The Haute Cabrière wine cellar and restaurant are an institution in Franschhoek, having opened sixteen years ago, with a location on the slopes of the Franschhoek Pass that has one of the best views of the village.  Chef Matthew Gordon’s departure earlier this year allowed the Von Arnim family to take over the management of the restaurant, creating an opportunity for the restaurant interior to be redone, and for new chef Ryan Shell to be appointed, re-opening on 1 September.

The best part of the refurbishment is that the restaurant has received permission from the powers-that-be to serve guests outside, to capitalise on the beautiful view over the Franschhoek valley, which one does not see much of when sitting inside.  Winetasting too can now be done outside at special tables and chairs, outside the next-door cellar, home to the Saturday morning 11h00 cellar tour which ends with the Sabrage highlight.  Christiane von Armin, daughter-in-law of flamboyant legend owner Achim von Arnim, took on the restaurant project, and her first step was the furnishing.  She has added the most comfortable white leather chairs, and two white couches with a coffee table with a vase of deep red roses are a friendly homely welcome as one enters through the massive glass doors.  Achim is a painter too, and his works are hung in the restaurant and the wine cellar.  New chandeliers have been added, the glass crystals having an almost identical shape to the chair backs.  The winetasting room and restaurant are now visibly connected, in that a new window allows each side to see the other, and creates a display space for all the Haute Cabrière wines, best known for the Pierre Jourdan sparkling wines. Tables have white table cloths, and the abundance of white in the restaurant makes it look fresh.  French-style café music plays in the background.

Having tried to eat at the restaurant on Thursday evening (they only open in the evenings on Friday and Saturday in September), I returned yesterday for lunch and arrived just as Achim’s wife Hildegard, son Tamo, Christiane,  Jos Baker, and Ian and Lise Manley arrived, and I was privileged to be spontaneously invited by Christiane to join their table.   The Manleys have been appointed to handle the publicity for Haute Cabrière. Jos Baker was the first shareholder of the wine estate, and was a good friend of ‘Omi’ Theodora von Arnim, Achim’s mother, and Tamo regaled us with stories about what sounded like a wonderful colourful character. Jos still judges the San Pellegrino World’s Best 50 Restaurants, and is off to Europe shortly to do her judging. I got to know Jos as a member of Cape Town Slow Food, and she was the most creative planner of exciting events for the club.  Sadly she is no longer involved.

Exciting is the young chef Ryan Shell, who will position the Haute Cabrière restaurant as one of Franschhoek’s best again. Chef Ryan left the Prue Leith Chef’s Academy as a lecturer, and has worked in Franschhoek before, with Chef Margot Janse at Le Quartier Français, with Chef Chris Erasmus (now at Pierneef à La Motte) when at Ginja, and with Mike Bassett at Myoga. He has also worked at the Michelin-starred Longueville Manor on the Isle of Jersey.   His inspiration to cook came for his aunt, who encouraged him to go to chef’s school. Ryan says he is part of a team of eight making the cuisine magic happen, and that it is easy to do so in the beautiful cave-design building, to which guests come because they want to be there, making them easy to please.  His menu will evolve, much like the wines in the cellar next door, he says, and he has made three changes to the menu in the past ten days already, ensuring that it remains fresh.  Zelda Oelofse-Cornthwaite is the manager, and she has retained most of the previous Haute Cabriére restaurant staff, and has added Desiree, the previous manager of Bouillabaisse.  Staff wear white shirts and black pants, with a strongly branded red Haute Cabriére apron.  Their service is friendly and efficient.

The menu and wine list are presented in a black leather holder.  The menu introduction refers to the changes that have taken place in the restaurant, but that it is still committed to established traditions and the ‘true marriage between food and wine, setting the scene for our food to dance with our wines for your enjoyment’. What was started by Chef Matthew Gordon has been carried on by Chef Ryan, in that almost all dishes, even the desserts, are available in full and half portions, allowing one to taste a larger number of dishes, and making eating at the restaurant cost-effective.  Most of the Haute Cabrière wines are available by the glass too.  The table setting has a glass of sparkling wine on each table, and probably would make one order a glass of bubbly as a start.  We were offered a glass of Pierre Jourdan Cuvée Belle Rose.  The menu has a wine pairing recommendation for each dish, and dishes containing nuts are marked.

Chef Ryan impressed by coming to the table, to introduce his amuse bouche of a trio of roast tomato soup, prawn beignet, and buffalo mozzarella, tomato and onion salad.  His lovely freshly-baked bread was quickly finished.  The starter choices are Malay curried butternut soup with a lime prawn mousse and coconut (R30/60), very yummy duck liver parfait (left) served on blueberry toast, and a celery and orange salad (R45/65), confit lamb terrine filled with apricot (R40/60), and pickled beetroot salad (R35/55).   The six main courses offer a variety of choices, including meat, fish and vegetarian: braised pork belly is served with peach pommes puree, roasted porcini and a peanut froth (R60/R100), Beef Wellington (R76/R125), a beautiful light and healthy lasagna of Franschhoek salmon trout (right) with orange-buttered baby vegetables (R65/110), tomato and buffalo mozzarella tart (R50/90), crown roasted chicken breast with sweet corn couscous (R65/110), and porcini-crusted wildebeest loin served with a bitter chocolate jus (R75/145).

It is on the dessert side that Chef Ryan’s creativity really comes to the fore, in the elements the desserts are composed of.  I chose lemon thyme panna cotta, for its unusual addition of butternut anglaise, and was served with a blueberry tuille and grilled vanilla chiffon (R40/55).  Other options are bitter chocolate crème brûlee served with banana and rosemary beignets, mint syrup and sour cherry sorbet (R40/60); Pierre Jourdan poached pears served with molasses pudding and vanilla and rooibos ice cream (R30/55); and strawberry and champagne jelly served with spicy walnut ice cream (R40/60).  Coffee is by LavAzza.

The Pierre Jourdan Cap Classiques Brut, Cuvée Belle Rose, Brut Savage, and Blanc de Blanc range in price from R32/R129 to R42/R169.  The Cuvée Reserve is only available by the bottle, at R264.  Pierre Jourdan is honoured in the brand name, having been the first owner of the Cabriére wine estate.  Haute Cabriére Chardonnay/Pinot Noir 2010 (R27/109), Unwooded Pinot Noir 2011 (R30/119), Pinot Noir 2011 (R47/189); Pierre Jourdan Tranquille lower alcohol wine (R21/82); Pierre Jourdan Ratafia (R16/129) and Fine de Jourdan potstill brandy (R27/R219) are also offered, all at very reasonable prices.

Haute Cabriére Cellar Restaurant is an exciting reinvented rediscovery, and Chef Ryan is a breath of fresh air in this well-established restaurant.  It offers a good variety of creatively prepared dishes as well as wines at affordable prices.

POSTSCRIPT 30/10: Lovely lunch at Haute Cabriere today, and well looked after by Desiree and her staff. Spoilt with glass of Pierre Jourdan Cuvée Belle Rose.  Excellent tender fillet in Beef Wellington (starter portion), and interesting sour cherry sorbet, with cherry and cinnamon soup for dessert.

Haute Cabrière Cellar Restaurant, Franschhoek Pass, Monday – Sunday lunch, Friday and Saturday dinner (in September, from October lunch and dinners daily).  Tel (021) 876-3688. www.cabriere.co.za

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