Last Saturday evening my friend Giulio Loggerian and I dined at La Sosta restaurant in Swellendam, which won Eat Out Best Italian restaurant in 2014. It was an unusual experience in a number of respects, especially in that the owners themselves describe La Sosta as an ‘Italian restaurant with a twist’!
It took us 2½ hours to drive to Swellendam, and Giulio had made the booking for dinner as well as for our accommodation. In January I had tried to make such a booking on my way to and from Plettenberg Bay, but being able to only accommodate 18 guests in the restaurant they were unable to accommodate me at that time. Our table had been booked for 19h00, but host Gianni Minori changed this on our arrival to 20h00 with Giulio, supposedly so that he could spend more time to chat to us.
We only saw one entrance into the building, despite its deceiving exterior. It is marked as an 1838 Cape Dutch home with a central entrance door, but it is permanently locked, and one has to enter via the La Sosta restaurant entrance on the right hand side, a section clearly built on in recent years. We arrived with a dining couple, and Gianni showed us our rooms, introducing us to his wife Cristiana Ariotto (the green colour is her favorite, and is visible in various sections of the house) when passing the delicious smelling kitchen, via the lounge. We sat outside to while away the time, being attacked by mosquitoes, and observed a large number of flying crickets near our rooms. Giulio was very kind to them, catching them and taking them to the garden. Giulio was in Italian cooking heaven, owning the Italian Giulio’s Café in Loop Street in Cape Town, paging through some of the many Italian cooking books. Giulio also added to my very new Instagram skills, while we were waiting for the table.
We weren’t called, and it was Giulio’s hunger that made him check if we could go to our table. It had been available to us all along. The restaurant was fully seated. The first that I noticed was the special table with the 2014 Eat Out magazine and the plaque they won for Best Italian restaurant 2014. Next to the award is a glass vase filled with green and red wooden apples.
The La Sosta decor is a unique mix of mainly old-fashioned and some more modern furnishings and decor. The dining room has no redeeming architectural features, having a set of glass doors to the street frontage, with an artificial grass covering on the terrace. A large fireplace will come in handy on cold nights, even though they close for five months over winter. We loved the firewood holders which were designed by Gianni and made for him locally. Wood top tables with a grey table cloth, and wooden chairs with worn cushions on them in green look dated. The dining room opens onto an open section in which the wine fridges stand, and the music plays via an iPad. Being close to one of the tables, the music was barely audible until the guests at that table had left, and then we could hear some Italian music when it was turned up. Serviettes are green or orange, and cutlery is by Abert. Grey woven place mats are placed on the table cloth. Two standing lamps are modern relative to the rest of the decor, and we could move one close to our table to ensure better photographs. The table had a tiny unbranded glass salt cellar and a modern expensive Maxwell & Williams pepper grinder, perhaps the best expression of the clashing and contradictory decor throughout La Sosta, and a Streetsmart card, signaling that R5 would be added to the bill. A double wine and water holder made from wood was specially designed by and made for Gianni. On the fireplace the decor items were three candles, an ostrich egg, and a piece of palm frond. A cricket was near our table, and Giulio removed it with Gianni’s help. A cut-out Milan skyscape is above the doorway.
The menu cover is in leather, and has a unique design of green and black stripes. The menu introduction states that ‘La Sosta Restaurant is a place where the passion for good food and hospitality come together in one word: simplicity’. Each dish has a title, and is explained as follows: ‘…each creation comes from a thing, an event, a friendship, a memento, and why not, a nostalgia. It wants to be our tribute and thank you to everyone who contributed to be (sic) source of our inspiration‘. The Italian cuisine style is described as being interpreted in a ‘modern and creative way, retracing all of our beautiful country (Italy or South Africa, having lived in Swellendam for 9 years?), letting run our imagination in the review and creation of our dishes‘. Two courses cost R270, 3 courses cost R350, and desserts cost R70, not inexpensive. We were told that the Italian Bouillabaise main course had sold out already, a dish Giulio would have liked to order. Oxtail has recently been added to the menu, as has the Ravioli Carbonara. On asking, we were told that they obtain their Buffalo mozzarella via Rialto, which means that it must be imported from Italy. The menu requests that food intolerance and allergies be informed, gluten-free pasta being available.
Before our order was taken waitress Danoleen brought two cloths dipped in lemongrass oil to the table, so that we could wipe our hands. I received a jug with tap water, but Giulio’s order of sparkling water did not accompany it, until we reminded them. A tiny Amuse Bouche of thick and creamy porcini soup arrived, and was delicious.
Giulio’s antipasto course of tuna carpaccio, grapes, with an olive oil and citrus dressing, was attractive, and comes from Sicily, the menu informed. I ordered the baby octopus salad, with potatoes, baby tomatoes, parsley, and olive oil. Other antipasto dishes were Caprese salad, and a sous vide pork neck with tuna and a chickpea sauce.
My first course of tagliatelle of porcini mushrooms was unfortunately dominated by the kale pesto, making it a boring tasting and looking green dish. Giulio’s carbonara with smoked pork, speck, and Guanciale ravioli, with a pecorino and Parmesan infusion, served with crispy pancetta as well as a yolk fried egg, was clever and attractive. Other First courses were black ink spaghetti served with a cuttlefish ragu, and a Paccheri Neapolitan ragout and Pecorino cheese.
Both our main courses were attractive and tasty. Giulio’s rolled slow-cooked beef rib eye stuffed with prosciutto cotto and Boerenkaas cheese is the best example of the Italian menu with a twist, in using a local cheese in the stuffing! I had asked for the cous-cous to be excluded from my dish with baby calamari and prawn tails pan-fried in brandy and orange, served with vegetables. Other options were ‘orix’ (sic) carpaccio, an interesting oxtail served with a sauce containing chocolate, and the Chef’s vegetarian dish of the day.
The most creative dish of the evening was Giulio’s ‘Like the Ocean‘ dessert, evoking marine images such as shells, coral reef, and sand, made with yoghurt panna cotta, rose meringue, fig gelato, green tea jelly, cardamom biscuit, and slices of fig and naartjie, the photograph of which I Instagrammed. I am a huge Tiramisù fan, and this one had a strong dose of Brandy, with mascarpone cream, and cocoa, and was served with coffee gelato. Other dessert options were ‘Under the Orange Tree‘, ‘A fine Pear…ing‘, a selection of ice cream, and Affogato Cointreau. The desserts had been prepared by Pastry Chef Jessica Green, who introduced herself while we had coffee. She had studied at Silwood, and had moved to La Sosta from Greenhouse, doing an internship until the end of this month. She then moves to a new hotel restaurant in Stellenbosch, to be run by an ex-Greenhouse chef. The two desserts were preceded by a boring (in colour and taste) pre-dessert, of mango mousse, fennel seeds, and Fisherman’s Friend jelly.
Giulio drank his coffee (which had originally been forgotten) in the lounge, and we were surprised to have yet another dish served, a plate of treats, consisting of raspberry sorbet in a cone, set in a biscuit bed of white chocolate and pistachio; chocolate truffles, strawberry and pear jelly; ginger and lime Madeleines; and Pina Colada jelly.
The rooms were extremely basic, but then the rate charged was very reasonable. There was no decor or colour theme within a bedroom, or across each of them. I was spared crickets in the bedroom, but Giulio had to share his room with them. Frustrating for me was that the wifi did not work in the bedroom nor in the restaurant, and could only be picked up outside the bedrooms, alongside the garden with resultant insects. The wifi problem is to be addressed. My bathroom looked half modernized, with an old-fashioned wood toilet seat and slate tiles in the shower, but with a highly modern basin and two shower heads. The lamp above the bed flickered. The magazines in the bedrooms are food-focused, but from 2014. The decor reflects an eclectic yet neglected old-fashioned feel.
Breakfast was generous, in Italian style, with cereals, milk, stewed fruit, and plain yoghurt; a smoothie made of ginger, carrots, and fennel; a delicious frittata made with ginger, tumeric, egg whites, mozzarella, Parmesan, spinach, peas, carrots, and oregano, with an Imstagram treatment too; custard pear tart; prepared ham and cheese croissants; apple and apricot crumble; and a cheese platter, with charcuterie too.
Gianni is proud of his chef wife and how well they have done in their nine years in Swellendam, it being the first Italian restaurant in the town. He said that Chef Cristiana is a passionate cook, but is not a trained chef. She loves watching MasterChef and reads cook books. They go to Cape Town almost every week on their days off, staying in touch with the city trends. The menu is changed regularly, but they have found that locals are scared to try new dishes, or those with new ingredients. Their patrons are from Europe, as well as from Cape Town, Franschhoek, Stellenbosch, Knysna, and Plettenberg Bay. They do not want to increase the size of the restaurant or the number of patrons, to keep the service good and consistent, a promise which unfortunately was not honored 100%. The placement of a fresh set of cutlery resulted in a stretch across each of us to place the fork on the left, from the right! Chef Cristiana appears withdrawn, and it is a shame that she does not come into the restaurant at all, to make contact with her patrons. She was a bank employee and he was an optometrist in their previous life in Milan. The desserts dominated my experience of La Sosta, in their taste and presentation. With three surprise additional dishes, the dinner offers better value for money than initially presented in the menu.
POSTSCRIPT 25/4: A week after posting this Review my dining partner Giulio received feedback about it today, despite it having been written by me. It came from Jessica Green, who presented herself when we had our coffee in the lounge, and had volunteered information about herself, having been at Greenhouse, and that she would be joining a Greenhouse colleague heading up a Stellenbosch hotel restaurant. She complains about the ‘false information’ I presented about her, but I reflected everything she told us, and wrote it in my notebook. She states that she is the Sous Chef, even though she introduced herself as the Pastry Chef. She denies going to the Stellenbosch hotel, and somehow she neglected to tell us that she actually had accepted a job offer at Le Quartier Français, which had read the review and contacted her as a result! She asks Giulio to clear this up with me, as it could have been ‘very damaging to my career’ in this Blog ‘leaking false information on some one’! What a cheeky chef!
La Sosta Restaurant, 145 Voortrek Street, Swellendam. Tel (028) 514-1470. www.lasostarestaurant.com. Facebook only. Tuesday – Saturday dinner. Closed May – September.
Chris von Ulmenstein, WhaleTales Blog: www.whalecottage.com/blog Tel 082 55 11 323 Twitter:@WhaleCottage Facebook: click here Instagram: @Chris_Ulmenstein