I love seeing innovation in a restaurant, and was excited when I saw the first menu of Societi Bistro’s nine-cycle “Tour of France”, which started at the beginning of this month.  Three French speciality dishes representing a particular region are presented at R150, and the menu changes every Wednesday over the nine week period.  A suitable wine is recommended week on week, and the prices charged are most reasonable.  One does not have to order all three courses, and there is no choice per course.  One is able to order from both the a la carte and the French menu.

I am a slow convert to Societi Bistro, not having been overwhelmed by it in the past.   I enjoy their tongue starter, and two enjoyable dinners there with Clare and Eamon McLoughlin from Spill Blog have improved my opinion.  I invited Jacqui from Charly’s Bakery to join me, but we did not realise that the Onion Soup and the Pot au Feu would contain pork, so Jacqui ate from the a la carte menu.  What impressed me was the passion for the French tour by Chef Stef Marais, who came to the table regularly to explain the French menu to us and to check on our satisfaction with it, and let his staff bring a media release to the table – it is not often that restaurants are good at marketing themselves, and have such documentation available.  Stef is third generation South African, and is proud of his French heritage.

Chef Stef explained the background to the “Tour of France” coming from the Bistro style of the restaurant, and this is an annual “thanksgiving” to the regions that they represent in their menu.  Stef had worked with French chefs in London, and has travelled in France.   He comes from Nelspruit, did his apprenticeship at the Table Bay Hotel, went to work in London, before returning to the Mount Nelson Hotel, and from there he came to Societi Bistro, just as it moved from the V&A Waterfront to its Orange Street location.  Chef Stef spontaneously invited us to visit the kitchen and we did so when it was all cleaned up after the dinner service.  He told us that he had a paying guest, journalist Richard Holmes, on his “Kitchen UnConfidential” programme, working alongside him in the kitchen all day.

Societi Bistro has a bistro feel, with chanson music, dimmed lighting, candles, a fireplace in almost every room, almost making it too hot for the unseasonally warm August evening.  There are blankets over some of the chairs, if it is really cold, and they add touches of colour.  Subtle paint effects are on most walls, with an unplastered brick wall in one room.  Material table cloths cover the tables, and the chairs are Bistro style.  A ‘chef’s table’ close to the kitchen is cosy, and right at the action, with its own special menu.  A very cosy bar/lounge The Snug is popular for smokers, in winter especially, and it is here that Jacqui and I retreated to after our dinner, chatting to Chef Stef again, and bumping into Mervyn Gers, the founder of Radio Kontrei, which became Kfm. Our waitress Julie was exemplary in her ability to make one want to order every menu item she described, and in looking after us and checking on us regularly.  

The a la carte menu offers an interesting mix of very local dishes and Bistro ones .  The starters offered are “skilpadjie” (lambs liver) with “krummelpap” – cooked mealie meal (R32), Beetroot carpaccio (R38) and ox tongue (R49).   The pasta dishes have two prices, ranging from R36 – R65 for half portions, and R53 – R96 for a full portion of Limone Fettucine and Mushroom Risotto, respectively.   Specials on offer were a stuffed and deboned harder, and a winter salad of ricotta, beetroot and orange.  Jacqui loved her roasted bone marrow (R40) and her Sirloin Bearnaise (R98), being a Bearnaise sauce addict, she said.  One can also order the steak with a Cafe de  Paris sauce.  Other main course choices include prawns, lamb shank, venison bourguignon, an ostrich and oat burger, coq au vin, and Vietnamese pork belly.  Dessert choices are disappointing in only being cakes (baked cheesecake, lemon tart, chocolate nemesis), creme brulee and ice cream, costing between R40 – R46.  We both did not like our coffee, my cappuccino being too milky and the coffee just not of a good quality, and we were not charged for it.   We were impressed with the nice packaging for Jacqui’s doggy bag.

The wine list does not specify vintages, and a good number of wines-by-the-glass is available, but some seem expensive in that the costing for the Shiraz brands is based on three glasses per bottle, while the norm is four.   Three Shiraz brands are stocked, for example, a Hoopenberg (R35/105), Joubert Tradouw (R55/165), and Saronsberg (R90/R269) .  For the Sauvignon Blancs, however, the glass of wine is based on 1:5, and the prices are very low (Joubert Tradouw Unplugged R13/R75, Warwick Professor Black R26/R155).

Paris was the first region to be represented by Societi Bistro, and its three courses were Gratinee de (sic) Halles – French Onion soup – (R30), Pot au Feu of braised pork belly (R90) – described as a “porkbelly potjie” – and Paris Brest dessert (R30).  The onion soup was brown and rich, made with bacon, sherry and chicken stock, served with gruyere cheese croutons, a lovely way to start the meal, with a glass of Thelema Mountain Manor good value at R 32.  However, the bacon in the soup is not a conventional ingredient, according to ‘Larousse Gastronomique’.  The Pot-au-Feu is usually made from beef or chicken, says my French guide, and I felt that Chef Stef had taken some creative licence in its preparation, with potato, leek, celery, onion, garlic, thyme and carrot cooked with the pork, and served with the broth as well as a gherkin and Dijon mustard relish.   The 200 gram pork slice was tough to cut, until I discovered that it had been rolled and was held together with string, which one could not see.  The highlight of the menu is the Paris Brest dessert, which represents the story of a cycle race between Paris and Brest in 1891, and a local patissier creating a dessert in its honour in the shape of  a bicycle wheel.  It is made from choux pastry, a little dry Jacqui and I thought, making it too crispy and hard and unlike eclairs, but filled with the most amazing creme patisserie, and sprinkled with caramelised slivered almonds, making it creamy and crunchy.

Currently (until tomorrow) the ‘Massif Centrale’ is the featured region, and its menu is ‘Tourain Blanchi a l’Ail’ (garlic soup), Cassoulet, and Creme Caramel.  The rest of the ‘Tour of France’ at Societi Bistro is as follows:

*   From 18 August the focus is the ‘Pays de la Loire’ – the Gardens of France (Oysters a la Poitou-Charentes, Pork Noisettes with prunes and ‘Crepe Angevines’- served with apple marinated in Cointreau, and Chantilly cream).  There is no French menu from 24 – 31 August. 

*   From 1 September the featured region is ‘Normandie and Bretagne’ (Moules au Cidre – mussels cooked in cider, Baked Gurnard with fennel, leaks and capers, and Apple Tarte Tatin).   

*   From 8 September the focus is Alsace and Lorraine (Quiche Lorraine, La Potee Lorraine – smoked bacon, white beans and pork shoulder – and Tarte Alsacienne – an apple tart). 

*   Week 6 (from 15 September) focuses on the ‘French Alpes’ (Salade Lyonnaise, Fricassee de poulet a la creme – chicken in a white sauce – and Profiteroles with warm dark chocolate sauce). 

*   There is a break, and the next French region focus is on Burgundy from 6 October (Pork rillettes, Beouf Bourguignon and Pain d’epice et poires au vin – a Honey Cake with pears in wine). 

*   The South West of France is the focus from 13 October (Garbure – “rustic country soup” with confit duck and vegetable broth – Beouf a la Bordelaise, and Labnah cheese served with brandy prunes.  

*   The focus on the Cote d’Azure starts on 20 October, and the menu consists of Bouillabaisse, La Daube Nicoise – braised beef with black olives, celery and carrots – and Gratin de (sic) fruits rouges.

We had a lovely and long evening, and enjoyed the attention from the excellent waitress and from Chef Stef, the homeliness and friendliness, and the care taken in compiling this interesting menu (except for some of the typing errors).  The disappointment was the poor coffee, and the bathroom I used was shocking – dirty floor, old-fashioned, so bad that I had to run out.  Jacqui had used another one, and was equally put off by it.   Chef Stef is really trying hard, but I got the feeling that they are not quite there yet in terms of food quality.

Societi Bistro, 50 Orange Street, Gardens, Cape Town.  tel (021) 42 42 100. www.societi.co.za (The website has the Tour of France menu details, but has a technical problem in that text is written over other text on most pages.  The website is short on food pics, with three only, and has no Image Gallery. Innovative is the You Tube video on the site).  A newsletter is sent out weekly, creating top of mind awareness and appetite appeal.   Twitter @SocietiBistro

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