I had heard about the Long Table Restaurant and Cafe on the Haskell Vineyards outside Stellenbosch on Twitter, and tried it out recently.  I left overwhelmed by the unexpected quality of the food, matching the stature of the wine estate.  However, not all is perfect.  With some better-polished service staff, and some attention to its table presentation and housekeeping, it can rank with the best Stellenbosch restaurants.

Haskell Vineyards is at the end of the Annandale Road near Mooiberge Farmstall, high above and beyond Rust en Vrede.    I was impressed how three competitive wine farms (Rust en Vrede, Haskell and Bilton) have a collegial co-existence in sharing the security for the communal entrance to their farms. 

One cannot see the entrance to the restaurant from the parking area, as the restaurant signage is set back too far above the entrance door.   One enters a reception area, that of the restaurant on the left, and that of the winery on the right.   I was greeted by Corli as I entered, but I did not realise that she was the chef.  Using the bathroom first (door lock does not work on the middle door), I then connected with Werner Els, who does the wine tasting and sales, and he answered my question about the relationship between Dombeya and Haskell.

Dombeya was originally the name of the farm, and was known as a mohair wool farm and factory.  It also had grapes, and the wines made were branded Dombeya, a Latin family name for the wild pear, which is found on the farm.  Preston Haskell bought the farm earlier this decade, and introduced the Haskell wine label from 2007, when highly regarded winemaker Rianie Strydom started making the wines.   The Haskell wines are super-premium ones, selling at high prices.  The wine estate also represents PHD Wines, selling their Australian and New Zealand wine brands from the wine estate and from select retailers such as Caroline’s Fine Wines and Norman Goodfellow’s.   Werner told me that the new restaurant is pulling in feet through the door, and leading to wine sales since it opened five months ago.  Previously one had to make an appointment to taste the estate’s wines.

Werner showed me around the restaurant, demonstrating the collegiality that exists between the restaurant and wine sales, and I only learnt afterwards that Corli Els (no relation) is the chef and owner of Long Table, and leases the restaurant space from the winery.  The long table is in the last section of the restaurant, a beautiful wooden table that can seat about 20 persons.  Here they host regular Winemakers’ lunches.   Blackboards list the wines and menu items inside.   I noticed some odd looking lampshades, made from beads, but preferred to focus on the view from the terrace outside on a lovely summery winter’s day.

The outside area is large, with many tables and chairs, the trees providing shade if required.   The wooden tables and chairs are garden furniture, and the waiter brought a cushion for my chair after I had sat down. The waiter was an irritation – he kept wanting to talk to me in Afrikaans.  I found him extremely lightweight, and not a credit to the restaurant nor the wine estate.  I found it hard to understand what he was trying to tell me, and the pork belly which I ordered without chickpeas was served with chick peas!  It took him forever to bring the bill (there were only 2 tables in total booked for lunch).

Chef Corli was previously from Pretoria, and last worked at Ernie Els’ (no relation) Guardian Peak restaurant close by.  She has also worked at Hazendal, and owned the Fusion Cafe’s in Observatory and in Stellenbosch, but sold them.

Corli bakes her own bread (I loved the whole wheat bread), and is excited that the farm is creating an organic vegetable and herb garden for her.   I ordered the Avocado and papaya salad served as a stack with Black Forest ham, with a yummy dressing, and finished off with a pansy – I have not seen one on food for years.  I loved the salad, and the look of it, and I would come back again just for it alone!     The main course choice was pork belly, costing R98, served with a generous portion of creamy mash, crispy fresh vegetables, a tangy orange sauce and fine orange rind (and the unwanted chickpeas!).

The menu and winelist are attached onto unattractive clipboards, and could be more attractively presented.  The menu has an eclectic mix and a good number of dishes to choose from.  For Starters one can have beef carpaccio; lamb kidneys; fresh corn, or pear and camembert soup; a “super foods” salad or crunchy Caprese parcels, costing between R 50 – R60.  There are 14 “Light Meals and Main Courses”, in what seems a waste to have all ingredients available for so few people.  One can have a chicken salad; Beef Burger (with all sorts of yummy-sounding additions like wild mushrooms, prosciutto, onion confit, mustard bearnaise, for R70); beef strips; cajun chicken sandwich; farfalle pasta;  mushroom ravioli; lamb medallions; duck breasts; spiced quail; fresh linefish; grainfed sirloin steak;  Moroccan lamb shank, and oxtail braised in red wine.  All of these range from R 59 to R 105 for the last two dishes.   Two specials were also available, kingklip at a reasonable sounding R85, and Springbok at R108.  When speaking to Corli, she told me that preparing venison is one of her food favourites.   I did not have a dessert, but will do so on a next visit, most costing a reasonable R35.  Chocolate fondant, pecan nut praline cheesecake, confit apple tart and malva pudding are some of the options.  There is a Kiddies Menu, with “Foodies”, and “Goodies”(the sweets) to choose from.  The menu is changed every 2 -3 months.

The winelist is disappointing, only having one page of local wines, with unforgivable vintage corrections made by pen (commendably though the vintages have been changed to older rather than younger ones!).  “Riesling” is incorrectly spelt.  The remainder of the five pages lists imported wines, which are the Australian and New Zealand PHD wines.   The Australian wine brands are Hoddles Creek, Kalleske, and Spinifex, and are in line with South African prices, the Spinifex Shiraz Viognier being most expensive at R 435.  The New Zealand wines sold are Craggy Range, Felton Road, Lawsons Dry Hills and Wild Rock, the prices not being unreasonable – the Craggy Range The Quarry Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blend the most expensive at R475. No vintages are specified for the PHD wines.   Dombeya wines can be bought from R60 upwards (Sauvignon Blanc), the Shiraz being most pricey at R 96.  The Haskell wines are far more expensive, the Aeon Syrah costing R 290, and the Pillars Syrah R 400, both being 2007 vintages.  The Dombeya wines are marked up by R20 each in the restaurant, the Haskell ones are not.  A glass of Dombeya Sauvignon Blanc costs R25, and the Samara costs R30.

The “Cafe” part of the restaurant name refers to the freshly baked cakes, muffins, scones and tarts that are served before and after lunch.

I will come back in a flash for the Avocado and papaya salad, and was most impressed with Chef Corli’s food, and good value.  I found a number of dissonances between the high quality of the Haskell Vineyards’ brands and the image they are creating, and Long Table’s far more casual decor, the laid back and less than adequate service from the waiter, the lack of table coverings, and the unattractive and unprofessional winelist, making the Long Table feel amateurish in almost all respects, other than in the high quality of Chef Corli’s food.

Long Table Restaurant and Cafe, Haskell Vineyards, Annandale Road, Stellenbosch.  Tel (021)  881-3746. www.longtable.co.za. (The website is a model website for a restaurant – lots of beautiful photographs create appetite appeal and demonstrate Chef Corli’s food presentation skills, winelist and menu available, and I even saw some recipes on the Haskell website.  Beautiful presentation of information – a pity this appetite appeal is not reflected in the actual menu and winelist).   Tuesday – Sunday 8h00 – 17h00.  Breakfast and Lunch.   On the Stellenbosch Restaurant Route.

POSTSCRIPT 8/8:  I returned to the Long Table for lunch today.  Disappointingly, the winelist still has handwritten changes, and the Avocado & Papaya Salad did not have the salad dressing, which made the salad so tasty on my last visit.   I had a taste of the Mushroom Ravioli, which was outstanding, and I loved the presentation and taste of the Apple Tart, even though the portion was small.  The winelist did have vintages for the imported wines offered today, but the copy I saw on my first visit did not.

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