A Tudor-style restaurant building, built in the 1930’s, has become the home of one of Cape Town’s best “finer dining” restaurants, offering excellent value for money.   La Mouette (The Gull) has opened on Regent Road in Sea Point (there is no branding on the outside yet, so one must look for the number 78, near Checkers), and is named in honour of the noisy landmark of this suburb, even though there were no seagulls to be seen nor heard while I was there.  The building was previously the home of Europa and The Carvery.   Coats of paint, chic decor inside, and a bubbling fountain filled with Koi in the entrance courtyard and surrounded by French-style bistro tables and chairs, have given the building a new lease on life. 

But it is the owner trio of General Manager Mari Vermaak, Chef Henry Vigar, and Marketer/Righthand Gerrit Bruwer that has “rejuvenated” the building and its interior, with a refreshing approach to running a restaurant of excellence, based on Henry and Mari’s experience in the restaurant industry in London.    Vigar is a passionate chef whose cooking style is modern French-style cuisine with a Mediterranean influence.  He has worked at a number of Michelin-starred restaurants (The Square, La Noisette and The Greenhouse in London, Rascasse in Leeds, and Hotel des Pyrenees in France) as well as at The Quayside in Sydney.  He was the Head Chef at Kensington Place, where Eric Bulpitt, chef at Jardine on Bree Street, worked for him for a while.

Mari is a bubbly yet serious restaurateur, who has a firm hand on the operation of the restaurant.   She has done all the staff training, and impressed me with her description of how they employed the best of more than 400 applicants for the waitron and kitchen positions, including making applicants write food and wine knowledge tests.   All the staff have sampled all the dishes on the menu, and whenever a new dish is introduced, Chef Henry explains it to the waiters.  Wine estates like Villiera and L’avenir have come to the restaurant, to train the staff about their wines.   The service from my waiter Peter was perfect, a reflection of Mari’s thorough training. 

Mari grew up in George, and was a graphic designer before moving to London, where she was a Restaurant Manager at Gilmours on Park Walk, at Kensington Place, and at Launceston Place.   It was at Kensington Place that Chef Henry showed her his interest by sending specially made chocolate macaroons to her desk. The rest is history, as they say in the classics!  Mari’s London background shows, in her neat black shirt, skirt and stockings, the ultimate classic front-of-house dress.  Mari is a warm, friendly, down-to-earth and generous hostess, giving up three hours of her time, sitting and chatting to me about their background, and receiving a quick overview about the importance of social media marketing from me.   Whilst they have just started a blog, they agreed that it is time to embrace Twitter, especially given their gull theme, and did so immediately!   Gerrit and Mari both studied graphic design at the University of Potchefstroom, and Gerrit has designed a beautiful corporate identity for the stationery, menu and winelist, with flying seagulls and flowers.  Mari and Henry are partners, and both Leos!

Mari felt it important to not alienate locals, and hence all menu items were named in English instead of their French equivalent.   The menu has a small selection of dishes, making it relatively easy to choose.   The lunch and dinner menus are almost identical in terms of dishes offered, but the prices differ somewhat.  For lunch, for example, one can order extra sides, at R 25 each, whilst they do not appear on the dinner menu.  For lunch all Starters and Desserts cost R 35, and Mains cost R 80, a total of R 150 for a 3-course lunch, whilst the dinner cost is R 210 for 3-courses, or R 50 for the Starters and Desserts, and R 110 for all Mains. The dinner menu offers one or two more options for each course.

I had the Chicken liver parfait, chicken reillette, pear chutney and toasted brioche as a starter, a lovely combination, the pear chutney being a surprise but well-matched.   I overheard a neighbouring table proclaim that the French onion soup was the best they had ever eaten.  Other lunch starters are a tomato salad served with tapenade and smoked mozarella; mushrooms on toast served with walnut salad and roasted fig; and prawn and ginger ravioli.   I ordered the sweetcorn risotto served with the cutest tempura pea shoots, almost a work of art, and decorated with lime and coriander gremoulata.   Alternatives are “house-made” linguini (by an Italian in the kitchen), hake, chicken, confit duck, and minute steak.  The dessert options are really interesting, and gives one a feel for Chef Henry’s creativity (he still seems somewhat more classic, but with a twist, on the starters and mains), and I will come back for these:  peanut butter parfait and chocolate ganache; a “gin and tonic” with a difference; and passion fruit curd, doughnuts, Greek yoghurt and honey foam.   The cappuccino was excellent, the coffee being supplied by Deluxe, a small specialist coffee roastery in Cape Town.

An alternative to the menu is a choice of tapas style dishes to share, at R 35 each: marinated vegetables and olives; truffle and cheese croquettes; tempura style vegetables and roasted pepper dip; sweet onion tart, olive, thyme and marinated anchovy; and crispy calamari, smoked paprika and saffron aioli.

The winelist is neatly presented, and offers an impressive list of 15 wines-by-the glass, and about 75 wines.  One senses that many of the wines stocked are because of a special relationship that developed between the wine estate and Henry and Mari when they were compiling their winelist, and Avondale, Villiera, Springfield and L’avenir feature strongly on the list, as does Tokara Zondernaam.   Champagnes are stocked (Moet & Chandon, Billecart Salmon Rose, Champagne Barons de Rothschild and Bollinger Special Cuvee), while the very recently launched La Motte Methode Cap Classique (R500), as well as Villiera, Pierre Jourdan and L’avenir sparkling wines are also stocked.   A number of Shiraz options are available, ranging from R 150 for Villiera Shiraz, to R 280 for the Thelema.   No vintages are offered on the winelist, one of few points of criticism.

Mari refused to allow me to pay for the two course lunch, glass of bubbly and two cappuccinos I enjoyed with her.   I therefore returned for a paid-for dinner with a friend three days later, and we were impressed with the Butternut squash soup served with toasted pine nuts and blue cheese, and the sweetcorn risotto and the pan-fried Duck breast as main courses.  We were spoilt with a taste of the Bouillabaisse, with a plump prawn, tiny mussel, tender tube of calamari and crayfish.  For dessert we had the signature “Gin and Tonic”, consisting of tonic jelly, gin syrup, and lime ice cream, the most unusual dessert I have ever experienced, refreshing and revitalising. 

La Mouette is planning themed evenings, and will open a chic wine bar upstairs in December.   One can sense the energy and innovation in what is still a very early start for the restaurant, my visit having been a week after opening.   La Mouette is a restaurant to watch, and will soon be flying high on the Cape Town restaurant scene.  

POSTSCRIPT: I was privileged to have been invited to the Chef’s Table at La Mouette on 20 May, in the company of Clare Mack of Spill Blog, JamieWho of JamieWho Blog, Kim Maxwell, Rey Franco, and Sam from L’Avenir.   The amuse bouche was a butternut soup served with a to-die-for cheese and truffle croquet, followed by a prawn and ginger ravioli, mushrooms on toast served with walnut salad and vanilla roasted fig, a highly praised Bouillabaisse, Rib of Beef, the famous “gin and tonic” dessert of Chef Henry, passion fruit curd served with mini-doughnuts, and the “crunchie” dessert, served as a chocolate fondant, honeycomb espuma and ice cream. Every course was perfectly paired with a L’Avenir wine.  Such a good time was had that the last guests left long after midnight.    The La Mouette branding has now been erected at the entrance to the restaurant, and should make it easier to find the restaurant.

POSTSCRIPT 4 JULY: I have returned to La Mouette a number of times, and always had attentive service from Mari.   My last visit was a disappointing one, probably due to Mari not being on duty that evening.   The manager on duty was not on the floor except for showing us our table and apologising about the winelist error.  A winelist “typing error” for an incorrect Villiera wine-by-the-glass vintage, which had been identified ten days prior as an error, was still on the winelist.   The waiter stretched in front of us to put down the cutlery.  The wrong amount was taken off my credit card for payment.  There was no one to greet us when we left the restaurant.  I wrote to Mari after the dinner, and received a very defensive “Dear customer” letter.

POSTSCRIPT 2/9:  I returned for the first time in 2 months today, sitting in the fountain courtyard, dominated by a massive motorbike parked there.  Mari was professional, yet very changed in attitude, due to our feedback about the 4 July dinner.   The restaurant has changed to a Spring Special menu at R175 for 6 courses (or R350 for wines paired to 5 of the courses), with a typing error.  An Express 2-course lunch at R99 has been introduced, which was not good value – my colleague had the marinated tomato salad and chicken.  We shared a bowl of Chef Henry’s new cheese and ham croquettes, and I ordered my favourite, the chicken liver parfait.   The Beef Sirloin was average, four small slices expensive at R105 – one pays a R25 supplement for it.   The Tapas selection has been taken off the menu. The service from Hazel was sweet, and she was very willing to please, but stretched across us in replacing the cutlery.  Mari did not want us to pay for the meal today, due to the problems with our 4 July meal, but we refused her generous offer.  

La Mouette, 78 Regent Road, Sea Point.  tel 021 433-0856. www.lamouette.co.za (the website is one of the best I have ever seen for a restaurant, informative, with menu and winelist, and link to the blog).    Twitter @teamlamouette.    Open Tuesdays – Sundays for lunch, and Mondays – Saturday evenings for dinner.

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