It’s the hot Cape Town restaurant and the chef/owner Luke Dale Roberts is the hot chef. The decor gives it an industrial workshop feel – bare wood, stone floors and exposed steel piping everywhere – and the open kitchen allows you a close-up of Dale Roberts and his chefs working in perpetual motion.
It specialises in innovative dishes, many with strong nouvelle Asian cuisine influences, with classical French references and fresh South African ingredients. The scallops and pan-seared springbok are all outstanding. The five-course Discovery menu costs Dh192 and the seven-course Gourmand menu costs Dh282, which is ludicrously cheap for such exquisite food.
The only problem here is that in summer you have to book at least two months ahead to get in for dinner. Easier to get in to, cheaper and less formal is Pot Luck, Dale Roberts’ other restaurant in the Biscuit Mill. It’s located at the top of the building, has a great atmosphere and excellent food.
• The Old Biscuit Mill, 375 Albert Road, Woodstock; 0027 21 447 2337; www.thetestkitchen.co.za
A rarity, in that this is a serious, cutting-edge restaurant in a hotel. Only a 15-minute drive from the centre of the city, The Greenhouse is a bona fide romantic country retreat. It’s a Victorian-inspired glass conservatory and is set in 10 acres of beautiful gardens in a landmark Relais and Château property in the Constantia Valley. This is five-star, silver-service swish at its finest.
Unlike most hotel restaurants however, the executive chef Peter Templehof’s elegant 45-seater also offers cutting-edge cuisine with the emphasis on local ingredients. Liveried waiters deliver duck and porcini pastille and slow-roasted crispy duck with honey ginger jus. It’s an adventurous menu that doesn’t take itself too seriously – lobster sandwich, miso and sesame macaroons and goat cheese cupcakes lead you to slow-cooked Karoo lamb chops and coconut-crusted lamb heart. Tasting menus from Dh258.
• The Cellars-Hohenort, 43 Brommersvlei Rd, Constantia; 0027 21 794 2137; www.collectionmcgrath.com
This favourite with local Capetonians serves authentic northern Italian cuisine, again given a South African flavour with fresh local produce. They love it because the food is straightforward and wholesome, the service is outstanding and the prices are reasonable.
The restaurant is a beautiful town house on two floors – downstairs is exposed dark stone and upstairs is blond wood and glass with an indoor olive tree. There’s a cocktail bar and patio at the back where you can eat during summer. The owner/chef Giorgio Nava is a certified master chef of Italian cuisine – and the butternut and ricotta ravioli, beef carpaccio and gnocchi with Gorgonzola and walnuts is as good as you’ll find in the best Milan restaurant. Main courses cost between Dh18 and Dh43, which makes 95 Keerom a bargain for visitors using foreign currency. It’s very popular and in high season (December to February) you need to book weeks ahead.
• 95 Keerom Street, 0027 21 422 0765; www.95keerom.com
The Tasting Room
Internationally celebrated, laden with awards and visited by the rich and the famous from all over the planet, if The Tasting Room is the mother ship of Franschhoek’s culinary revolution, then its chef Margot Janse is the godmother of new Cape cuisine. Recognised as one of the top nouveau chefs in the world, Janse says that her food is a celebration of indigenous South African ingredients. Dishes like salted farmed kabeljou (Afrikaans for cod) confirm this and provide a surprising and startling gastronomic adventure. Here, the influence of Ferran Adrià (elBulli) is loud and clear, although Janse claims that Noma is a greater inspiration.
The restaurant has been recently redecorated and has a bolder, rather tactile, look about it, with a lot of local wood and African objects scattered around. A nine-course dinner – starting with “black pepper snow, beetroot and lime” and ending with “baobab, coconut, honeybush and caramel” – costs about Dh300 and is worth every fil.
• Le Quartier Français, corner of Berg and Wilhelmina streets; 0027 21 876 2151; www.lqf.co.za
Pierneef à La Motte
Located in a stunning setting on a beautiful, 400-acre estate, the restaurant is part of a larger complex that includes a tasting room, a museum and a farm shop. Named after the celebrated South African artist Jacobus Pierneef, there’s also a gallery containing his work beside the restaurant. Its chef Chris Erasmus is one of Margot Janse’s many culinary offspring, and he produces a rare combination of contemporary cuisine and traditional Dutch/Huguenot references. Thus, start with truffled beef bone marrow, pickles and toasted baguette and move on to salt-pickled Karoo lamb ballotine with aubergine caviar. It’s also very reasonably priced, with dinner costing between Dh150 and Dh200.
• Franschhoek, R45 Main Road; 0027 21 876 8800; www.la-motte.com
Bread and Wine
As unpretentious as the chef who has created this perfect lunchtime rendezvous, Bread and Wine is Le Quartier Français’s sister restaurant. The unpretentious chef is Neil Jewell, a transplanted Englishman with a lovely, laconic sense of irony who’s known as the “Charcuterie Guru” in the Franschhoek Valley. His Wagyu bresaola and biltong (dried beef) and mouth-watering cauliflower cheese risotto are alone worth the visit.
This is the perfect rural lunch venue with tables on a grand patio set among the orchards and vineyards of this lovely farm. The menu reflects Jewell’s light-hearted approach to food, with the main courses listed as “Neil’s Nosh” and the delicious deserts as “Neil’s Nom Noms”. In a world of furrow-browed gastronomes, Bread and Wine is refreshingly unpretentious and great value for money – a two-course lunch costs Dh95.
• Môreson Farm, Happy Valley Road; 0027 21 876 3692; www.moreson.co.za
Located at the top of the Helshoogte Pass, the road that joins Stellenbosch to the Franschhoek Valley, Delaire Graff Estate was bought in 2003 by the diamond billionaire Lawrence Graff and over the past 10 years has been turned into a five-star boutique hotel with a luxurious spa, a burgeoning art collection and two much-praised restaurants.
The main restaurant provides spectacular views of the Simonsberg mountains to go with your lunch on the terrace, cuisine that the chef Christiaan Campbell describes as “bistro chic” and features fresh, estate-grown ingredients. The farmed kabeljou is delicious. I would also recommend dinner at the property’s small, discreet Asian restaurant, Indochine, where a five-course chef’s selection includes delicious tuna tataki and tom yam khaa. Lunch at Delaire Graff costs about Dh180 and dinner at Indochine about Dh200.
• Helshoogte Pass; 0027 21 885 8160; www.delaire.co.za
Just across the road from Delaire Graff is another of the Cape’s most innovative restaurants – and a personal favourite. Tokara, which looks down over Stellenbosch and offers one of the great views in the area, is part of an estate owned by one of South Africa’s wealthiest men, the banker G T Ferreira. And no expense has been spared on this wonderful architectural statement.
Although its chef Richard Carstens’ penchant is for Franco-Asian fusion, the dishes are somewhat elBulli-ish in their deconstructive creativity. He’s a lawyer by training and a brilliant chef by vocation. Try his beef tartar and sashimi with katsuoboshi, sorbet, daikon, tomato and red pepper dashi as a starter and as a main move on to either the baked Alaska with rainbow trout as a main or springbok with carrot purée, peaches and curry jus.
That you pay just Dh110 for Carstens’ tasting menu is bordering on laughable.
• Tokara Farm, Helshoogte Pass; 0027 21 885 2550; www.tokararestaurant.co.za