I had the luck to have enjoyed a 16 course Tasting Menu dinner soon after the opening of Gåte Restaurant at Quoin Rock outside Stellenbosch, in November. I was blown away by the creativity of the dining experience, and its experiential nature, with Molecular Gastronomy, something I had not experienced at this international level in my dining experiences locally and internationally. On Tuesday a week ago I returned to Gåte, to try the new dishes on the Tasting Menu, as well as those that have changed in the past three months, while my friend from Paris ate the Tasting Menu for the first time, at her invitation.
We were very lucky to have Chef Rikku O’Donnchü make the reservation for us, the idea being that we were to taste the new revised Tasting Menu. However, it was not all ready yet, so I ate a hybrid of a reduced seven course Menu, costing R1050, with dish changes relative to my last tasting of the Tasting Menu brought to me to taste. We could not change the date of our booking, it being the last day of my friend being in the country before returning to Paris. Disappointing was that my booking confirmation was addressed by Yolandi to me as ‘Mr’ Chris!
Prior to us arriving, I called to Quoin Rock, to find Lana, as she had offered to show us the Manor House on the property when we ate lunch at Gåte a month ago, with spectacular views, we were told. But then she cancelled the site visit at short notice that day. Lana was nowhere to be found, and I had to call three times, to get to hear that Lana had left for the day. The telephone system can divert a call to the cellphone of a staff member, but she was not answering her cell, so the phone call just cut off instead of diverting one back to Reception. The receptionist told me that I could speak to the (new) Food and Beverage Manager Lance Hambly, and I asked him if someone could show us the Manor House, as we had time to spare before our 18h30 reservation. He was adamant that this could not be done! A bad start to the evening, in the way that he spoke to me! We hung around Babylonstoren even longer, and my friend tasted some of their wines.
We arrived at 18h00, and it being our fourth visit to Quoin Rock, the very smartly dressed boom man let us in with far less bureaucracy than on the previous three visits, one’s driver’s licence being demanded and the car registration details scanned before one is allowed to enter. We were offered a cocktail of Red Espresso, Amarula, rum, Kahlua, and cream, by an unnamed staff member, who asked for the name of our booking, a surprise, given that it was my third visit to Gåte. The cocktail had a coffee-dominant taste, but my friend was not that impressed with it.
Behind the reception desk was a man, who took no trouble to greet us or to introduce himself, and only when he came to our table once during the evening, did I ask him his name, as he still did not introduce himself at our table. By then I had established who he was, and his job title. For a Food & Beverage Manager at our country’s now leading restaurant, he was most unprofessionally dressed, not wearing a suit or even a jacket, his shirt not being able to hide how much he loves eating. I found that he had no personality, seemed to know nothing about us, and shunned our table for the rest of the evening after his one visit, during which I fed back a number of service deficiencies, he not even returning to our table to check that the service issues had been rectified! When I asked him why he ignored our table on our departure, he told me that he only needs to interact with patrons once an evening, and that the waiter has 16 opportunities to do so, so he leaves it up to the waiter! I have never heard such nonsense, especially as my friend saw him circulating the restaurant and visiting other tables regularly. When I heard that he came from Karibu restaurant in the Waterfront, it explained everything, he not appearing to have any fine dining restaurant experience.
As we were early in arriving, we offered to walk around outside. I was not offered an alternative to the cocktail at reception, being our driver for the evening, so I asked our waiter Skye if I could have a glass of water. Instead of bringing it to me, he left it on the table before we had even sat down. We left my book and our handbags at the table, but did not yet sit down. It was a lovely evening, and I photographed the beautiful statue in a circular water pool, the sunset and trees nearby reflecting in it.
Then it was time to sit down, and start our eating extravaganza. Skye introduced himself twice to us, and in asking he told me he had been at Gåte since its opening, had seen me eating there before, and had previously worked at Henri’s Restaurant and Wine Bar in Somerset West. Very quickly we got a scripted recitation of things to say, as if I had never been there before, even though he told us that he had seen me there before. I was told afterwards that he was extremely nervous in having been allocated our table, and it showed in numerous errors he made and in the strange answers he gave us, to our menu choices, and the wine/cocktail pairings offered. It was a further bad start, so I decided to keep my involvement as low key as possible, and allow my friend to lead with the questions. She was very kind to him, but she had to repeat everything twice, as he could not understand her French-English. He is soft spoken, and we had to ask him to speak up, as the restaurant was extremely noisy that evening, there being no noise absorption, the waiter at the neighbouring table having a very loud voice, and the restaurant being full. Compared to our luck to have been looked after by Head Waiter Rufus Scholtz for our dinner in November, it was a struggle with Skye, especially when he used irritating phrases such as ‘my personal favorite’ or ‘highly recommended’, complete unnecessary, as we were not ordering a la carte.
My friend ordered the 16-course Tasting Menu, now costing R1450, an increase of R200 since November. A ten Quoin Rock wine pairing costs R700 (previously R650). One can also order an option of three Quoin Rock wines and seven ‘Molecular pairing cocktails’, the price not mentioned to us. At a neighbouring table we saw three guests sharing/smoking a pipe, one of the cocktails. My friend decided to order the Quoin Rock Chardonnay, having two glassfuls, off the Winelist, which includes international wines too. I asked for tap water, but we were poured S. Pellegrino, and my friend, who paid, was surprised that we had drunk 4 litres of water, adding R200 to the bill. I did not see the branding on the bottle when it was poured at our table, I drinking water only, as I was the designated driver.
Skye brought the 20-sided Menu ball to the table, now out of date in some respects with new dishes added and others eliminated, but he could not deviate from his script. He told us that lots of flavour profiles of the dishes had changed. The menu ball was moved sideways eventually, to make space on the table for the flow of dishes. I will describe each of the 17 courses we were served below, with the changes made and new dishes I tried since my dinner in November.
- Nitro Cleanser
This dish was to get us started, served in a beautiful spoon, offsetting the rich redness of the dish, a miniature red pepper gazpacho, topped with nitrogen-burned pepper skins. We were to expect the flavour to burst in our mouth when we ate it out of the spoon in one go, but this did not happen to me. In November this dish was made with black cherry, a grape, and ginger, a fruity start to the meal.
2. Not an ashtray
This dish was one of the highlights of my dinner in November, very clever in its look of a cigar and an ashtray, but totally edible. While its appearance was unchanged, the cigar, made from rye bread, was much easier to eat, ours in November having been far tougher and chewier. It had a gold band created with gold dust, I not remembering this detail, but checking back on my November Review, it was there already. In the ashtray was simulated ash, made with black garlic espuma, molten dextrin to give it a crumbly texture, activated charcoal, and smoked tomato and red pepper powder, to give it a real lit look. We were told that this was our Bread dish, a most unusual one, especially compared to the boring bread baskets one is offered in restaurants. To eat the ash, one uses the cigar, to scoop it out of the container. Not only clever in design, but delicious too.
3. Cured Oyster
Two fresh West Coast oysters were served to each of us, in a dish which was smoking, created with liquid nitrogen, now served with Yuzu pearls, compressed dragon fruit, chili oil, and a Shizu dressing made from fermented fish. It was the first time that this amended dish was served that evening. For me the chili was too dominant, it not being a favorite of mine. In fairness to the kitchen, I had not notified the restaurant of this dietary dislike when making the reservation. The dish was placed on a base of seaweed, and we tried a taste if it, it being extremely salty, but a clever way of bringing the ocean into the room. The oysters are eaten with a fancy Tweezer. In November this dish was served with bacon dashi crram, chive oil, and pickled strawberry.
Esteemed winemaker Rianie Strydom sat at the neighbouring table, now on her own in making wines under her own label, with her husband Louis, the winemaker at Ernie Els Wines.
Impressive was that Quoin Rock MD and son of the wine estate owner, Denis Gaiduk, came to our table to greet us. It was at this time that Lance made his one and only visit to our table.
4. Birth of Liver
This is another clever dish, a duck egg brought to the table in a dish with a base of smoked straw, containing ‘ethical’ foie gras made with duck liver, red miso, creamy banana gel for the egg yolk, and topped with Tunisian cocoa nibs. It was served with a black garlic and banana muffin, a change in this dish, which was served with a delicious toasted caramelised banana bread in Nivember. The creamy content was as delicious as before. My friend told me that the use of straw in serving dishes has become very popular in Paris. Skye offered to decapitate our eggs, and did so with a knife for my friend. I did mine myself.
5. Black Pearl
This dish has not changed, so it was served to my friend only. It is served on a beautiful black and white plate, which I was gifted on my visit in November when I expressed my delight of its design, created by Three Potters and a Painter in Stellenbosch. The dish was inspired by Riaan van Zyl, an artist friend of Chef Rikku. It was a seared scallop sashimi, with blue cheese, topped with Osetra caviar, and a vanilla emulsion added. At the table Skye grated Valrhona white chocolate over the dish, an interesting mix of flavours. It was accompanied by a black squid ink tuille.
Skye introduced this dish as a ‘simple ordinary Caprese’, but it was not! It was a deconstructed Caprese, encapsulated in a frozen whey dome made from Buffalo Mozzarella, topped with smoked tomato meringue shards. Inside the dome, once one had given the dome a hard tap, were peeled and cored heritage baby tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, a Boccaccini ball covered in a tomato jelly, extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar pearls, and tomato skins, served with a basil oil and whey dressing heated with a blowtorch by Skye at the table before adding it to our dish, the dressing treatment being a new addition to this dish. This dish appears to have stayed the same in terms of ingredients.
7. Chili Macaron
This was a dish served to my friend only, beautifully presented, and was a chili macaron (which Skye called a ‘macaroon’), filled with a chorizo emulsion and chorizo jam, closed with a lemon jelly band, topped with a silver leaf, and served with a pipette of lemon juice. My friend found the chili taste to be very strong. A beautiful course. In November this dish was called ‘From Russia with Love’, a caviar macaron, with smoked potato mousse, and vodka jelly.
This dish was almost unchanged, and Head Chef Warwick King came to present it to my friend. He did tell me that the size of the dish had been scaled down, it having been very filling, and that Boerenkaas is now used instead of Parmesan. It uses three ages of the cheese, in the sauce, the espuma, and the foam, topping a bed of cauliflower could cous. This is the heaviest and most filling dish on the Tasting Menu.
This dish has changed, Karoo Lamb now used instead of beef, and the meat slice size has been reduced, it having been too big to eat in one piece previously. A hot rock was brought to the table, on which we seared our piece of lamb, then adding it to the bowl with a quail egg, pickled radish, daikon, and compressed and pickled apple, the last three ingredients being a change from the sampire and pickled sea vegetables used in November. To this was added a bone broth with ginger, and lime leaf. Highly interactive, we made our own smoked tomato noodles for this dish, in a syringe pipe brought to the table, filled with a parsley and thyme concentration.
To celebrate time which Executive Chef Rikku spent surfing in the Polynesian Islands, we were served a dish in a coconut half. It contained compressed pineapple, and toasted coconut, both these ingredients placed on top of an edible ‘glass’ lid, underneath which was a mix of tuna and coconut cream. Whilst the essence of this dish remains the same, the glass ceiling is new and all the ingredients on top and below it are too.
At this stage we started hearing cutlery falling on the floor a number of times, runners removed trays with dishes or bringing them at times too, not seeming practiced in carrying the heavy wooden trays. A runner fell over a handbag table next to me, miraculously not letting the tray drop. In my opinion, the runners should not be seen in the restaurant, until they are well trained and practiced enough.
11. Mallard Porridge
This was a brand new dish, replacing the Wild Peacock dish from November, which I had ethical problems eating, as the peacock is the most spiritual bird there is. Now Mallard Duck breast is served, prepared sous vide, making it firm and tender, with baby fennel, puffed rice crisps in the topping, crispy mint, a mint and Kombucha purée, double milk Danish feta, and a surprise oat porridge at the bottom. It was served with a shallot emulsion and a Duck jus, the latter being poured over the dish, blackening most of the dish, a pity for its presentation. A brand new plate was used to serve this dish, I recognised immediately. The blade of the knife I was served was not sharp enough to cut the duck with ease, whereas that of my friend was less blunt. Both of us did not care for the porridge in this dish.
12. Palate Cleanser
This was a surprise, a palate cleanser in the form of a lollipop, made with cucumber and an overpowering ginger. In November Lassi was the palate cleanser.
13. Not the Black Pearl
This is a brand new dish, and surprisingly a dessert! Visually creating the Black Pearl scallop dish, each element was created as a similar look: the scallop with a milk cremè brûlée, the roe with bitter orange sorbet, and the pearl with olive skin. The dish was presented on a scallop shell, of which the edging had been painted gold. Wow! The biggest surprise was that the shell looked so real, that we did not realise that it was in fact made with white chocolate, and therefore the whole dish was edible. This dish replaces the Curry & Candifloss one of November.
14. Gert du Fromage
On a glass box, a tiny crostini was topped with goat cheese parfait, onion marmalade, crumbed marbled goat cheese, pickled onions, and onion seeds. Unfortunately one of the two onions on top slid off the tower as the plate was placed in front of me, the waiter not picking this up. Inside the glass box were pebbles and a pink rose. The onion and cheese dish was served very cold. In November the focus of this dish was plums paired with the goat cheese.
15. Watermelon Helium Balloon
At our dinner in November, this course appeared to have been forgotten, but we experienced it at our lunch last month.
Now the helium Balloon is made from watermelon, and the balloon is attached to a slice of watermelon, demonstrating the seasonality of the kitchen. Unfortunately my balloon lost all its helium by the time it arrived at the table, but my friend’s balloon was perfect.
16. White Russian
We were not given a name for this dish, so I am using a name this drink was compared to, a White Russian. The background to this drink was not explained by Skye. Skye unscrewed a panel of the menu ball, and took out two phials of grappa. Into a glass of ice he added the grappa, espresso, as well as cream, a delicious end to the evening, or so we thought. I loved it, despite having stopped drinking cappuccinos after many years.
17. Petit Fours
We were getting ready to ask for the bill and leave, when a triple box of petit fours arrived at our table, containing black halva (my friend did not like it, and I was too full to try it), multicolored patterned chocolate bonbons, which I liked the taste and appearance of, and Shmores.
And so our evening came to an end. My friend asked for the credit card machine, and weirdly Skye wanted her to pay with a Yoco machine, a small business credit card machine that does not print slips, and which only allows one to email the proof of payment, making the restaurant appear amateurish. But then Skye found a ‘proper’ credit card machine, not explaining about the Yoco. He also mumbled to her that he had added a 12,5 % service fee, checking her acceptance of that. As she was keen to leave, she did not protest, whereas I might have. Chefs Rikku and Warwick greeted us outside as we left, a lovely touch.
It was exciting being back at Gåte, and to experience the newly created dishes on the Tasting Menu, as well as to taste the amended and enhanced dishes on the Tasting Menu. The service level has fallen dramatically, the rudeness from and unprofessional appearance of Food & Beverage Manager Lance a shock. Our waiter Skye tried too hard to impress us, by reciting phrases, and influence us with his opinions, when he should have just been relaxed, and provided information. His initial nervousness made him make more mistakes. There appeared no control over or management of his interaction with us, this not being of interest to his boss Lance! It was evident to me that the departure of Rufus Scholtz had affected the front of house standard, which is now in dissonance with the superb work done in the kitchen, despite the mishaps with my balloon and onion and fromage dishes. This was also evident in the disturbance created by the dropped cutlery, mainly by the runners, is not at the level of the waiters, and hence ideally they should not be inside the restaurant. The reservations admin is poor as well, experienced first hand by me in how I was addressed in the booking confirmation by Yolandi, and she messed up a subsequent booking which I had made for a friend via Chef Rikku.
I cannot wait to see what Chef Rikku and his team will be up to with the next amendments to their Tasting Menu.
Gåte Restaurant, Quoin Rock Winery, Knorhoek Road, Stellenbosch. Tel (021) 888-4740. www.quoinrock.co.za Instagram: @quoinrockwines @gate_restaurant @chef_rikku
Chris von Ulmenstein, WhaleTales Blog: www.chrisvonulmenstein.com/blog Tel +27 082 55 11 323 Twitter:@Ulmenstein Facebook: Chris von Ulmenstein Instagram: @Chris_Ulmenstein