On Friday I had lunch at Makaron Restaurant at Majeka House in Stellenbosch, which re-opened after a R10 million new construction and decor upgrade in September.  It is a huge improvement relative to my visit to the (unbranded at that time) restaurant more than a year ago.  Given that its menu was developed with input by Eat Out editor Abigail Donnelly,  it may be a good idea for chefs to analyse the Makaron Restaurant menu, if they aspire to make Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant next year.

My motivation for going to the restaurant was to try the talented new Chef Tanja Kruger’s cooking, which I had experienced at De Huguenot Restaurant, from which she moved three weeks ago, and to see the newly created Makaron Restaurant, which is now branded, in line with a recommendation we made in our review after eating Chef Anri Diener’s creations there last year, and pronounced it ‘cuisine paradise’.  Chef Tanja is a talented winner of the Chaine de Rotisseurs Young Chef of the Year 2008, and a member of the South African Culinary Olympic Team, who moved to De Huguenot Restaurant earlier this year from Hunter’s Country House in Plettenberg Bay, having worked at Lanzerac, the Radisson Hotel and Five Flies before.

Majeka House is a 5-star boutique hotel, suitably located for the accommodation establishment in the quite Stellenbosch suburb Paradyskloof, off the road to Vriesenhof.  Its location as a restaurant is less favourable, as one has to know where to find it, as minimal signage is allowed in the residential area, and the name of the establishment and not of its restaurant is signposted.  When I arrived at the gate, the security guard wanted me to ring the bell, but one does not get close enough to the intercom (or does not have an arm long enough) to ring the bell, so he obliged.  There is ample parking on the property, and staff member Jacques was at the entrance, waiting to take me inside. What was once a restaurant leading into a lounge previously, has been separated. The original restaurant has become the ‘M’ Lounge, while the restaurant is in a new space on the opposite side, off the Reception.  The designer is Etienne Hanekom, who is an art director at New Media Publishing decor magazine VISI.  The reception area has been changed around slightly and modernised, and Hanekom’s love for quirky animals, especially pigs and deerheads, dominates the ‘M’ Lounge, which is blue-lit, with very busy decor, the luxury room crammed with leather couches and other furniture.  It must look cosy at night, when it is fuller.

Opposite is Makaron restaurant, with a glass door with the restaurant branding, flanked by a glass-encased collection of fine wines.   The restaurant is far more less-is-more in design, and there is no carry-over of the decor from the ‘M’ lounge, other than the gold colour of the lamps.  As one enters through the glass door, one sees the generous and trendy Gregor Jenkin table (also at Dash and Dear Me), filled with a large container of bottles, multi-coloured menus, and vases with beautiful garden-grown roses, over which hang gold-coloured lamps.  Against the wall are golden pots filled with succulents.  The restaurant has an L-shape, of which the ‘leg’ of the L can be cordoned off via a curtain for a private function, or closed off if it is not very busy.  With the curtains closed, the restaurant seems much smaller than the 60 it can seat inside (with another 30 outside), and becomes long and thin-shaped.  I saw some gold-upholstered chairs in the cordoned off section, picking up the recurring gold colour.  The bathroom is glitzy, with a glass sliding door with sensor, and the space inside is a little tight.  The floor is glass-lit perspex, perhaps an über-design element.  Off the restaurant is a cigar lounge, and a design feature is the collection of glass ashtrays on the coffee table.

I chose to sit outside in the restaurant courtyard, on the first real Cape summer day, not realising that workmen were busy laying paving around the nearby indoor pool, with a very strong adhesive smell and resultant noise.  There was good music to cover some of it, and I picked up that the music choice has improved from my previous visit.  There are fresh roses on each table, decked with a cloth, a silver underplate, and two sets of cutlery are pre-laid, an interesting mix and match of antique sterling silver and plate, none of the elements matching, or being part of a pair, but it is impressive that the owners are spending so much money on quality.  On the table were two bowls, one with black pepper and the other with beautiful Amoleh Iranian blue salt.  I absolutely loved the menu cover design, and this was a concept from the designer too – they are made to look like book covers, some with titles too, but the front has a cut-out spoon shape, behind which is a gold background.  For me, this was the most stylish element of the design at Makaron.  The spoon logo is on the menu and on the winelist, and even on some plates.  The menu has an introduction: “We have sourced the best produce available in the country; by doing so, we keep it real and fresh – the perfect recipe for a great dining experience”, and I could not help think that these words were written by Mrs Donnelly.

While I was there, I did not yet know that the restaurant would be named on Sunday evening as the Eat Out DStv Food Network winner of the Boschendal Style Award, but I did know that it was one of 18 contenders. The Style Award for Makaron Restaurant is controversial, as far as I am concerned, in a number of respects, as I wrote yesterday about the Eat Out Awards.  First, two independent sources told me in one day, when I mentioned that I had been for lunch, that Mrs Donnelly, Eat Out editor and sole restaurant judge, is a consultant to the restaurant.  I would have thought that Makaron would have not allowed itself to be in the running for any Eat Out award as a result, or that Mrs Donnelly would have recused herself from the judging of this award category, but she did not, and did not disclose her business link to this restaurant, blowing her credibility, in my opinion.  Second, the restaurant had only been open for a month at the time that the winner had to be decided, so that photographs could be taken, and the magazine go to print.  The designer is part of the New Media Publishing staff, which could be criticised too, from an Awards perspective.  Having Tweeted that Mrs Donnelly consults to Makaron, the PR company of the restaurant replied as follows: Get a grip. Makaron is no where to be seen on Top 20. AD (Abigail Donnelly) has assisted on a project basis to get the menu right”, confirming Mrs Donnelly’s involvement with the restaurant. One of my information sources confirmed that he had been called by her earlier in the week, about a specific food item, demonstrating a far greater involvement!  In the Eat Out 2012 magazine, the Award is motivated and described, commending its dramatic lighting, quirky details, as ‘simply beautiful and unlike anything else ever seen in South Africa’ (a dramatic overstatement, in my opinion), calm, sophisticated, with playful touches, highly contemporary, functional and cosy without a commercial feel, ‘metal meets plastic and wood’, ‘chairs are ever so comfortable, making you feel very special’, with attention to detail.  Having been there so recently, the platitudes feel overwritten.

Chretien Ploum is the F&B Manager, and he attended to me.  He has worked as part of the opening team at the Table Bay Hotel, was the owner of the Ou Pastorie in Somerset West for four years, worked on The World Resort boat, and has been a F&B consultant.  He was very informative, patiently answering my questions. The 4-course meal costs R325, but one can order a la carte too. Chef Tanja has had little or no input to the current menu, inheriting it from her predecessor (via Mrs Donnelly, it would appear), but has changed small things already, she told me, and will develop her own menu over time.  What is interesting about the menu is that each course is not only paired with a recommended wine, but with a craft beer too!  The lovely waitress Phelisa, who served me on my last visit, brought a slate plate of beautifully presented breads and lavosh, with anchovy mayonnaise (not everyone’s taste), and olives.

Starters range in price from R55 for the warm salad of duck confit and foie gras, served with cherries and blackberries, which was my choice, to R85 for pan-fried sweetbreads, a Muscadel reduction and cauliflower purée.  Other starter options are a garden pea risotto with garlic froth and smoked olive tapenade; Franschhoek cured salmon, raw trout, beetroot and asparagus; and peppered beef carpaccio, parmesan mousse and garden fennel salad.  Eight main course choices are offered, starting at R95 for duck egg ravioli, young artichoke, white asparagus and truffle, up to R180 for springbok loin with red cabbage and walnuts, and also for Asian pork belly, scallop, pickled radish cucumber salad and honey jus.  Other options are Angus beef rib eye on the bone, served with foie gras butter and fine green beans; poached prawns, salmon, truffled bisque and celeriac; a beautiful and excellently prepared kingklip served with verjuice butter, confit tomato, bean fritters and chorizo crumbs (R110); Spier chicken, ‘local foraged mushrooms’, cepes sauces and lemon broad beans; as well as quail, masala and coconut cream.  I was not planning on having a dessert, but succumbed to the description of the Strawberry jelly, rose panna cotta and fresh strawberries, quirkily served in a glass jar with lid and fresh rose petals (R50).  One can also order coffee soufflé and peanut butter ice cream; Valrhona chocolate tart, naartjie pears and grapefruit sorbet; Elgin apple tart fine and salted caramel ice cream; or a cheese plate with lavosh and plum paste.

The winelist is presented in A4 size, with the same book cover feel and spoon logo, and contains a selection of mainly Stellenbosch wines. Five sparkling wines range from R44/R139 for Villiera Tradition Brut NV to R219 for High Constantia Clos Andre, with Pol Roger Brut NV costing R485.  There is a small selection of wines per variety, and one of these comes by the glass, with very reasonable prices, ranging from R31 – R38 for the white wines, and R35 – R44 for the red wines. Shirazes offered are Edgebaston 2008 (R38/R137), Tamboerskloof 2006, Pax Verbatim 2007, Rust en Vrede 2008, and Haskell Pillars 2007.

Chef Tanja proudly showed me her newly revived herb and vegetable garden, with baby plants growing through the straw, which has been designed by the Babylonstoren designer. Fruit trees on the property are creating new opportunities for Chef Tanja, and so a harvest of peaches has led to the creation of peach fruit butter, for example.  Chef Tanja and Chretien are also looking at ways to attract more business to the restaurant (I was the only patron there on Friday), and on 1 December they are hosting the first Fine Dining and Craft Beer pairing evening, at R295, which includes 4 courses, each paired with a Boston Breweries beer and a wine. Chef Tanja brought me a taste of her specially created Pumpkin beer ice cream which she has made for the tasting evening.

It will be interesting to see how Makaron Restaurant develops in the next year.  It is clear to me that the owners of Majeka House will do everything to get to the top, which includes getting Relais & Chateaux accreditation (they did not succeed a year ago) and to make Eat Out Top 20 (my speculation).  Its only downfall is its unfavourable location.  With the talent of Chef Tanja, Makaron Restaurant will be the place to watch!

Makaron Restaurant, Majeka House, 26 – 30 Houtkapper Street, Stellenbosch.  Tel (021) 880-1549  www.majekahouse.co.za. Monday – Sunday, Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner.

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