Emily’s restaurant is 21 years old, and has recently opened at its third home on Kloof Street, having spent ten years each in Woodstock and in the V&A Waterfront. The restaurant has lost all of its previous charm, and its main attraction (Chef Peter Veldsman) is nowhere to be seen. It has sold its soul to Coca Cola, its branding seen throughout the restaurant, not befitting an establishment of the stature of Chef Peter and his partner Chef Johan Odendaal.
Chef Peter once was the most high profile food editor of Sarie magazine, and was known and loved by all, the doyen of food writers in his heyday. He has written eleven cookery books, and has contributed to many others too. He has won numerous food awards. He started the Culinary Arts Institute of Africa Restaurant School at the same time as opening Emily’s restaurant in Woodstock in 1994, long before the suburb became trendy, and it was extremely popular for a decade. I remember its quirky decor, inside an attractive building, and being particularly popular amongst Afrikaans Capetonians, it being their first real Afrikaans restaurant. Chef Johan ran the cookery school, and his students were the servers.
Surprisingly Emily’s moved to the V&A Waterfront, badly located on the Clocktower end of it, on the second floor, no longer visible to Capetonians, and it had to reposition itself as a South African restaurant ideal for tourists wanting to experience local food. The space was large, which was fine until 2007, but after the tourism crash from 2008 onwards Emily’s too was affected, until they left the V&A Waterfront silently last year, without any indication that they were working on the renovation of a former kindergarten building of the Jan van Riebeeck School. Once again the restaurant building is completely hidden from view on Kloof Street (it hides behind Giorgio Nava’s Mozzarella Bar), being next to a school hall. Branding is discreet, against the hall, and the surprise was seeing the yellow (surprisingly not red) Coca Cola sign next to the purple Emily’s sign as I walked to the restaurant entrance last night. In the daytime one can sit outside at the lawn, some pink plants in pots adding a spot of colour. Its location makes the restaurant attractive to the Jan van Riebeeck School moms, the primary school being diagonally across the road. I had observed a very noisy Mother-and-Daughter-end-of-grade-seven party at Emily’s whilst sitting at the new outdoor section of Mozzarella Bar last Friday.
I recognised Chef Johan from a past visit to the former Emily’s, and he happened to be outside. He was friendly, and shared how they had got to move to the building, which had stood empty for 12 years. He showed me the bar, which is a newly built addition to the building. It is dominated by four crystal chandeliers, not matching the ordinary wooden bar top. There were no takers for the bar, and my heart sank when we were one of only two tables in the restaurant initially, but eventually two more tables arrived. The Culinary Art Institute of Africa Restaurant School is planned for the new building, but has not yet re-opened for its three year course, our waiter said
The restaurant has an open-plan kitchen, not visible to most patrons as a massive collection of what looked like (fake?) fruit tree blossoms (in yellow) and candelabras with real candles, block any view to the kitchen. The tables are square and light-topped, and have no tablecloths, while the chairs are an ornate cream with beautiful upholstery in yellow, orange, or red, but do not match anything else in colour or design. Curtains are striped, tied sideways Seventies-style. The table number was on a Nederburg-branded perspex holder. Cutlery is very ordinary Eetrite, and the by now off-white material serviettes looked like they have been used for the past 20 years! The restaurant can seat 20 – 40 patrons, our waiter said. The walls are dominated by massive paintings by Julio Tanbellini. The surprise was the restaurant-unfriendly papal purple walls, even in the kitchen, the colour not picked up in any other element of the restaurant, and most certainly not in the upholstery of the chairs.
There were four friendly waiters, and each of them came by to check on us occasionally, wearing civvies. A number of requests for more ice, water, and salt were forgotten. The main waiter for our table shared that after working at Emily’s for three and a half weeks he has yet to see and meet Chef Peter! Chef Johan did not seem to be in the kitchen, from the little we could see, mainly sitting at the table of some patrons close by. He did not visit our table at all. Two waiters stretched past me to place a fork on my left! Our chefs for the evening were Wayne Labuschagne and Gerdus Bronn.
Given the stature of Emily’s, it was a shock to see the presentation of the menu, a piece of paper without branding, containing five starters, six main courses, and four dessert options, on a clipboard with an ornate clip, mine being a butterfly! The menu is changed weekly, says the website. The wine list cover was the final blow, being black plastic with Coca Cola branding on it! Inside the winelist it did not look much better, the list looking like it had been used at the two previous restaurants, typed in a variety of antiquated typefaces. It is extremely extensive with over one hundred wines, and oddly ends each price off with 0,95 cents, reminding one of pricing 20 years ago! Champagnes stocked are Ayala and Guy Charbaut, while MCCs range in price from R99,95 (JC le Roux) – R179,95 (Pierre Jourdan), with Graham Beck, Perdeberg and De Wetshof available too. Prices are extremely reasonable. Wines by the glass are not specified by brand, or vintage. Shiraz/Syrah options include Klawer 2011 (R59,95), Edgebaston 2006 (R199,95), and Migliarina 2006 and 2007 (R299,95). My glass of cold water with lemon came with a black straw and a black Coca Cola branded swivel stick!
Our amuse bouche was an unexciting crumbed polenta ball with a tomato smear, an onion and tomato sauce, a sign of things to come! A bread basket was brought to the table, and the waiter had to check with the kitchen what it was, being 50% rye and white bread, slightly warmed. Katie chose the Cape Malay spiced butternut and pineapple soup, and proclaimed it to be delicious but very rich (R35). Other starters are ‘Under Table Mountain’ salad (R60), pickled yellowtail with curry mayonnaise potato salad and avocado (R60), lightly smoked venison carpaccio with cauliflower purée, coffee jelly, and pan-fried duck liver with berbere (R65), and ‘country-style pork pâté with slaphakskeentjies (a Cape onion salad) and coriander leaf yoghurt sauce in a green garden’.
Katie was not happy with her Cape Malay-style chicken curry with ‘dahl’ (sic) rice, pineapple sambals and dahi (yoghurt), costing R95, not attractive in its presentation, and the many chicken bones putting her off. Half of her dish went back to the kitchen uneaten. I was looking forward to my Bobotie with celebration rice, sambals, poppadums, and pumpkin fritters (R100), but was equally disappointed (no one came to ask us how we enjoyed our food). The fritters seemed completely out of place, the bobotie was bland and full of bread, the poppadum chards were stale, the chutney served in the egg cup was Mrs Balls for sure (the best part of the dish), and the beans and carrots were cooked al dente (the only other plus). Other main courses are ‘Die Burger‘, being the burger of the day, which was beef, but can alternatively be venison or boerewors (R75). ‘Vis & Tjips’ cost R110 (yellowtail being the fish of the day),and other main courses are boned (?) quail with ostrich stuffing on African risotto, with a wild mushroom sauce and seasonal vegetables (R125), and griddled sirloin of beef with chips and green peppercorn sauce (R145).
I chose a dessert, being a ‘passionfruit snow’, which the waiter described as a meringue, but was nothing like it at all, being two yellow chiffon slices, served with strawberries, the mint adding colour but overpowering the taste (R50). Alternatives are pancakes with orange confectioner’s custard filling, orange segments and brandy sauce (R45), baked ginger pudding with Cape Brandy pudding ice cream, apple purée, caramelised apples and custard (R50), and pear vodka flavoured dark chocolate mouse with milktart ice cream and suurvygie sauce (R60).
Overall the experience at Emily’s was exceptionally poor, especially given the history of Emily’s and its role in the Cape Town restaurant scene, and Chef Peter Veldsman’s reputation in Cape cuisine over forty years or more. The unprofessional telephone answering in making the booking, the Coca Cola branding throughout the restaurant, the busy ‘plating’, the poor food quality, the mismatched wine list relative to the food, the as yet poorly trained waiters, and the lack of interest by Chef Johan in his patrons are just some of the signs that Emily’s and its owners no longer care! The website is misleading in claiming that ‘Peter and Johan are keeping an encouraging eye over the creative juices’, and that the restaurant is ‘romantic and people friendly‘. Any past patrons of Emily’s in Woodstock and/or the V&A Waterfront will be severely disappointed by what they will experience at Emily’s on Kloof Street, promising a trip back into time!
Emily’s, 55 Kloof Street, Gardens, Cape Town. Tel (021) 421-1133 www.emily-s.com No Social Media. Monday – Saturday lunch and dinner.
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter:@WhaleCottage