Last month I was lucky to eat at La Colombe twice, a lunch by invitation of Saronsberg, and a dinner by invitation of La Colombe Head Chef James Gaag. I was impressed with the growth in the restaurant cuisine and theme since first eating at the restaurant after its move to Silvermist two years ago.
My dinner companion was Mari-Louis Guy, one of three judges of the baking program Koekedoor, and a food stylist in the CakeBread production company which she owns with her brother Callie Maritz. The drive up the winding driveway was a little scary at night, but the signage is good in guiding one. We were welcomed by Lara the sommelier, with a glass of Laurent Perrier Brut, which was sent to our table by Restaurant Manager Jennifer Hugé.
Chef James Gaag is the Head Chef, a very young dynamic chef with German roots, and liked by everyone who meets him. Chef Scot Kirton is the Executive Chef, and apologized for his absence at our dinner evening, being ill. Both Chefs Scot and James impressed with their trip to the USA in June, paid for out of their own pockets and designed to provide new inspiration, Chef James eating at Atera in New York (which inspired my booking to eat there in July, when I visited New York to eat at the World’s 50 Best Restaurants in the city), Grace and Alinea in Chicago, at Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, and more. Chef James joined the La Colombe kitchen six years ago when it still was at Constantia Uitsig. He studied at Silwood. He left La Colombe to work at Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quatre Saisons. He returned to La Colombe two years ago. He was featured in the first episode of ‘Recipe for Success’, which is presented by Chef Reuben Riffel, and which was broadcast last week for the first time. Chef Reuben could not stop raving about Chef James.
Chef Proprieter Scot Kirton was named Eat Out San Pellegrino Chef of the Year last year. He started his cooking career without any training at Haute Cabriere, moved to the Gordon Ramsay owned Savoy Grill in London, and joined Chef Luke Dale-Roberts at La Colombe nine years ago. Six years ago he became the Head Chef of La Colombe. He opens Foxcroft in Constantia later this month, a more casual dining experience offering a bakery serving breakfasts too.
Melissa Osborne was our waitress, and impressed throughout the evening, with her knowledge of each dish, and later in the evening, of the wines she poured when she took over the wine duty. She has worked at La Colombe for three years. She brought us a copy of the menu, and explained that we could have the complete 14-course Tasting Menu served in smaller courses (R990 without wine pairing/R1780 with fine and rare wines), or we could choose the ‘or’ options, which would reduce the dinner to ten courses (R690 without wine, R1270 paired with fine and rare wines). We chose the ‘or’ option, and I asked for a glass of the Tesselaarsdal Pinot Noir, being the driver. Chef James would have none of the ‘or’ing, and decided that we should try all the courses, with their wine pairings!
The tables have white table cloths, a side plate, an air plant, and a creative way of presenting the napkin, in a holder which looks like a taco shell, on ‘feet’ to stabilize it on the table. The napkin holder stays on the table, and was a clever ‘plate’ into which the sourdough roll was served. It was a little impractical, in one not being able to put both halves of the roll next to each other, nor is there enough space for the spread served with the roll. The spread was the most unusual I have ever seen, a blend of bone marrow, pickled fish, anchovy, flash-fried aubergine purée, and salsa verde, which is presented in a bone marrow shaped dish, made by Diana Ferreira. I loved the wooden branch-shaped spoon, fitting for the forest theme! The ingredients were not spontaneously mentioned, but I asked.
The second course was the beautifully presented La Colombe garden, which was served as a canapé prior to the start of the Saronsberg lunch as well. It was designed by Chef James, and is a collection of tiny shells with a multitude of ingredients, placed in a ‘garden setting’ on a small hollowed out log, with moss and flowers and other garden elements. I lost track of all the ingredients that go into the edible part of this dish, and could not believe how many there are in this dish when Chef James Messengered me the dish elements: a crisp spring roll case dusted in cep and cocoa nib, chicken liver parfait, hazelnuts, and pickled Jerusalem artichokes. An Angus tartare was dressed with miso. Purées were smoked porcini, a herb emulsion, and a Sherry and verjuice gel. The dish was completed with confit lemon soy pickled mushrooms, red wine shallots, and shaved chestnuts.
West Coast oyster, caviar, kalamansi (an Asian citrus), Apple salsa, sliced celery, confit lemon caviar, radish, soy and mirin (a Japanese sweet rice wine) sauce was course number three, and was paired with Ghost Corner Wild Ferment Sauvignon Blanc 2015, which is made by David Niewoudt in Elim.
I noticed that whenever Mari-Louis or I left the table, the napkin was removed, and replaced with a fresh one, an impressive service touch.
This was followed by the black marble ball dish, which arrived with a closed lid, but emitted smoke when the lid was removed by the waitress. It contained braised lamb tongue, smoked sweetbreads, sweet potato purée, sweet potato crisps, Jerusalem artichoke and rosemary purée, a sweet potato croquette, salsa verde, smoked garlic velouté, and lamb jus. The dish was paired with Warwick Cabernet Franc 2010.
The Tuna La Colombe dish is well-known, and the signature dish has been served for the past two years, since opening at Silvermist. I was told that they have tried to replace this dish with another, but it is so popular that they have not done so. It is served in a can with a pull-ring lid, containing the surprise ingredients of yellowtail tuna, ponzu citrus, radish, peas, ginger, shiitake, and an umami dressing. The wine pairing was with Chris Alheit’s Hemelrand Vine Garden 2015, a blend of Roussanne, Chardonnay, Verdelho, and Viognier.
The Asian steamed pork bun was the only course which did not fit into the Forest theme of the menu, in my view. It contained pork belly with an Asian barbecue glaze, coriander pesto, and homemade kimchi (fermented Korean dish made of vegetables), which was presented on bamboo leaves in a bamboo box. Chef James told us that they chose this dish as something different, the bun (or Bao) being spongy and crustless, and brings street food into fine dining, he explained.
A beautifully presented dish of cured Norwegian salmon, with Alaskan king crab, blood orange purée, pickled kohlrabi, puffed wild rice, compressed melon, salmon roe, ouzo-infused tapioca, basil seed and blood orange dressing, and wood sorrel was served by waiter Ryan, friendly and sharing that he is studying film composing at UCT. The wine pairing was with Thelema Riesling 2009.
Scallops are rarely seen on local menus, but were seen on every menu in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants I ate at in London and in New York in July. I learned to love eating them on my trip, so it was a pleasant surprise to find them on the La Colombe menu. The Canadian scallops were miso seared, and ‘paired’ with confit quail breast, served with sweetcorn, parsnip purée, with parsnip crisps, and braaied corn velouté. A home-made teriyaki sauce was presented in a feathered nest, inside a ceramic egg shell holder created by ceramicist Tania Babb. This dish was paired with Tesselaarsdal Pinot Noir 2015, a maiden vintage made by Hamilton Russell which spent nine months in the barrel.
My photographs of the palate cleanser of the Grannysmith apple lollipops served on a bed of pebbles, smoking created with liquid nitrogen, received positive feedback and interest.
We were asked if we had any dietary requirements, and I told our waitress about my mussel allergy. My fish dish of Mauritian sea bass, smoked white onion purée, tempura calamari, home-made chorizo (inspired by the chefs’ visit to Spain in 2015), a warm salad of buckwheat, saffron, and lentils, coriander, and pickled onions, served with a Soubise onion sauce, excluded the mussels. It was paired with Mullineux White Blend 2014.
The meat dish was Chalmar beef (Wagyu beef carries a supplement of R150), which was smoked at the table on a smoker which Chef Scot had found in New York, an unusual touch. The smoker contained wine cask smoking chips. We were told that the Wagyu beef is sourced from the Woodview (‘The Caviar of Beef’ its website claims) farm near Johannesburg, being the first Wagyu beef to be brought into our country. With the beef was served oxtail, langoustine, peas, a purée, shell peas, sugar snap peas, and pickled mustard seeds, served with a whole grain mustard Beurre Blanc. The wine pairing was with Morgenster Red Blend 2003.
As I had experienced the cheese dish for the Saronsberg lunch, I chose the ‘or’ option of Valrhona chocolate of Azelia cremeux, Jerusalem artichoke (what an unusual ingredient in a dessert!) ice cream, macerated grapefruit, grapefruit purée, chocolate crumble, meringue, chocolate sticks, and hazelnut, which was paired with Joostenberg Noble Late Harvest Chenin Blanc 2007.
Mari-Louis chose the Three ages of Boerenkaas (a smear of Catalan 12 month old, the ribbon set fondue 6 month old, and crumble 22 month old), with onion, rhubarb, walnut and cumin ice cream, which was paired with Blaauwklippen Noble Late Harvest Zinfandel 2012.
We were also served a guava cheesecake, with coconut espuma, guava gel, elderflower milk ice, coconut cake, and burnt egg yolk, which had a pairing with Delheim Edelspatz 2015.
Chef James hinted at the exciting coffee pairing which ended off the dinner. His brother works at Tribe coffee, and sourced the last 70 kg available worldwide of Ethiopian Yirgacheffe heirloom coffee beans from a single block for La Colombe. It has aromatics of fruitiness and jasmine, which was brought to the table with a lid, to preserve the aroma. The coffee was paired with petit fours, each of which was paired with a different style of drinking the coffee, and which looked like river pebbles. The jasmine and blueberry financiers were paired with the neat coffee. White chocolate ‘pebbles’ with Maldon sea salt and popping candy were paired with the coffee to which a block of ice had been added. The aniseed coated caramel truffle was paired with the now cold coffee to which tonic water was added.
Mari-Louis was a perfect dinner partner, and we laughed throughout the evening. We had such a good time that we were the last to leave, after midnight! The service was exceptional in reflecting the food and wine knowledge, and the creativity of the chefs in taking us through the ‘forest’ of La Colombe’s location on Silvermist through its food superb. The artwork in the restaurant, especially in the private dining room, is forest focused. The coffee pairing was an excellent ending to our very special meal. It is our belief that Eat Out should seriously consider La Colombe as the top restaurant this year, given the excellence we experienced. No doubt La Colombe will climb up the World’s 50 Best Restaurant list next year, from its current 76th rank.