It was restaurant reviewer and now Platter’s South African Wines 2014 publisher JP Rossouw who told me about Springfontein Eats outside Stanford, asking me at the launch of the wine guide whether I had already eaten there. Having spent the past weekend in Hermanus, I drove to the restaurant on Saturday, finding a culinary oasis, with former 1 star Michelin Chef Jürgen Schneider preparing a lunch feast just for me!
I had booked for lunch and was the only patron in the restaurant, despite it being a long weekend. The restaurant opened two months ago. Springfontein was bought by Jürgen and Susanne Schneider as well as by Johst and Jen Weber in 1994, then a cattle farm. The farm had belonged to David Trafford’s father in law, and it was suggested to them that the abundance of water, the terroir, the limestone soil, the nearby ocean location, the difference in daytime and nighttime temperatures, and the slope on the farm, would be ideal for wine production, which advice they followed and they started planting vines eleven years ago. They were laughed at initially, being ridiculed for the ‘vinegar’ that they would be producing, but they have proven their critics wrong! Springfontein is the oldest wine farm in Stanford. They sold their grapes to Hamilton Russell and to Rupert & Rothschild initially, until they started making their own wines 7 – 8 years ago.
The road to Springfontein is not the easiest to find in Stanford, one driving down Stanford’s main road, and then turning left into Moore Road, and carrying on straight, the road becoming a gravel one and taking one to Springfontein 5 km along. The road signs are tiny, not brown tourism ones, as I had expected. Gravel roads are not my favourite, due to a childhood experience of a car accident on such a road, but the condition of the road was reasonable.
Three cottages on the farm have been transformed into guest accommodation, and the Springfontein Winery wine cellar was built. The old homestead was transformed into Springfontein Eats restaurant, the most recent of the facilities on the wine estate to open. I asked Chef Jürgen why he would leave a lucrative and successful Michelin star graded restaurant Strahlenberger Hof in Schriesheim they have run for 18 years, and start from scratch on a farm in Africa! It has to do with age he said, and before he turns 60 he wanted to make a radical change – it was now or never, he said. As I walked towards the restaurant, having booked as ‘Chris’, Chef Jürgen came to greet me personally, saying that he recognised me from having stayed at our guest house in Camps Bay ten years ago, on one of their visits to their farm. For a man I thought this was amazing! Cleverly the kitchen windows face the pathway, so they try to spot judges and writers. I had been walked to the restaurant by a young German staff member, and her colleague and intern Peter Kern was on hand to assist with drinks and copying part of the wine list for me.
Jeudi Hunter is the hospitality all-rounder at Springfontein, and offered especially attentive service, answering my many questions with patience, bringing brochures, and asking Chef Jürgen questions when she could not answer them.
About 35 guests can be accommodated inside the main restaurant, which is open plan, but has three separated nooks, partly created by a fireplace that has already worked overtime with the cool summer to date. The restaurant impresses immediately with the nostalgic smell of thatch, and it has a chic interior, with exposed stone walls, unusual grey painted chair frames with grey upholstery, grey and wine red walls, a welcoming angel I would have bought immediately had it not made such a long journey from Germany, and interesting modern rolled stainless steel wall lights. Wooden topped tables do not have table cloths, but an ample material serviette looking like a drying cloth was available, with an attractive square glass container with coarse salt and a dainty glass bottle of olive oil on the table, with Hepp Exclusiv cutlery. The only Christmas decoration is two silver balls with a green Christmas ribbon, as a centrepiece on each inside table. A function room leads off the main restaurant, seating 25 guests. Near the entrance, and next to the fridges with the wines, is the Winemaker’s Table, an interesting design seating ten guests, and with a centre piece of square removable stainless steel ice buckets and smaller shallow containers for snacks.
I chose to sit outside, overlooking a large lawn area, with milkwood trees in the distance, and the palm tree lined driveway. A cat came to say hello, and Jeudi showed me two special rooms for two, just big enough to accommodate a couple who want to share a romantic meal in privacy. Susanne usually is in charge of guests, but is in Germany to participate in a SWR TV programme ‘Endlich ueber 50!‘ on German TV, documenting how her life has changed since she has turned 50, in leaving her past behind in Germany, and settling in Stanford, Chef Jürgen apologising for her absence.
The menu presentation is surprisingly unimpressive, on a simple A4 sheet, folded, and has two columns headed ‘Menu with Veal‘ and ‘Menu with Beef’, actually only referring to the main course on each. Prices are indicated as R280 for 3 courses, 4 courses cost R380, 5 courses R460, and 6 courses R520. I was not expecting such a big lunch, and chose to keep it simple at 3 courses. Even though this advice may be to the detriment of the restaurant, one is spoilt with so many extra treats that one should only order the 3 course meal. Jeudi explained that one can mix and match between the two menus, and make another course one’s main if preferred, showing great flexibility. I was offered something to drink, but as it was about a 45 minute drive back to Hermanus I chose to stick with water. I was offered the choice of still or sparkling water, and I asked for tap water, which came in a silver jug with ice, or so I thought!
Before I had ordered Peter brought through the first treat, being the pre-Amuse Bouche, two tiny seeded loaf toasts with chicken liver paté, which were presented on a stone ‘foraged‘ from the farm, Chef Jürgen told me. He is big on foraging, this being his cuisine policy, picking river seaweed, dune spinach, unusual wild growing herbs he remembered from Spain, and more. Hildegard Witbooi is the horticulturist, and set up the vegetable and herb garden, including tomatoes, basil, onions, coriander, chili, and more, wanting to be sustainable for the restaurant in future. He buys in the duck and beef. He and Chef Eric Bulpitt from The Restaurant at Newton Johnson should get on like a house on fire, Chef Eric also being a big forager, and a meal by Chef Eric at Springfontein Eats was cancelled last week, to Chef Jürgen’s disappointment. Peter brought a nicely presented plate of breads, on a serviette, being a freshly baked pre-cut brioche with a crispy and crunchy crust, a baguette, and crostini. I asked for butter, and only realised afterwards that the olive oil was meant to be used for the bread. After I placed my order, a first very attractive amuse bouche of a trio of tomato was served, each in a simple glass dish with bursts of flavour, being a mousse of tomato consommé and salsa, a tomato and basil terrine, and a tomato consommé agar agar, made from vegetarian gelatin. Then Jeudi brought a second amuse bouche, one of my favourites of the eight dishes I tried, being an avocado guacamole, finely chopped cashew nuts, and a surprise avocado sorbet underneath, presented in an avocado green ceramic bowl made by ceramicist Tracy Duivestein across the road. The amuse contained contrasts of smooth and crunchy, and room temperature and ice cold.
The starter was a deconstructed gazpacho with mozzarella, coming with a ‘shooter‘ of red pepper topped with olive oil foam, and a plate with brioche and garlic soil representing croutons, a chip of mozzarella and almond, a quenelle of mozzarella foam and pieces, green and yellow pepper sauces, and a succulent herb called purslain, which Chef Jürgen had encountered in Spain previously. A surprise intermediary course was a duck consomme, with finely chopped carrots and chives.
The best of all the dishes tasted was the main course, being a starter of beetroot and duck which I had requested as a main course, and was simple compared to the starter and dessert, which were far more busy. Each of the only two elements came as a trio, served on a white plate with an ‘S’ on it: the beetroot was served chopped, thinly sliced, and braised; the meat as duck confit, sliced duck breast, and crispy duck skin. What made the dish so special was the amazing sauce it was served with, Chef Jürgen bringing more in a gravy boat, and I asked for a spoon to finish every last drop! The next course was another surprise, Judy bringing a frozen orange tear on a stick, covered with meringue, and served in a shooter glass of sugar.
The dessert was simply described as peach and fennel, and consisted of a peach coulis ‘dammed’ up in a fennel cream ‘wall’, half a poached peach, a saffron and peach quenelle, a fennel crisp, and peach sorbet. As if the meal had not been generous enough, Chef Jürgen brought a last surprise of five sweet treats served on a self-foraged farm stone, being a triple chocolate brownie, chocolate petit four, macaroon, rosemary chocolate slice, and a traditional German ‘Baumkuchentorte‘, the favourite cake my mother used to bake for birthdays.
Jeudi said that Chef Jürgen and his team (which includes a chef from his German restaurant) are flexible, and can cater for vegan and lactose-intolerant guests. I asked Chef Jürgen as to who influenced his cuisine, as molecular gastronomy is mentioned in a brochure I saw. I asked if he was a disciple of the former El Bulli’s Ferran Adria, but he was quick to tell me that his cooking has been shaped by 15 chefs over his career, and he has taken the best from each of them. Foraging suits molecular gastronomy, but his focus is on taste first, and then presentation, and not the other way round, which is the weakness of some of the top molecular gastronomy chefs. The website states that they wish to develop Springfontein Eats as a ‘gastronomic destination with Michelin star quality‘. I sensed a frustration that business is slower than they had anticipated, and Chef Jürgen could not understand why Eat Out has not been to eat there yet. My reply to him will not be shared here!
No vines can be seen when one visits the restaurant, other than a few planted outside the restaurant door leading to further outside seating for groups of 12 each, but Peter pointed them out to me in the far distance as we walked to the wine cellar. Tariro Masayiti is the winemaker as well as GM, having started about a year ago, and having completed his first harvest on Springfontein, joining them from KWV, where he spent a year, after leaving Nederburg, where he was assistant winemaker for white wines for a number of years. He comes from Zimbabwe, studied Viticulture and Oenology at the University of Stellenbosch, and got his first break at Distell’s Fleur du Cap. One of their bold projects is the making of South Africa’s first white Pinotage, which is still in barrels. They have two certified single vineyard wines, the Jil’s Dune Chenin Blanc, and Jonathan’s Ridge Pinotage, these two cultivars doing best on the wine estate. They also have Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay, with small quantities of Petit Verdot, Semillon, and Sauvignon Blanc. Their Terroir Selection range consists of Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Wild Yeast Chardonnay, Pinotage, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The Sopiensklip range is an easy drinking range of wines, with a red, white and ‘pink‘.
The wine list is impressive, covered in smart black leather, offering wines from Springfontein, from Stanford (Sir Robert Stanford, Stanford Hills, and Raka), from Walker Bay (Hornbill Garagiste Winery, Newton Johnson, Hamilton Russell, Bouchard Finlayson, and Creation), Elgin (IONA, Oneiric, and Spioenskop), the nearby Southern Cape (Lomond from Gansbaai, Strandveld, and Black Oystercatcher), and the traditional Winelands towns and villages. Wines by the glass are only by Springfontein, and are inexpensive at R35 for the red, white and Rosé Springfontein Sopiensklip variants and vintages, but carry a heavy markup relative to the cellar door prices of R46,20 – R53 per bottle. The Terroir Selection is not inexpensive, at R 250 for the Sauvignon Blanc 2011 and Chenin Blanc 2011, up to R350 for the Cabernet Sauvignon 2010. The single vineyard Pinotage 2010 costs R450, and the single vineyard Chenin Blanc 2011 R350. Springfontein wines are marked up more than threefold in the restaurant! A 375 ml Ikhalezi Noble Late Harvest 2007 costs R600.
The only negative about the whole experience at Springfontein Eats was the addition of R20 to the bill for water, after I had asked for tap water. Paul had not indicated that there would be a charge for it, Jeudi explaining to me that the water comes out of the spring on their estate, which should make them even less likely to charge for it! I thought that Jeudi’s service was exceptional, but that she was not sure of all the ingredients of the dishes and the spelling of some of them. As one arrives one sees a blackboard with a breakdown of some of the dishes on the menu, with the exact positioning of the elements on the plate, for the serving staff to share with the guests.
Springfontein Eats is off the beaten track, but raises the bar of cuisine in the Overberg, together with The Restaurant at Newton Johnson. Visitors to Hermanus should take the trouble to drive out to Stanford, no longer the domain of Mariana’s, which put the village on the map, but of which one hears very little these days. Signage in the village could be improved; the menu could be made more presentable to match the food that is served; the menu better explained in terms of the starters and main courses on the menu, as well as the dish ingredients; and greater use should be made of Social Media (I was impressed that they joined Twitter immediately after my departure, and that they reTweeted my Tweets, but they have not sought new Followers by following restaurant opinion leaders). Cats in a restaurant of this calibre are a no-no; there is no cellphone reception in the restaurant, a frustration for Tweeters and for those needing to be in contact; one can question whether the restaurant name is a good one for what they want to create at Springfontein; and the knowledge of the servers about the dishes and their ingredients needs to be upped greatly, to do justice to Chef Jürgen’s dishes. An interview with Tariro by Carl Momberg, on the home page of the Springfontein website, is an embarrassment with its spelling errors, and the winelist contains spelling errors too! Commendable is the restaurant and hotel apprentice school which the Schneiders want to establish. A more formal tasting room for the wine estate would be an advantage, the cellar looking very functional and not attractive to visitors. Time will tell whether a three course lunch menu at a R280 entry level price will attract patrons from Cape Town and Hermanus, and whether Michelin quality fine dining is of interest to locals. When I called yesterday, the phone rang for ages, and I was about to put down the phone when a man answered. He did not sound capable of taking a restaurant booking. Stanford wine estates should get together, to create a Stanford Wine Route, to create more awareness for the wine region, and to attract visitors to their wine estates.
Springfontein Eats, Springfontein Wine Estate, Springfontein Road, Stanford. Tel (028) 341 0651. www.springfontein.co.za Twitter: @SpringfontEats @Springfontein Lunch Thursday – Saturday, Dinner Tuesday – Saturday.
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage
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