A lunch at Coco Safar, followed by a dinner three days later, were two chalk and cheese experiences, the former excellent and the latter hugely disappointing, especially as it was a birthday dinner treat for a special friend! I had last been to Coco Safar for breakfast early this year, after it opened in Sea Point, having moved from Cavendish Square.
On a Sunday just over ten days ago I was elsewhere in the Artem Centre, the deluxe refurbished former Adelphi Centre in Sea Point. As the only other coffee shop had just closed, I headed to Coco Safar, to have a coffee there, despite my disappointment in the restaurant not making my dry cappuccino with froth in the way that I like it. I went to the take-away hatch, and saw an apple galette, which I wanted to photograph, so I asked the staff member if he could push it out of the glass cover, to enhance the photograph. He refused, telling me that he is not allowed to, and that I was to go inside the restaurant, to request permission.
I was very surprised to bump into Manager Mel Sookool, previously with Villa 47, who recognised me, and made it an (unplanned) afternoon of discovery and excitement. She immediately offered to have a dry cappuccino made for me, which also was not very frothy, but it was my first of the day, so it had to suffice. She seated me at their coffee and tea tasting counter, and introduced me to Nasiphi, who promised to take me on a coffee trip around the world, linking to the globe in the shopping centre passage opposite the various Coco Safar sections. I was offered the choice of tasting the red or green Rooibos teas, the red named Kaapstad and fermented, and the green unfermented, and named Stellenbosch. As I am not a Rooibos fan, I chose the coffee tasting. There are seven coffee capsules, each named after a city, and each having a different roasting strength, up to 10. I chose the two coffees after their city names rather than roasting strength. Manhattan is a medium to dark roast, with a taste of bitter caramel, and tobacco, I jokingly saying that it was like drinking a cigarette. The beans are sourced from the Thousand Hills Estate in Rwanda, with a roasting intensity of 10 out of 10. As I am traveling to Havana later this year, to learn to dance the Salsa, I chose Havana as my second coffee tasting, with a flavour of milk chocolate. The beans come from the Caromona estate in Guatemala, with a roasting intensity of 8 out of 10. Interestingly, one cannot order one of the City coffees in the restaurant, it using the Vajage house blend, about which no information was provided. I was told that all the tea and coffee pods are made in Clanwilliam, and are compostable, the first of its kind in our country. They decompose in 160 days, and the pods are Nespresso-compatible.
Melanie then spontaneously invited me to lunch, and told me that they have a new Pastry Chef, Carmen Rueda coming from Spain, and having previously worked at The Fat Duck and El Bulli, a huge asset for our city. She was on a business trip in Europe, returning next month. I look forward to meeting her. New Savoury Chef is Archie MacLean, who had just moved across from Catharina’s at Steenberg. I remember him from his colorful plating there. He has inherited a previous chef’s menu, having only been there for a week when I first visited. Of the options the menu offered, many of the dishes included ingredients I do not eat. The Bobotie sounded good, and its presentation in a square cast iron dish excellent, topped with yoghurt and pea shoots, and served with mango chutney. Chef Archie explained that they serve hot comfort foods, and the Bobotie fitted the bill perfectly on a wintry day. It was an excellent portion size, not being too large or
heavy. Melanie offered me one of their zero alcohol cold brews, and I chose the Citrus Coffee one, with a strong coffee taste, but little citrus to detect. The other three cold brews are Rooibos-based.
Melanie then offered me a dessert, and I selected a lemon tart, with a basil meringue topping and Sablé biscuit base, which was served with macadamia ice cream. Once again its presentation was outstanding, it had a refreshing taste, and was beautifully finished off with candy daisy flowers and a Coco Safar logo.
Melanie then invited me to move to the Botanical Micro Brewery section, showing me inside the brewery, and introducing me to the very tall Denzel. There are four 500 ml tanks for fermentation, and two for filtering. I was offered a tiny taste of each of the four cold brews, having already drunk the Citrus Coffee one for lunch. Interestingly the four cold brews are paired with ice creams and sorbets made by Coco Safar, but these are not offered for tasting, only the packs being shown: The Red Rooibos Fermented cold brew is paired with strawberry and basil gelato; the Green Rooibos Unfermented cold brew is matched with passion fruit and mango sorbet; the Citrus Coffee is married with lime and vanilla sorbet; and the Rooibos-infused cold brew is paired with lemon thyme sorbet.
A quick coffee pop-in had become a two and a half hour visit, informative, and impressive. Melanie’s friendliness and hospitality was exceptional, crowned with a little chocolate box containing coffee and cardamom, lemon meringue, and hazelnut giaduja truffles. She also made a booking for me for the Wednesday evening, saying that she would be there. I received a Loyalty Card too, which was posted in my Wallet on my phone.
Three days later I took my friend Katie Friedman to Coco Safar, to celebrate her birthday of the previous day. The entrance to the restaurant had been closed with a thick curtain. In front of it stood an officious looking Valerie with a clipboard, asking me if I had a booking. I said that I had, but she said that she could not find me on the list, a bad start. I told her again that I had a booking, which Melanie had made, and which had been confirmed electronically. It was a cold evening, and all I wanted was to get into the restaurant, being sure that the restaurant would not be full. She seemed to find my booking after all, but refused us permission to enter the restaurant, firmly instructing us to go to the Botanical Micro Brewery for our welcome drink and Amuse Bouche.
On asking, I was told that Melanie was not on duty, a big disappointment. I sensed that we were in for trouble. We were offered a Blood Orange Bellini, made with blood orange juice and ‘Chenin’ we were told, but the word ‘grape juice’ was missing, as I had asked repeatedly how it could contain Chenin Blanc if it was non-alcoholic! Yamkela was on duty, with a few colleagues, and I could not understand what he was trying to say, given the high volume of the music overhead. I asked for it to be toned down a few times, but nothing happened so I went to the restaurant to find someone who could turn down the music. By now I was feeling more than irritated. When we were served the ‘Amuse Bouche’ I nearly choked, a misnomer for a minute crispy bread pocket pillow filled with olive tapenade, cream, salt, and cherry tomatoes, we were told, presented on top of a Martini glass filled with fresh flowers and water, which had been covered with cling wrap! I was finished! This was beyond ludicrous.
We then had to endure a tasting of the four Cold Brews, which I had already tasted three days earlier. Katie also does not like Rooibos, so she tried the Citrus Coffee. I certainly learnt more from Yamkela about the brewing process compared to his colleagues Denzel three days earlier! Coco Safar is the first Botanical Brewery in the world, he told us, the Green Rooibos being unfermented, the Rooibos leaves being dried and there being no oxidation. The Red Rooibos is water fermented. They are both brewed for 96 hours, bottled, labeled, and capped, having a shelf life of only two weeks. We were told that a drop of Canadian maple syrup as well as 15 different spices are added to the Green Rooibos cold brew, giving it a herbaceous smell, and a grassy and peach taste. The Red Rooibos brew has a more distinctive Rooibos taste. The Rooibos-infused Tonic water is a blend of Red Rooibos and seven secret Maple spices, we were told. The Citrus Coffee is brewed for 24 hours, and is infused with lime and orange zest, serving as an energy drink.
After all of that, we were allowed to enter the restaurant, being shown to a very dark section of the restaurant, curtains having been drawn to the street-side windows. It was far too dark at the proposed table, so we found a table with better overhead lighting, but still not perfect, and very yellow, not good for the photography of the dishes.
Manager Michael Halvorsen introduced himself, sharing that he had only been at the restaurant for a month, coming from the former Melissa’s in Bloubergstrand, and Hudson’s before that. He wanted to take our drink order, Katie asking for another Blood Orange Bellini. As we were each ordering two courses, at what now feels like the astronomical cost of R395 each, given what we experienced, I was allowed a glass of wine, being offered a choice of three white wines (Silvermist Sauvignon Blanc, Remhoogte Chenin Blanc, and Winery of Good Hope Unwooded Chardonnay), or three red wines (FRAM Cinsault, Usana Le Fox Cabernet Sauvignon, and Gabriëlskloof Blend). Unfortunately Michael did not know the Blend components, so he had to find a bottle with this information, it revealing that it is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, a 2016 vintage, and grapes sourced from the Helderberg and Robertson regions. He wanted to pour me an ice cold glass of this wine, which I declined, so he magically warmed it up. Michael told us that they do not yet have a liquor license, and hence they include the glass of wine into the cost of the dinner.
I find it hard to order dishes for myself, being particular about what I eat since my weight loss. It felt like choosing the best out of a poor selection, none of which dishes I really wanted to eat. For her starter Katie chose an oven-roasted cauliflower, served in a leek velouté, topped with grated Pecorino , oat crumbs, and Waterlelie olive oil. At this point the waiter decided to create his own name for this dish, which none of us understood, not even Michael! My starter was a weird boring Boule Feta, a feta mousse with mushroom caponata, served with what the menu called a crouton, completely misleading in being a slice of multigrain toast! Wikipedia defines a crouton as a ‘piece of sautéed or rebaked bread, often cubed and seasoned, that is used to add texture and flavour to salads…’.
Katie’s main course was sea bass with rice noodles, and a Thai-style curry, with a stem of broccoli. My main course was extremely thinly sliced beef brisket served with sauerkraut, caper mash of which the capers were not identifiable visually nor in taste, and some carrots and courgette slices, two unmemorable dishes, and as main courses a rip-off in terms of the exhorbitant cost of the Prix Fixe dinner! I was not impressed with the presentation of any of the dishes, despite Chef Archie being on duty. He did come to our table, and it appears that he had heard similar feedback from another table of writers, appearing restricted as to what he can do or change, so frustrating for a new Chef in a restaurant with absent owners! Chef Archie worked in Scotland for eleven years, and a year each in Australia and New Zealand.
By now we had had enough of everything we had experienced, so I was irritated that we had to present ourselves at the coffee tasting counter, for the ‘nightcap’. Theo explained that he was making us an Italian-style Affogato, a Coco Safar interpretation of a coffee and ball of ice cream. We had the choice of the Kaapstad Red Rooibos tea or St Tropez coffee, so Katie and I both chose the coffee. In a bowl was a slice of chocolate gorgeousness, chocolate sponge, and chocolate ganache, topped with peppercorn and cardomom mousse, served with a ball of macadamia ice cream and chocolate soil. This was the only highlight of our dinner!
I had been given a Loyalty Card by Melanie three days earlier, but the waiter taking the payment did not ask me about it. I only discovered this error when I got home.
It was quite a shock to hear that Coco Safar is testing Spill as its PR consultancy, one of the most controversial such companies around, which has lost client after client in its attempt to earn money, after switching from blogging! Even more shocking was the company’s advice to the other media couple, to not write about the dinner, given that they too were dissatisfied! They do not talk to me as a writer, so I did not receive this instruction from them, and I would not have executed it anyway, in fairness to my readers!
I cannot recommend the Dinner at Coco Safar at all, it feeling like a comedy of errors from the first moment onwards, being exceptionally expensive, and completely incomparable to the quality of the lunch I had experienced just three days earlier.
Coco Safar, Artem Centre, 277 Main Road, Sea Point, Cape Town. Tel. (021) 433-1336 www.cocosafar.com Instagram:@cocosafarsa Monday 7h00 – 18h00, Tuesday – Friday 7 h00 – 21h30, Saturday 8h00 – 21h30, Sunday 8h00 – 18h00. Prix Fixe dinner R395 two courses, R495 three courses, Tuesdays to Saturdays.
Chris von Ulmenstein, WhaleTales Blog: www.chrisvonulmenstein.com/blog Tel +27 082 55 11 323 Twitter:@Ulmenstein Facebook: Chris von Ulmenstein Instagram: @Chris_Ulmenstein