It was a surprise earlier this week to discover that the buffet-style dinners at the Baxter Theatre have been discontinued, to be replaced with a fine-dining style restaurant called Act, and owned by The Forum, a catering company from Johannesburg, I was told.  I went twice this week, preceding the Beethoven Piano Concerto Festival performances.

On my first visit only six tables were available for service, those deeper in the restaurant not laid as there were construction workers working on the bathrooms.  Luckily they did so without one hearing them.  One must pre-book a table, and I did so for the second concert.  The manager found a small table for me for the first (unbooked) dinner.  The second evening was almost fully booked when I arrived, and my booked table could not be found.  I was taken deep into the restaurant, not as attractive looking as the entrance section.   A table was found for me there.   The tables have a yellow table cloth and serviette, a vase with a pink dahlia (an old-fashioned flower type not often seen, yet so pretty), a little candle, and  small containers with coarse salt and ground black pepper, one with a spoon, and the other without.  The modern cutlery is by Fortis Hotelware, and beautifully new and shiny.  The glassware is of an excellent quality.  This is where the quality ends.

With so many more tables to serve on my second visit, the service was even worse than it was on my first visit.   I quickly saw that one should only order one item from the menu to have any chance of seeing one’s show on time, even if one arrives an hour or longer before the start of a concert or show.  The service is inconsistent – on the first visit I received a basket with bread presented in a serviette, but not on my second visit. The menu is in a good quality leather holder, and easy to read.  Surprising was that the winelist was not offered on both occasions, and that I had to ask for it.

To try out the restaurant on the first visit, and due to less time available, I only ordered a green pea, spinach and watercress soup, sprinkled with bits of feta (R36).  This symphony in green was nice and thick, filling, the feta was a good marriage with the mix of three greens, and offered good value.  On my second visit I ordered organic trout on potato rosti, with vodka cream cheese, black caviar and chives (R72) – the dish sounded promising, and looked beautiful, and there were two slices of trout, in between two slices of very thin rosti, sprinkled with a little caviar.  The rest of the dish I struggled with, not tasting the chives, nor the vodka in the cream cheese.  The rosti was very dry, and the cream cheese was just a drizzle, not adding enough moisture to the rosti to make it pleasant to eat.  I felt it to be overpromised and overcharged for what one gets.  The port and peppercorn chicken liver paté (R48) was more successful, served with bruschetta, yet I could not detect the peppercorns nor the port in the taste nor the texture!  This order caused a service let-down.  When I explained that I wanted to take the paté home with me, due to a time shortage, the supervisor said they do not do take-aways. I asked him to bring me the starter, wanting to photograph it anyway, and then I would ask for a doggy bag.  I was surprised when I received the take-away container with the paté, and had to request that they plate it for the photograph, and then put it back in the container! Other starters include beetroot and apple soup (R32) and mussel pot (R55).  Main courses range from R65 for “fish and fat chips” to R145 for loin of lamb wrapped in potato rosti.  One can also order fillet; lamb shank; spinach and feta cannelloni; Thai green calamari; and chicken stuffed with truffled mushroom and Gruyere cheese.  Desserts cost around R45, and include Amarula crème brûlée, yoghurt Amaretto panna cotta, twice baked goats’ cheese and red wine pear soufflé, and chocolate fudge torte.

The serving of the two starters took an hour, but I did manage to get a weak cappuccino (R13) organised from my waitress.  Her initial response was to point upstairs, meaning that I should get it in the upstairs bar.  I asked her to oblige, which she did!  Payment by credit card was done at the table, but took time to organise. The bill was presented with a “commenting” card, the waitress asking me to provide my feedback.  I have not received a response from the restaurant to my feedback.  One of the biggest service issues is that the entrance to the restaurant, leading from the steps down to the theatre entrances, is not manned by any staff, to deal with new ‘arrivals’, mainly being Baxter ticket holders who are inquisitive about the new restaurant, distracting the staff from serving the guests who are eating there.

As an alternative, one can go upstairs to the Play Bar, have a drink and order tapas, which come from the same kitchen, probably causing some of the service issues experienced.  The tapas menu is a tiny laminated list consisting of five options: olive plate, mezze, chicken and mushroom, savouries, and cheese, ranging from R46 – R68 for two persons.   By day the Play Bar is a coffee bar, serving sandwiches and other light meals, on Mondays to Fridays, until 17h00.

The winelist is a tiny unlaminated piece of paper, almost looking like an after-thought, and its selection of four white and three red wines is far too small to match the ‘fine-dining’-style of the restaurant, and its typing errors are unforgivable.  White wines offered are Pecan Stream (R85), Remhoogte Chenin Blanc (R20/R88), Villiera Sauvignon Blanc (R25/R90) and Steenberg Sauvignon Blanc (R140).   The Beyerskloof Pinotage was unprofessionally crossed off the red wine list, leaving only a Remhoogte Aigle Noir (R20/R90) and a “Roupert & Rothchilds” (ouch, with a double typo!) Classique (R150).

Act needs a lot of hard work to improve its act, its service performance being unsatisfactory – all the staff are understandably new, but unforgivabley untrained.  The manager seemed nice, but was running in and out of the kitchen with dishes, not managing what was going on in the restaurant on both evenings.  The design of the restaurant, being a long ‘rectangular’ shaped open space, seperated by the bar in part, means that staff at the back end of the restaurant have no idea of what is happening in the front section.  Act is not cheap, and the time limit one has before the show is likely to cause service issues for its customers.  Ideally one should phone through one’s order when making the booking, especially if one is planning to order more than one course!  I am not sure if such a service exists.

POSTSCRIPT 11/4/11: I was impressed to receive the following e-mail from Glynis Hyslop, MD of The Forum, today: “Thank you for taking the time to review our new, as yet unopened restaurant. Based as I am in Johannesburg I am delighted to have a Mystery shopper who delivers such comprehensive reports! In particular thank you for your comments on the quality of the table appointments. As you correctly point out, the kitchen services both the restaurant and the tapas bar upstairs which can be difficult if both are busy. To mitigate this you will have noticed the extensive open cooking area within the restaurant. Unfortunately until this weekend this was not in use.  During our renovations we discovered that the previous restaurant’s gas installations were both illegal and leaking.  As I am sure you are aware the current regulations call for submission of plans to council and approval before new gas points are installed.   On Friday morning we received permission from the Baxter   for a further temporary installation of   gas to the front kitchen whilst we wait for council approval.  Even though this is a soft opening it has been very difficult to operate, with only 1/3 of the kitchen, but we hope to be fully operational as soon as this approval is forthcoming. We have noted the comments on the food and have changed the rosti, they will be future be made thicker which will hopefully ensure that they are not dry. Thank you for the comments re the service.   This is an issue that we are working on. I am however very perturbed to find that your comment card has not made its way to either the Exec chef, the manager of the restaurants division, or myself. The forum is committed to world class food and service and you clearly experienced neither.  I would be delighted if you could let me know when you will next be at the Baxter so that I can organize a complimentary meal for you to experience the forum as it should be.  I would also be delighted   if you could attend the opening on Thursday evening the 14th. We will be forwarding you an invitation tomorrow.”

POSTSCRIPT 12/4/11: Kim Roberts, the GM of the Restaurant Division of The Forum, has written today: I am aware that our MD has been in contact with on receiving the review you gave our soon to be opened new restaurant at the Baxter Theatre Centre, feedback is always greatly appreciated as it keeps us on our toes and ensures that we are continually working to achieve on the goals we set out.  Attached is your comment card and am in agreement with regards to the service issues not being to standard.  We are currently training staff daily to ensure better communication from our staff to our patrons.  We run a custom touch points program for all our service staff and believe once they have completed this that service levels will be where they are.  I know that you are aware that we have had limited gas supply and with the front kitchen being incomplete, the espresso machine only going in there  last Friday and staff running up and down service stairs to get a patrons coffee order has certainly compounded our service delivery.  The theatre going crowd is time poor with show starting times, but wanting a nibble, meal or a beverage before a show, we made a call to serve under not so perfect circumstances while building construction was going on,  will so I do hope you will return in a more settled time.  I am on route to Cape Town today for the re-opening of the Baxter Hospitality facilities on Thursday and am looking forward to meeting you then.  In the interim, I am now following you on twitter to see what else you are up to! “

POSTSCRIPT 14/4/11: My colleague and I attended the official opening by David Kramer of Act Restaurant and Play Bar.  I met both Kim Roberts and Glynis Hyslop from The Forum.  A proper winelist has now been compiled, I was told.

POSTSCRIPT 4/4/12: The Cape Times reported yesterday that the ACT restaurant and PLAY bar vacated the Baxter Theatre overnight last weekend, not having paid their rent for three months.  It was predictable that the restaurant and bar would not survive, their service being so exceptionally poor!

Act Restaurant, Baxter Theatre, Main Road, Rondebosch.  Tel (021) 685-3888.  www.theforum.co.za (The website has only a short reference to Act restaurant and Play Bar, and shows photographs of the renovations, as well as sketches of the new interior design. The site refers to its ‘gourmet a la carte menu’, but none is provided. The Forum positions itself boldly as follows: “The Forum company team is dedicated to delivering world-class services”!   The website also refers to Act’s ‘extensive winelist’.   I did not see any of this at Act restaurant this week).  The Forum has other projects in Johannesburg, and a second project is underway in Cape Town, but the staff could not tell me where it is.  Monday – Saturday evenings.

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage