I drive down Rose Street in Bo-Kaap almost every day, and have been watching the slow progress made in a restaurant opening in what was one of my favourite coffee stops. After about six months of Haas having moved out, Batavia Café opened two weeks ago.
Old Haas fans may be disappointed with the lightweight decor, and design items for sale, following a similar concept as Haas in promoting not only its food at the Batavia Café, but also design in the Batavia section, by Cape Town designers such as Issa leo (menswear), Lazuli (womenswear), BO.NE nature made (African animal skulls), work by artists Annette Visser and Ina Grobbelaar, Gruparte (graphic posters and prints), and Oh dear Megan (jewellery designer). The first floor which housed the Haas ad agency has been let. The seating area in the little courtyard offers the most privacy. Many mixed-colour bunches of flowers, or a single stem in a vase, are spread throughout the Café.
I walked through the two level outlet, and started chatting to the very friendly co-owner Zayaan Rasdien. She took time to sit down with me, describing her new project as a lifestyle café. She grew up in Bo-Kaap in her grandmother’s house, where she learnt the Cape Malay cooking traditions. She explained that they do not follow Cape Malay cook books, having recipes in their head, and instinctively adding a pinch of this and that ingredient to their recipes, rather than measuring an exact measure of it. She now lives in Rondebosch. Her dad is the business owner, but has given his daughter carte blanche to run the business, having had to agree to two of her conditions: giving her full freedom in shaping the interior design, and allowing her to continue with her first love, being interior design. The layout in the upstairs section is very similar to that of Haas, with the design section towards the back, longer shared tables to sit and eat and drink beverages at, and wingback chairs with small side-tables. The art for sale is hung on the walls, and the painting of the late Nelson Mandela dominates the upstairs section. There is little in the design department, but her stock is likely to grow. Zayaan said that her interior design has ‘infused all aspects of design‘, from the cakes, the latte art, the graphic design, the jewellery, the clothing design, and more.
The biggest surprise was that Batavia Café has grown out of a merger with the former Puerto Cabo which operated on Loop Street, as a Spanish-style café selling excellent cakes sourced from a bakery around the corner, as well as the menswear range Issa Leo of one of the Spanish co-owners Issa and Zacharias Lopez. Now the outlet on Loop Street only sells the clothing line, and the former Puerto Cabo owners have teamed up with Zayaan to create Batavia and Batavia Café. It took a while for me to recognise the yellow, red, and black metal chairs used at Batavia, which were moved across from Puerto Cabo. While Puerto Cabo was more masculine in its design, Batavia is softer and more feminine.
This is where the Café becomes unfocused in what it stands for, its decor and menu being a mélange of the former Spanish-inspired Puerto Cabo influence, the Cape Malay location in Bo-Kaap and Zayaan’s heritage, as well as the French influence which Zayaan identified in her research on Batavia, the outlet name of her choice, and the name of one of the three ships with which Jan van Riebeeck and his sailors arrived in Cape Town in 1652. A loose sheet explains the choice of name and how it gives the Café the French feel. The ship had brought the first slave to the Cape, being Abraham of Batavia, coming from the capital of Indonesia, as it was named then. Napoleon had conquered the Netherlands, it is explained, and therefore the French took over all Dutch-owned colonies, including the Cape. The British saw this as a threat, and won the Cape back from the French (who had received support from the Cape Malays) at the Battle of Blaauwberg. The first mosque in Cape Town was allowed to be built by the British, and the current Bo-Kaap area was allocated to the Malays. The history of the French influence on the Cape and on the Cape Malays was captured by Zayaan in her logo design, depicting Table Mountain in black and white, and a helmet (oddly in yellow) with blue, white and red fathers.
In the entrance section the impressive counter and cupboard behind it were moved by Haas to its new venue on Buitenkant Street. This has left an open space now used as the open plan restaurant, not looking as attractive as it was in the Haas-era. The new counter takes more of the space of this section, and displays the cakes: a lemon tart with granadilla, a red velvet cake, koe’sisters, savoury muffins, and croissants. Deluxe have supplied the coffee machine, and the baristas have been trained by the coffee company. Zayaan is proud of her good quality TWG teas from Singapore. Breakfast is served all day, and choices include muesli (R50); oats (R40); an English Breakfast with macon instead of bacon (R70); a bread basket (R35); omelettes (basic R29, Spanish R50, and with salmon R65); poached eggs and spinach (R50); fresh fruit platter (R55); muffins (R20); croissants (plain R24, with chocolate spread R35, and with mozzarella and ‘tomoto’ R38); crêpes (R35); waffles (R55); and traditional koe’sisters (R10). Zayaan explained how she had learned to make the koe’sisters with her gran, drying naartjie peel and then grinding it into a powder to add to the dough for flavour and colour. It was my first koe’sister, and I enjoyed it for being far less syrupy sweet than the Afrikaans koeksister, and for being sprinkled with coconut. Sandwiches (with a salad) are available all day, costing R22 – R55 (smoked salmon), and salads seem expensive, ranging from R70 (vegetarian) – R85 for a smoked salmon salad. A daily lunch special not exceeding R65 is offered, and on Tuesday it was Club Steak with a zucchini salad. I was not impressed with the Spanish omelette, being very salty and having a strong olive oil taste, the omelette and the vegetables inside having all been cooked in a Spanish oil with a much stronger taste than our local olive oils, one of the Spanish co-owners explained. I had ordered the omelette without onions and chili, but the message did not reach the kitchen in respect of the chilis, a particular dislike of mine. Zayaan told me that their mint lemonade is one of their most popular beverages (R22). Their bread comes from The Real Bread Company in Muizenberg.
I met Assistant Manager Nancy, reporting to Zayaan, who is from Peru with links to Argentina too, who recently married her South African husband Gerrit-Petrus. She is friendly and charming, and sought feedback. Nancy apologised for the chili error by removing the charge of a freshly squeezed orange juice from the bill. The Chef is Abdullah from Zanzibar, and Zimbabwean Memory is the Head Baker, both having been at Haas originally. Waitron staff wear jeans with a blue Batavia-branded shirt.
Zayaan has some more plans up her sleeve, but was not willing to share all of these so early in her business opening. She did share that she wants to expand the size of the kitchen, and do cooking demos for local and tourists to get to learn Cape Malay food preparation. She would like her patrons to feel that they are coming to visit her as if it is her home. She told me that she does not have a favorite restaurant, but rather a favorite style of food, being Mexican.
Batavia and its Café needs to find focus, the Spanish element being most out of place in the mélange. The location within Bo-Kaap would lead one to focus on the Cape Malay cuisine, and this is where Zayaan’s thinking is leading her in terms of the cooking demos, one suspects, especially to the benefit of the multitude of tourists walking the colourful streets of the area. The food needs a huge improvement, in what I tasted, and communication between the kitchen and waitrons needs to be perfectly aligned.
POSTSCRIPT 23/4: I popped in at Batavia Café this afternoon, and enjoyed a cinnamon apple muffin, served warmed-up with butter. The reception from Zayaan was very cool, as if she had not met me before. I asked to speak to her, and she did admit that she was disappointed with the review, especially with the misspelling of her name, which I have corrected. She also told me that they have addressed communication between front-of-house and the kitchen, and use less olive oil in making omelettes now. She was annoyed that I had drawn so many parallels with Haas. Sad was to see that the restaurant was empty at 16h00. No progress has been made with their website and Social Media.
Batavia Cafe, corner Church and Rose Street, Bo-Kaap, Cape Town. Tel (021) 422-2272. No website or Social Media. Monday – Friday 8h00 – 17h00 (kitchen closed on Fridays between 12h30 – 13h30), Saturday 8h00 – 15h00.