I cannot help but associate Diemersfontein with Woolworths, which creates a very high expectation. Max Sonnenberg first bought Diemersfontein in 1943 as a fruit farm outside Wellington, and it now is run by his grandson David. Max Sonnenberg was the founder of Woolworths in 1931, and is South Africa’s leading retail outlet, synonymous with quality and innovation. I did not find any such “Woolworths” quality at Diemersfontein and its restaurant Seasons when I had lunch there last Sunday, on my weekend visit to the Wellington Wine Route.
It starts when you drive in, and the entrance wall states that Diemersfontein is a ‘residential wine estate’, which seems to be more focused on the residential side of things. As one drives to the restaurant, one does not see any vineyards, just dry dusty land. The view from the restaurant is onto the Paarl Mountain in the far distance, and onto a very dusty and dry field below, with some horses on it, as well as a dam. Again, one has no sense of being on a wine estate at all.
The Seasons restaurant and wine tasting building is a functional one, and the two sections are linked by a courtyard, with shading provided, given the Wellington heat. There is no Seasons branding on the restaurant building, and if I had not seen guests eating outside, I would not have known where to go. I had expected the restaurant to be the old manor house, which I had visited many years ago, but that has become guest accommodation, and serves as an office for Mr Sonnenberg, I was told. For the quality of the wines, the Diemersfontein reputation, and the Sonnenberg ownership, I was shocked at the restaurant interior, with garden furniture inside, and a gap in one section, with no tables at all. There is no attractive reception counter, or any redeeming feature to make this restaurant look attractive, and it is purely function-driven. My heart sank, and I feared the worst. I chose to sit outside, also on garden furniture, which was more appropriate. Plants have been planted in old wine vats, but looked sadly neglected and probably take a beating from the south-easter and heat, and were more functional looking, to fill a vat, rather than to look attractive or to add colour to the courtyard.
I was ignored when I arrived, and there did not seem to be a Restaurant Manager on duty at all. I had to ask the waitress Denisia, who walked past me, if she could seat me. She wanted to know for how many persons the booking was, so that she could find my booking. She was not interested in my name, as the number of persons booked would identify which table I should be seated at! My heart sank further when Denisia could not tell the surname of the chef, and she told me immediately that he was not on duty anyway! Edward Maqegu took over from Chef Johan van Schalkwyk, who now runs The Stone Kitchen on the Dunstone Boutique Winery on the Bovlei Road in Wellington. Chef Johan still does the catering for events at Diemersfontein. Denisia redeemed herself, and was very attentive throughout the rest of my visit, and brought me a massive jug of lemon and ice water.
The tables have a good quality white table cloth with a burgundy material serviette. The cutlery is average, certainly not purchased from Woolworths! Each table has a small Cape Herb and Spice Company salt and pepper grinder, which could have been bought at Woolworths. The black plastic covered menu has untidy plastic pockets for each menu page, and an introduction promises: “Fresh local ingredients, beautifully presented”. The latter certainly is an overpromise. The menu also asks one to tell the waitress if one is rushed for time, something I have not seen before. The menu has a Tapas list of ten items, which serves as the starters, Denisia said, and then lists main courses (none above R110, which is for venison) and desserts (R35 – R40). The menu has a Diemersfontein wine recommendation for every item on the menu, including each Tapas item.
I had ordered the duck liver paté, and it arrived soon after the order was placed, three generous triangular slices, a steal at R20. I had asked for it to be served with toast, but the bread arrived untoasted, and was quickly returned toasted. It was functionally presented on a sideplate with a sprig of parsley, not passing the ‘beautiful’ test. I took half of the paté home. Other Tapas options include Bobotie Wontons, salmon and asparagus, and prawn cocktail, ranging in price from R20 – R38. One can also order light meals such as burgers and a prego steak roll, and there is a choice of four salads. The kingklip (R95) was fantastic, to my surprise, just simply grilled, with no hard crust as I had experienced at Mange Tout last week, two very generous pieces, with crushed new potatoes and a green vegetable mix of beans (slightly undercooked), broccoli and courgettes. Out of place, and not really adding to the ‘beauty’ of the dish, was a very dangerous-looking orange aioli made with roasted peppers and mayonnaise. I was served a fish knife for it. Other main course choices include fillet, lamb cutlets, chicken Malay curry, prawns, and venison. Had I stayed for dessert, I could have ordered Créme Bruleé, chocolate mousse, milk tart, lemon cheese cake and chocolate and pecan nut tart.
The winelist is in a similar plastic cover, and will not win any Diner’s Club Winelist awards. It is a very restricted winelist, and consists mainly of Diemersfontein wines and is proudly-Wellington in the choice of the rest, and the prices are exceptionally reasonable. What is a shame is that the Thokozani (Zulu word for ‘let’s celebrate’) brand is not explained on the winelist, as being an empowerment project at Diemersfontein. Two sparkling wines are offered: Thokozani (R18/R105) and Villiera Tradition Brut (R150). The Thokozani “CVV” (a chardonnay, chenin blanc and viognier blend) costs R16/R54. The Thokozani Rosé costs R12/R39. The Shiraz options are both from the estate – Diemersfontein Shiraz costs R23/R78 and Carpe Diem R34/R120.
Seasons also serves breakfast from 8h00 – 11h00, costing R55 for Boland Eggs Benedict, and the other egg options cost less. A fruit platter with yoghurt and muesli seems expensive at R55. I would go back to Seasons Restaurant for the kingklip alone, but the restaurant is in need of a major interior and management overhaul, and must live up to its ‘beautiful’ plating promise. Seasons has such amazing potential, with a captive audience of home owners on the estate, and its proximity to the traffic flow in and out of Wellington. Given that the town is in dire need of good quality restaurants, it is missing a golden business opportunity.
Seasons Restaurant, Diemersfontein, Jan van Riebeeck Drive, Wellington. Tel (021) 864-5050. www.diemersfontein.co.za (The website dedicates only one page to the restaurant, and has no photographs of the food. The menu is available. It clearly has not been updated for a while, as the Thokozani wine range is not featured in the Wine section). Monday – Sunday, Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner.
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage