What a refreshing surprise it was to have lunch at Johan’s at Longridge last week, which opened six months ago on the Longridge wine estate owned by Aldo van der Laan, and located off the R44 between Stellenbosch and Somerset West.  While there is no Johan at Johan’s, Restaurant Manager Chris Olivier is a passionate champion for the restaurant and its vegetable garden, sharing his love for his plants as one arrives and walks through the vegetable garden to get to the front door.  One cannot miss that one is on a  wine estate, with the clever decor touches of restaurant co-owner Johan’s daughter Maryke.

We arrived, with Chris standing in the parking area, waiting for us.  He is a bubbling mine of information, and impressed with how knowledgeable he is about vegetable gardening, and it appears that he is driving the gardening.  I liked how the restaurant’s policy of using the freshest produce is visible, as there are no other plants to be seen, and the flowers used to decorate the food come from the vegetable garden as well, e.g. beautiful blue borage and minute yellow rocket flowers.  In the entrance hall is a framed ceramic collection of hearts made by Michelle of Love and Lace, and she has made the restaurant’s ceramic olive oil holders, vases, side plates and small serving bowls, all sporting heart and lace effects.   The dining room is open-plan to the kitchen, and Chef Marissa and her team were waiting to get cooking.   The room is large, but cleverly divided into sections, with a fireplace in a lounge section near the entrance, a bar counter in the middle, a seating section containing ‘love chairs’, being two tub chairs that are connected but facing opposite directions.   Closest to the windows with a beautiful view over the Stellenbosch countryside and even onto Table Mountain on a clear day, is the most amazing 20-seater yellowood top table, at a fireplace too.  The red brocade-covered chairs create splashes of colour, with the white-tableclothed tables.  However, what makes the interior so special is the creativity of bringing the vineyard (which one does not see at all from the restaurant) into the restaurant, Maryke having found inspiration in ‘wingerdstok’ to hang on the wall, and also making designs from the little curly ‘tentacles’ from a vine, which led to their logo, created to look like the silhouette of a figure.  The restaurant has a homely feel, and one cupboard had a collection of historic stone implements found on the farm, a vase of flowers, and candied kumquats, Chris calling it the ‘altar’, which reminded me of Neil Stemmet’s approach to restaurant curation and food sharing.  The tablecloths are excellent quality, and were imported from Belgium.  It was a beautiful winter’s day, so we sat outside, alongside the far larger vegetable garden on the other side of the restaurant.   The restaurant serves as the winetasting area too, clever in blending the two arms of the business.  We sat next to a very boisterous group of American wine tasters, and were happy when they left. 

Longridge was bought from Winecorp by Mr van der Laan about five years ago  He is a Dutch butchery company owner, importing meat to Holland from New Zealand, Australia and the USA.  He met Johan Neppelenbroek in Holland, and told him about his new Stellenbosch farm, and invited the two-star Michelin De Hoefslag restaurant chef to become a partner in the restaurant.  The rest is history, and the restaurant has been named after him.  However, Johan is back in Holland, and the chef is Marissa Chandansing, who is also from Holland, and worked at De Kas and the Amstel Hotel.  Chris worked at Au Jardin at the Vineyard Hotel, Paul Cluver, and it was while he was working at Delaire Graff that he met Mr van der Laan.  He shared a philosophy of staff upliftment, and the use of fresh and natural vegetables with his guest, and this led him to leave his job and help to open Johan’s, and setting up the extensive vegetable garden and sourcing unusual vegetables, and varieties. Some of the vegetables planted include beetroot (red, Chioggia and golden), nine types of beans (including Bizana, edemame, black beans, adzuki beans, purple beans), broad beans, carrots (purple dragon and orange), three types of onions, Turkish winter wheat, flax, three types of peas, three types of chillies, white currant, five types of brassicas, and four types of lettuce.   It is clearly his pride and joy, and it was sweet to see him go the garden to bring the kitchen something they needed.  

Chris said they are not chasing Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant, or World 50 Best Restaurant awards, but want to operate the restaurant in a sustainable and responsible manner.   The restaurant is supporting the Medical Knowledge Institute’s work in the townships, a charity that Archbishop Desmond Tutu is also involved in, and they want to start a ‘Streetsmart’-type donation request from their diners for that charity.  On the Winelist Chef Johan has written his philosophy and a welcome to the guests: “A kitchen surrounded by fertile soil where vegetables, vines, fruits and herbs thrive.  Where daylight shines in from all sides and where the chefs are free to express their creativity daily using the best the season has to offer.  It seems an obvious concept, but I spent thirty years in the hospitality industry and travelled ten thousand kilometers to find a place like this“, he writes.

The menu was printed on good yellow paper, and contains four starter, five main courses and four dessert options.  Two courses cost R195 and 3 courses R 240, served with a glass of wine.  The Tasting Menu of six smaller portions costs R400, paired with a glass of Longridge wine for each course, and is included in the price.  Home-baked bread was brought to the table with aubergine puree, while we decided what to order.   Chris emphasised their flexibility, and one can even order one course only, or request special vegetables from the garden.  A special 2-course winter tasting lunch, with a glass of wine, costs R150.  An amuse bouche of Butternut Bitterballen served on a red pepper coulis was beautifully presented, using fine blue borage flowers. 

The Longridge HPG (handpicked grapes) wines made by winemaker Clinton Le Sueur are extremely well priced at R17/R63 for the White, Red and Rosé.  The MCC cost R29/R145; Chenin Blanc R29/R118; Sauvignon Blanc R25/R112; Chardonnay R33/R135; Cabernet Sauvignon R38/R150; the most wonderful smoky Cabernet Franc that I fell in love with and bought three bottles of R42/R177; Shiraz R45/R181; Merlot R36/R145; and Pinotage R37/R155.  Most red wines on the winelist were 2007 vintages.  The tap water was served with a dash of lime, which spoilt the taste of the fresh farm water for me.  

I chose the two course menu and my son the Tasting Menu, so that I could get a taste of his dishes too.  His Tasting Menu started with a garden salad, served with tiger prawns and tarragon sabayon. This was paired with the Longridge White blend.  It is the best garden salad I have seen, carefully made from the gems from the garden, and to which had been added finely chopped olives, celery, croutons, red pepper and pickled onions.  The Celeriac and apple soup was a novel combination, and was sprinkled with chorizo, absolutely delicious.  It was paired with the Longridge Sauvignon Blanc.  My first course, and the third course on the Tasting menu, was Pork Belly, served with a salad of black beans prepared Asian style, which was paired with Longridge Chardonnay. The Pork belly had wonderful crispy crackling.  My son’s Ravioli contained aubergine and a pinenut filling, and was served with a most beautiful beetroot crisp, adding strong colour to his dish, and to this was paired the Longridge Pinotage.  Both of us had a perfectly prepared medium rare Kudu, served with sauteed mushrooms and Chinese cabbage, to which Chef Marissa had added her special gingerbread sauce (called ‘ontbytkoek’ in Holland).  This course was paired with the Longridge Cabernet Franc. 

With the dessert a 2008 Radford Dale dessert wine was served from a most beautiful and elegantly designed bottle, Johan’s at Longridge being the only restaurant to serve it.  We chose the Chocolate Fondant with vanilla ice cream and rhubarb compote, the fondant opening to thick chocolate inside.   The cappuccino was served with a meringue on the side.

I was the guest of my son for the lunch, and only heard from him in the car that Chris had comped the lunch – he and my son had been colleagues at Delaire Graff.   Johan’s at Longridge is refreshingly different, with its visible focus on its vegetables, the impressive interior decor, the great view, the great talent of Chef Marissa and her team, the excellent service from Chris, and the wonderful Longridge wines, which were a revelation, the Cabernet Franc being the highlight of the wines I tried.  Johan’s at Longridge is another exciting addition to the Stellenbosch Restaurant Route, and an Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant contender for 2012.

Johan’s at Longridge Restaurant and Wine Bar, Longridge Winery, Eikendal Road, off R44 between Stellenbosch and Somerset West.  Tel (021) 855-2004.  www.johansatlongridge.co.za (The website looks professional, with the current menu, a winelist, beautiful photographs, and even a blog).  Closed Wednesdays and Thursdays, and on Sunday evenings.  Open for lunch and dinner Friday, Saturday, Monday, Tuesday, and for Sunday lunch. 

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