Destination Dining Near Table Mountain

Photo: J. Bradford

“Make a plan” is the phrase used by South Africans of all stripes to convey that someone is arranging something on one another’s behalf. When your Correspondent had business in Cape Town, he checked in with some old friends to see if they were available to reconnect over lunch or dinner.  Given the dynamism of the Capetonian dining establishments, with new entrants coming in and old standbys cashing out, your Correspondent was relieved when one friend responded with a simple note: “You’re back in town finally? Cool beans. I’ll make a plan.” All under control.And so it was that four of us gathered at La Colombe, the restaurant of the Constantia Uitsig winery on the slopes of Table Mountain and bordering the Tokai Forest about 30 minutes from downtown. Wine estate restaurants in South Africa consistently offer up an experience that is tough to beat anywhere else in the world, and La Colombe combines its menu, its wine list, its vineyard setting, and its interior to set the bar even for this group.

Wine estates in South Africa are the real deal.  Uneven and bumpy dirt roads.  Owner-operated wine production. No corporate marketing machine or muscle to sully land’s soul. Want a wine tasting?  Of course! The owner hops off the tractor or breaks from de-leafing the vines by hand to bring you to the cellar or a nearby shed and sets up a round of glasses on the tasting barrels. No cheese. No water. No fee. No nonsense.

This unfussy and real deal experience in the fields cascades into the vineyard restaurant.  South Africans intuitively know the recipe for elevating dining into a surreal experience: start with friends you like and the more the better; add a fireplace for warmth in those chillier July nights; drape tablecloths on and arrange simple chairs around round wooden tables; ensure that clean and softly creaking hardwood floors reflect the subdued lighting and glint of the fire; set the entire dining room in a Cape Dutch style converted barn with space for about 10 tables overlooking the open kitchen, 8 tables outdoors in the gardens, and one long rectangular table with no tablecloth but with benches for the private party dinner guest so that they feel appropriately attired by wearing what they wish and other diners think the same whether one couple is formally dressed in Prada or, similar to my group, dressed along the lines of jeans and cowboy boots with smart jackets; add in serving staff who know the tricky South African wine options (the country’s thankfully unscaled wine industry is made up of many farmers who produce small batches of multiple varieties in many different microclimates) and of simple menu presentation of what’s on offer with a touch of seeking to understand the dietary requirements of the diners in a multiethnic population (pork ok? beef ok? just veg?) as well as learning about the foreign visitors to personalize the service. And of course there is the food.

The food at La Colombe builds on all these other ingredients, but it is the culinary expertise of Luke-Dale Roberts and the attention of Scot Kirton to flavor, texture and presentation that makes La Colombe the locale of one of the best meals you may ever get to eat.

The journey starts with a welcoming aperitif — perhaps a glass of the estate sparkling wine?  Why not? A balanced offer of fruit, acid, and bubbles with alcohol in equal measure provide a light refreshment.

Next up is the house made bread: a small sourdough baguette or a multigrain roll looking tempting and warm from the oven.  When choosing one the server suggests you take both? Why not?  Also make sure to combine the bread with the accompaniments available on the table and produced on the estate: olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and salted butter.

Next come the amuses bouches: an egg filled with pistachio and foie gras terrine and a trio of sausage rolls with smoky tomato dipping sauce.  And just like that you are off to a savory start.

The waiter then wheels the chalkboard over to the table and presents the regular and specials for the starters, the ganitas, the mains and the desserts.  The chalkboard provides some flair to the guest while ensuring comprehension of the night’s offers and cleverly avoiding the need to print paper for a changing menu.  The sommelier follows up with the wine list, but best is tell him what food has been chosen and leave it to him to suggest some options.  Unless a blockbuster vintage is desired it’s matter of course that all the price effective wines will stand up well to the food and bring out some additional flavor.

The menu reflects the diversity of this incredible spot … Fresh fish from Atlantic or Indian ocean waters, all manner of crustacea, and meats from domesticated and wild animals. Vegetables and fruits are foraged from the Tokai Forest nearby or grown on the estate or simply purchased locally at market.

Starters that your Correspondent recommends include the pan-seared scallops and confit pork belly with a langoustine glaze, black forest ham velouté, smoked parsnip puree with a lemon, tomato and pea dressing. The last of these comes with a few cracklings to ensure a bit of tasty crunch to the lushness of the plate. Or perhaps the steamed langoustines in a wholegrain honey mustard dressing, served on a miso and orange crema, with mirin and dashi jellies, creamy daikon radish mousses and fine sweet potato crisps.  The sweetness of the shellfish with the peppery flavor and crunch of the vegetables and the richness and acid of the fruit is an excellent combination.

A nice pause after the starter brings an option of granites.  Your Correspondent chose a kalamansi granité with a cucumber and mint salsa and vanilla sake jellies and a cucumber foam.  It came served in a round cup that contained the frozen-nitrogren treated kalamansi.  The smooth flavors created an unexpected but welcomed palate cleanser.

For main courses, your Correspondent tried the springbok with foie gras. An incredible dish. Foie gras topped medallions of pan-seared springbok loin were presented on wilted baby spinach with crisp apple and turnip spring rolls nestled side by side with smoked pomme purée and pan-fried Shimeji mushrooms foraged from the Tokai Forest with cherry wood jus.  The meat was perfectly cooked and incredibly flavorful with the foie gras, mushrooms, and jus increasing the depth of flavor while the spring rolls provided a semi-sweet crunch to alternate tastes alongside the smokiness of creamy potatoes.

Dessert brought a terrine of pistachio and apricot which was presented as alternating layers of pistachio sponge soaked in lemon syrup, cardamom mousse and apricot pate de fruit, salted pistachio ice-cream with apricot purée, honeycomb and pistachio shards and pain d’épices vinaigrette.  This being Constantia, your Correspondent paired this with the unique Vin de Constance wine.

Though the description and ingredients sound fussy and precious, they are not presented as such by the chef or the waitstaff.  Simple ingredients, expertly assembled, and served in a straightforward manner elevates the experience to a sublime evening to remember.  The simply framed attestations from the likes of Clint Eastwood, Robert DeNiro, Oasis, and Billy Campbell among others demonstrate that customers of all stripes think so too. Follow their lead, make a plan, and get to La Colombe.

Make sure to try the Vin de Constance and get the story behind this fabled wine.  Ask nicely and they may sell some extra bottles to you on the spot to take home.

La Colombe
Spaanschemat River Road, Constantia, Cape Town
34° 02.45 minutes 28 seconds south
18° 25.12 minutes 55 seconds east
ph: +27 (0) 21 794-2390
http://www.constantia-uitsig.com/pages/restaurants/la-colombe.php

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Correspondent:Jack Bradford

Originally from the East Coast, Jack travels extensively for his personal and professional projects. No matter which city, town or village, whether on business or vacation, Jack looks for establishments which are the ones he’d revisit with his best friends or clients. To him, these places accommodate and create an excellent and memorable experience – regardless of busy schedules. Jack is currently based in London.

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