Sofia’s at Morgenster in Somerset West opened a month ago, and has been named after the star that Morgenster owner Guilio Bertrand admires most, being Sophia Loren.   When one enters the restaurant, photographs of the Italian actress welcome one.   Sofia’s adds cuisine class to Somerset West, a town that has not been blessed with good restaurants (The Restaurant at Waterkloof being an exception), but has some service problems to address.

We had to go to Somerset West, and made a last-minute decision to call for a table.  Manager Michelle did not hesitate in saying yes, despite a full restaurant as a result of a birthday celebration by guests, for which we were grateful.  We arrived a little later than planned, but were happy to be given a table just to ourselves outside under the trees.  

Sofia’s at Morgenster is run by chef Craig Cormack, a partner of Bertus Basson of Overture, on the Morgenster estate, probably better known for its olives and olive oils than it is for its wines.   One drives through the estate, seeing the olive orchards on the hill, past the winery and tasting room, to get to Sofia’s. The rustic thatch-roofed building has a grape trellis, offering the perfect shade for sitting outside on a hot summer’s day.  The building has a number of rooms, not making it feel as large as it is.

The Fortis Hotelware cutlery design is contemporary, and I was delighted that I was offered a fish knife for the kingklip, something I missed at Aubergine at our dinner a few days prior.  We did not receive serviettes, and had to ask for them.  The menu changes weekly, and the week number is specified on the menu.   The waitress looking after us was very willing to check when she did not know something, which was quite often.  She brought the menu, a thin strip on a dark plastic clipboard, and talked us through the menu, describing every item.  She got stuck with the difficult words, and tried her best to come up with definitions (e.g. ‘parmentier’ she described as ‘shredded’, when it means that it is potato-based).  She did admit that she was new to the hospitality industry, having worked in the cosmetics industry before.  Every starter she described to us with warts and all of how chef Craig and his team prepares it (I would have preferred to not have known so much detail), and described every dish as “very delicious”.  I felt sorry for her, as she was out of her depth in taking orders and in talking through the menu – some names she mentioned I asked her to spell.  She told me that they are just taught the words, without the spelling!   

Chef Craig sent an antipasto platter of olive-based treats to the table, to demonstrate the partnership with Morgenster.  I loved the tapenade, and the marinaded black olives, but did not eat the mini-pizza slices, as they were topped with anchovies, a personal dislike.

The menu is compact, with four options each per starter, main course and dessert.  A two-course meal costs R155 and 3-courses R220.  Despite the restricted choice, it was hard to choose what to order, it all sounded so “very delicious”.   I chose the chicken liver parfait as a starter, which was served with a peach chutney, as well as a light and fluffy brioche.   Other starter options are smoked snoek parmentier, Asian squid salad and onion tarte tartin.  The main course was ordered as a “parma ham wrapped over roasted fish” on the menu, but there was no parma ham when it was served.   It was served with a vanilla risotto, an unusual taste, and a truffle froth.  My partner’s beef stroganoff was tasty, but not exceptional.   Other main courses choices were pork fillet and braised lamb shoulder.  The dessert choice was a difficult one, all four sounding wonderful – chocolate royaltine and vanilla ice cream; watermelon soup; crème brule (sic); and the most interesting sounding beetroot ice cream, beetroot cheese and smoked and pickled beetroots.   A cute touch was a small Father Christmas gingerbread biscuit that came with the cappuccino served in an unusual glass cup with silver handle. 

We ordered the Graham Beck Brut Rosé by the glass (R45), only listed on the winelist per bottle (R130).   The Graham Beck Brut is charged at the same price, which is unusual, given that the Rosé bubbly usually is more expensive.    The white house wine is the Collaboration chenin blanc, a collaboration between chefs Craig and Bertus, as well as the Hidden Valley winemaker Louis Nel.   Wine vintages are specified, and the price spectrum fair.  White wines start at R30/R150 for Lands End Sauvignon Blanc and Kleine Zalze Barrel Fermented Chenin Blanc (R150), up to R250 for Rustenburg Wooded Chardonnay and Radford Dale Viognier.  The red wine selection is restricted, at R30/R105 for Sofia’s 2002 vintage house wine made by Morgenster – R 300 for Catherine Marshall Pinot Noir 2009 and Annandale Shiraz 2003, to allow the presentation of Morgenster’s Bordeaux Blend wines.  The flagship Morgenster range is priced per vintage (R350 – R460), as is their Louren’s River Valley range (R160 – R185).  The Morgenster Tosca, Nabucco and Caruso wines are also available.   The Morgenster wines have a small mark-up of about R30 per bottle for the Lourens River valley wines, and of R60 for the Morgenster range.

I liked the peaceful country farm setting, the character renovated thatched roof building, the hand-picked ingredients where possible from the Morgenster gardens, and chef Craig’s creativity and weekly menu changes.  Staff training needs attention.  The hardest challenge for chef Craig is to use culinary terms which the staff can pronounce and explain correctly.    The starter arrived almost too quickly after placing the order, while the second course dishes took too long.   I will be back, to try more of chef Craig’s creativity.  Sofia’s is a star in the making, but the restaurant still needs time to settle in.

POSTSCRIPT 22/4: Returned to Sofia’s for a food and wine appreciation society. In a cosy room with fireplace.  Evening started with a tasting of Morgenster wines: Caruso Rosé, Tosca (60 % Sangiovese), Nabucco, Lourens River Valley, and the Platter 5-star Morgenster Bordeaux blend.  Two canapés were served: Ham hock terrine and pea spoom, and chicken liver parfait with brioche and green fig, both excellent.  The Calamari and coconut curry starter was accompanied by a 2010 Doolhof Sauvignon Blanc, with a very sharp chilli taste, and the least successful dish of the evening.   The main course of pork neck, prune and almanad jus was paired with the Sofia’s red blend.   Lovely dessert of chocolate truffle cake with raspberry compote and raspberry ice cream.

Chef Craig Cormack is an avid salt collector, and he sent around six of the 42 salts he has (there are 129 kinds of salt in total): Black Hawaiian Lava, Red Lava, Cervia, Bolivian Rose, Pakistani Volcanic, and Persian Blue Crystal.

Sofia’s at Morgenster, off Vergelegen entrance, Lourensford Road, Somerset West.  Tel (021) 847-1993.  http://www.facebook.com/Sofias.at.morgenster (No website, which is hopefully being worked on, to allow a professional profile of the restaurant, without the grammatical errors on the Facebook page, and photographs of the beautiful plating in an Image Gallery).  Open Mondays, Wednesdays – Sundays for lunch, and Wednesdays and Saturdays for dinner.

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