Café Dijon has operated in Stellenbosch for about three years, and its operation there did not impress me.  On hearing the praise heaped upon the Stellenbosch restaurant by Michael McKenzie as well as restaurant reviewer JP Rossouw, I decided to try the recently opened Café Dijon @ Zorgvliet, on a wine estate at the foot of the Helshoogte Pass.  The co-owner of Café Dijon called it a ‘Boere Bistro’, given its local touch to a French-style bistro, with a seasonal country kitchen.

I had never been to Zorgvliet before, only having read about it in Noseweek in two respects – the neighbours being up in arms about the loud music when they host weddings on the wine estate, and that Nedbank forced the previous owner into an auction, which was to his financial disadvantage.   One drives past the function rooms when one arrives, and then down a romantic tree-lined lane, with a lovely fresh country smell that reminded me of mushroom picking on Paarl Mountain as a child.  One passes the winery, and the coffee shop and picnic building, around which there are lovely lawns.  A little further along is a Cape Dutch building, previously the manor house which housed the Herenhuis restaurant, but now is the Zorgvliet tasting room.   Café Dijon @ Zorgvliet has opened in the building that was previously the tasting room, its owners having found the manor house too stiff for the more casual and relaxed atmosphere they wish to create. 

The owners of Café Dijon are not French at all, as I thought, but locals.  Johan (‘Dup’) du Plessis grew up on a neighbouring farm and his wife Sarah comes from Somerset West.  Sarah trained at Silwood Kitchen and then worked in Monaco for Sir David Brown of Aston Martin fame.  Dup grew up in a household in ‘which real men don’t cook’, but he did learn to, and they met at Deltacrest outside Franschhoek.   When it burnt down, they decided to open a ‘Thirties style bistro in Stellenbosch, opposite the Town Hall, offering classic French dishes and comfort food, which Sarah said suits the design of the venue perfectly. 

The restaurant interior is very large, and looks like a tasting room, with barrels on the walls and still having the tasting counter.   It was much nicer sitting outside on a lovely pre-winter Saturday afternoon,  and here seating is very casual at long green benches and tables, and a few small café-style tables and chairs.  Cheap striped placemats are on the table, with Eetrite cutlery.  There are no table cloths. French music plays inside, and when I heard Françoise Hardy singing it brought back nostalgic memories of seeing her concert in Cape Town about forty years ago.  She is one of Dup’s favourites.

Almost all the waiters were previously employed by the Zorgvliet restaurant, and Wilma was friendly and efficient.  It was odd to see a manager hiding inside the restaurant, when all the patrons were sitting outside.  She only checked on one’s satisfaction after each course was served, but did not stay outside to check on things generally.  Wilma had to ask Sarah some of my questions, so she came to chat, sitting down at the table, and I found her to be very charming, down to earth and passionate about what she is developing at Zorgvliet.  She showed me a patch that is to become their vegetable garden, visible from the outside seating.  She wore a House & Garden apron, and both she and Dup cook, meaning that one is assured of the best.

There is no printed menu, but a blackboard lists the menu items, which means that what is offered can be changed regularly, depending on what the chefs have in stock.   The menu has mainly starter type items, and I chose two of these – a generous serving of duck liver paté (R50), served with redcurrant jelly and toasted baguette, which unfortunately was burnt, so I asked for more of the crispy untoasted baguette, which had been brought to the table with Olyfberg olive oil and balsamic vinegar.  This was followed by Norwegian salmon on which was placed a tian of fennel avocado, cucumber and prawn (R60), a lovely fresh summer treat.  Other starters include fior de latte caprese, venison springrolls, three-cheese-tartlet with salad, parma ham and melon, and chicken and mango salad, ranging in price from R50 – R65.  Sirloin and fillet cost R115, Karoo lamb R130, pork belly R100, braised veal short ribs R110, butternut ravioli and gnocchi bolognaisse (R80), and vongole linguini R90.  Desserts cost R30 – R35, and include chocolate mousse, creme brûleé, and home-made ice cream (flavours on Saturday were coffee, condensed milk and Frangelico with walnuts).

The winelist is in a brown plastic cover, and only Zorgvliet wines are available, under the Zorgvliet (R145 for whites and R150 for the reds) and Silver Myn (R110 for whites, R125 for reds) brand names, the latter wines being offered by the glass too, at R25 for the whites and R28 for the red wines.  One can order Zorgvliet White, Sauvignon Blanc, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as the Richelle 2005, which costs R500.  The Silver Myn is available in Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Viognier, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir.  The vintages are listed on the winelist.

The opening of the new Café Dijon @ Zorgvliet has created confusion, with some readers of the restaurant write-up in The Month thinking that the Stellenbosch branch has closed down, Sarah said.  They have a good team there, and Sarah and Dup will be mainly based at Zorgvliet, being closer to their home. The menu is similar but not identical at the two Café Dijons. 

I was impressed with the food served at Café Dijon @Zorgvliet, but found the venue too large for the few guests.  It was lovely sitting outside, and I am not sure how the large venue will work with inside seating on winter days.  Chatting to Sarah made all the difference to my enjoyment of being there, and she is a valuable asset that should be connecting to her guests, as she is a good people’s person, and as her manager is not fulfilling this role.

Café Dijon @Zorgvliet, Banhoek Valley, Helshoogte Pass, Stellenbosch.  Tel (021) 885-2580.  www.cafedijon.co.za  (The new Café Dijon @Zorgvliet is not yet on the website).  Wednesday – Sunday lunch, Friday and Saturday dinner.

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