On Saturday I was introduced to De Brasserie in Strand by Annette Beller-Sogor, whom I had met at an art exhibition recently and who lives in Gordon’s Bay. She raved about the excellence of the restaurant, and mentioned that it is owned by the Belgian wine family Van Almenkerk from Elgin. We found an unexpected European haven in a most unlikely town!
It was the most beautiful clear day, with the snow capped mountains of Somerset West visible from Beach Road. False Bay looked flat and one could even see Cape Point, the raised former Kaapzicht restaurant offering an excellent view. The restaurant exterior looks very modern from outside, but the restaurant name could be difficult to read, being partially blocked by beams. In smaller type size it states ‘Est 2012 by Almenkerk’, which one cannot read from the road. Having booked last minute, we were seated at the bar counter first, but were promised a table as soon as one became available.
De Brasserie is Joep van Almenkerk, who is a most amazing host, friendly, attractive, charming, attentive, and he makes one feel that he knew what was happening at each table, and that he made every single person in the restaurant (the ladies especially) feel special. Joep started in the restaurant trade 37 years ago in Belgium, but has a Dutch passport, so he is a mix of both nationalities. He came to South Africa in 1999, promising to never own a restaurant again. He put his energy into taking out the apple and pear trees on his newly acquired farm in the Elgin valley, and planted vines in 2004, the first wine (Sauvignon Blanc) being made in 2009, and it was the year in which they won their first wine medal too. The Almenkerk wine is made in the French style, with a shyer nose, and has won international wine medals, while the second label Lace by Almenkerk is very aromatic, aiming to please South African noses and palates, and has won Gold at Michelangelo. Joep used a Belgian architect to build the cellar and tasting room on the wine farm, and had planned to do a restaurant on the wine farm too, but heard his customers tell him too often that they would not drink wine, as they had to drive back to Somerset West and Cape Town through Sir Lowry’s Pass. He saw the Kaapzicht location on Beach Road in Strand, which had been operating for 20 years, and went to see the owner every month for 14 months, asking him to sell the restaurant to him. Finally he capitulated, and De Brasserie opened three months ago, quietly and under the radar, Joep said. Cleverly, he realised the value of the restaurant as a distribution point on this side of the mountain, allowing patrons to buy the wines from the restaurant, and the winelist is naturally dominated by Almenkerk and Lace wines. Joep showed me his wine room, which also contains wines from his private collection, which he has been building up over the time that he has lived here, including Paul Sauer Kanonkop. Whenever a customer buys a wine from the collection, he buys a replacement wine for the cellar.
The Elgin cellar door design is incorporated in the Almenkerk logo, which is featured on the business card. Almenkerk branding is visible from the bar, and two walls are covered with full-sized posters of the striking Almenkerk wine cellar. The interior is dominated by a big white topped bar with bar chairs, so that unbooked guests can be accommodated there, while the tables have dark stained legs and white tops, on which a black woven placemat is placed, of a better quality than we have seen in many restaurants. Commendable is the material serviettes and the Sola cutlery, which looks very modern, but the knives do have a tendency to fall, being ‘square‘ rather than flat, and therefore not working well with plate edges. The sweetest Café branded white salt and black pepper holders, looking like bunnies with ‘ears’ as handles to allow the content to come out, are on the table.
Morgenster olive oil and balsamic vinegar were brought to the table in a neat holder for the two bottles, as well as Clover butter portions (perhaps the only point of criticism), giving one the choice, much better than the way Seafood at The Marine serves the same. A freshly baked slice of ciabbatta was brought to the table. One can choose from the Bistro menu, which also lists the Almenkerk and Lace wines by the glass and the Belgian beers offered, as well as the À la carte menu, bound in a dark cover. The Bistro menu is very inexpensive, and consists of generous tapas-type portions, including a wonderful smooth chicken liver paté with onion marmalade and Melba toast (R35), which Annette and I shared. Other items are rillette (R35), mushroom toast (30), the Dutch favourite Bitter Ballen (R40), tempura prawns (R45), Satay and peanut sauce (R45), Croque Monsieur (R45), and the Belgian snack Toast Cannibal with mince, boiled egg, olives, gherkin, and anchovy (R50).
The À la carte menu starts with an introduction, and charmingly but pointedly dictates that children be well-behaved, that bringing one’s own wine is discouraged (for obvious reasons), and that credit card payment is encouraged (‘for your safety and ours‘!). The restaurant is described as blending ‘continental flair with a hint of fusion’, with ‘Belgian enthusiasm‘, and that it is a place ‘where friends meet friends‘. One can buy wine in cases, but not individually, at cellar door prices. Starters include mussels in two sizes (R55/R130), which was the choice of Annette, cheese croquettes (R50), steak tartare which we were informed via Twitter is excellent (R60), grilled or tempura calamari (R50), and prawn tempura (R60). Salads are available in two sizes, and three options: a Caesar salad, Salade Tiede (warm salad), and African salad of cheese and biltong, at R40/R60 each. There are ten main courses, and the kingklip was served with a very unusual caramelised a l’Orange sauce, best known for accompanying duck, a smallish portion for the R130 charge. A 250 g fillet AAA grade from Grabouw tops the price list at R140, which includes a sauce choice out of four, with rump a little cheaper. Steak tartare is also served as a main course (R120), as is a vegetarian pasta, Stoofvleis (Belgian beef stew), satay and peanut sauce, and vol au vent with chicken and meatballs, all costing R90.
The dessert list is superb, and not what one usually sees on menus: the chocolate mousse was light, smooth, and creamy, and costs R45, as does the Pavlova, Café Glacé (a Belgian coffee ice cream) costs R40, Sabayon is usually served with Grand Marnier, but Annette’s was made with Duvel beer, costing R50, as does the Crêpe Suzette. The cherry on top, so to speak, was the most special coffee platter, irrespective of which type one orders, which is served with a tot of Bols Advokaat, a slice of Madeira cake, a biscuit, cream, and a chocolate heart made from Belgian chocolate, all made in-house and offered at an amazing price of R20.
The Almenkerk winemaker is Joris van Almenkerk, Joep’s son, with his wife Natalie Opstaele handling sales and marketing, and Neil de Beer is their viticulturist. The brochure about the wine estate, which is freely available in the restaurant, describes their mission statement as having ‘loads of fun while making wine’. Their commitment is to making ‘elegant wines’, and to pursue quality at all costs. Sustainability governs how they work on the farm, in recycling, and in how they work with their staff. The Lace by Almenkerk wines cost R30 by the glass/R120 per bottle for the Sauvignon Blanc 2012, Dry Rosé 2012, and Red Blend 2010, and a taster of all three costs R40. The Almenkerk flagship range has three single-vineyard wines: Sauvignon Blanc 2011 (R40/R150), Chardonnay 2012 (R350), and Syrah 2010 (R60/R240). Many of the other wines offered are from the Elgin Valley, and the odd one from Hermanus (Hamilton Russell), Bot River (Beaumont), and a few from Stellenbosch (Delaire Graff, Hidden Valley, Rust en Vrede, Kevin Arnold, Rustenberg, Kanonkop Paul Sauer – at R650, Le Riche, Thelema, Mulderbosch, and Ken Forrester). Champagnes range from R750 for Moët et Chandon to R2300 for Dom Perignon, with Laurent Perrier, Mumm Brut and Veuve Clicquot also available. MCCs served are Villiera Brut and Rosé (R180), Simonsig Kaapse Vonkel (R200), and Colmant (R250). Duvel Belgian beer is proudly served with some other Belgian brands too.
The waiters are very friendly, and look the smartest I have seen for a long time, with a crisp white branded shirt, black pants, black Almenkerk apron, and the cute touch is that each wears a bow tie, some gold, and one even brave enough to wear a pink one. They checked on our table regularly, more than one waiter bringing the food, and clearing the plates, so that one feels really spoilt with the service.
De Brasserie will not be the same experience if Joep is not at his restaurant, with his charm, charisma, and customer care, no matter how good his waiters or hostess are. We noticed a constant flow of patrons arriving, and everyone seemed satisfied, someone coming to the table at regular intervals. The hi-tech bathroom is well worth a visit, with heated toilet seats, and toilets driven by remote control! The restaurant is planning to expand, with an outside terrace on the cards, for South-Easter-free days in summer. We recommend a detour to Strand to eat at De Brasserie when traveling to and from Hermanus, or as alternative to the restricted Somerset West restaurant selection.
De Brasserie, 160 Beach Road, Strand. Tel (021) 853-3833. www.debrasserie.co.za Twitter: @Almenkerk Wednesday – Sunday, Lunch and Dinner, 11h00 – 23h00.
Almenkerk Wine Estate, 50 Viljoenshoop Road, Elgin Valley. Tel (021) 848-9844. www.almenkerk.co.za Twitter: @Almenkerk Wednesday – Sunday.
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage