Saffron is a sacred spice, used for seasoning and colouring dishes, and is the most expensive spice of all, so its choice as a name for the restaurant of the new 5-star Abalone House in Paternoster is a misnomer, in that its food does not contain any of this special spice.
I ate at Saffron restaurant for four nights in a row, not having many other options in Paternoster, during a winter break. The dining room decor is busy, with about seven tables squeezed around a central serving table, on which the breakfast and the afternoon tea are laid out. At night this table plays no role, and therefore makes things feel a little squashed, especially as the chairs are large high-back ones. Beautiful big bulbous red wine glasses, good quality cutlery and napery are on the tables. The music sounds a little canned, coming from an i-Pod, and is piped through the whole guest house.
One cannot miss the work of Tretchikoff at Abalone House, as it is in most rooms. Tretchikoff prints of the Chinese Girl and Balinese Girl are in every bedroom and bathroom, and in the public areas as well. Natasha, Tretchikoff’s granddaughter and founder of The Tretchikoff Trust (www.vladimirtretchikoff.com), stayed at the guest house one evening, and was charming when I met her and her husband at afternoon tea. The dining room decor colours are yellow/orange, with splashes of purple. Beautiful glass lanterns with a candle are lit at every table every night, even though I was the only guest at the guest house on most nights, giving the restaurant a romantic and festive atmosphere. White orchids are everywhere. It was cold in the dining room in the evenings, as the fireplace is in the lounge, and its heat does not spread to the dining room.
The menu and winelists have a gold colour, with the branding and logo of the guest house embossed in it. Nowhere could I see the Saffron restaurant name inside the restaurant, except on a tiny silver plaque as one enters the restaurant. The menu changes every three days. Three choices are offered for each course, and on the first night I chose a celery and potato soup, which tasted more of leek, and was very thin. I could not taste the potato. The freshly baked bread brought to the table had a crispy crust, and was more-ish. Other starter choices offered were almond rolled goats’ cheese, as well as smoked salmon and potato salad, all starters costing R 45.
I skipped the main course on the first night, and had a lovely portion of the mixed vegetable side dish, at R25, with carrots, broccoli, and beans, all crispy and not over-cooked. The fillet of beef on another evening, served with champagne mash and a red wine jus, was perfectly prepared medium-rare, as ordered, and a little expensive at R125 for a less than 200 gram portion of fillet. Other mains offered were a duo of salmon and and hake (R 80), and roast vegetable and garden herb risotto (R70), the latter being an extremely delicious and generous serving of risotto with green pepper, courgettes, mushrooms and beans, and quite different to what I had expected from the ‘roast’ description. I had the apple crumble dessert served with ice cream, at R 40, but the crumble part was very crumbly and burnt when grilled in the oven. The cheese platter is very good value at R 45, with five cheese types, biscuits and fig preserve offered.
Red wines-by-the-glass are reasonably-priced, and on offer are Chamonix Cabernet Sauvignon (R45), Hermit on the Hill (R35), and Cloof Inkspot (R 25). White wines offered by the glass are Withington (R 25), Journey’s End ‘The Haystack’ (R30) and COAV (R30). R50 corkage is charged. Unusually the winelist contained the following note: “All wines are subject to availability and vintages may change due to demand”. Commendably the vintages are mentioned. Each wine is briefly described on the winelist. Champagnes stocked range from R605 for a Drappier Carte d’Or to R1 430 for Gosset Grand Milliesime. Cap Classique wines range in price from R185 for Krone Borealis to R390 for High Constantia. Three Shirazes are offered: Migliarina 2007 at R 200, Tamboerskloof 2006 at R 190, and Catherine Marshall at R 125.
My biggest problem with the restaurant was with Rudi the waiter, who doubles up as the hotel’s guest relations person. On the day that I arrived, he wore a pair of shorts and the guest house staff’s African style shirt – in Paternoster one does not feel to be in Africa. He must have sensed me looking at his shorts (or legs), and he quickly put on a long apron, which made him look far more professional. He was very vague in his knowledge of the menu (i.e. which vegetables are in the mixed vegetable side-dish), and had to keep going to Nickie Lawson, the chef, to ask her. Nickie is a fun Irish lass whose mom lives next door, and this had led her to Paternoster. I was a little weary about eating at the restaurant, as I had been warned that it had some problems, and after a poor start on the first night, the food got better and better on each subsequent night. Rudi is extremely willing to please and made me the best cappuccinos for breakfast and afternoon tea (yes, this is part of the guest house package, not at the Mount Nelson level, but sandwiches, chocolate cake slices and the most delicious light scones are served with strawberry or berry jam and fresh cream every day). His past as mechanic, self-confessed, may explain some of the rough edges, but he is kind, laughs a lot, and nothing was too much trouble.
On the second day, I was told by Ann, the Manager, that the owners Johan Jansen van Vuuren and Stef Venter had wanted me to have a bottle of wine on the house. Rudi brought me a condensed current winelist, with only a few items on it, as well as the brand new well-presented winelist. I liked the greater selection on the new list, and requested a Tamboerskloof Shiraz from it. Rudi looked and looked in his bar, and very few of the wines on the new list were in the tiny bar, and he had to tell me that the bar stock had been stored elsewhere in Paternoster, but that he would have the bottle for me for the following day’s dinner. He was true to his word, and the smoky Shiraz character of the wine went well with the (unintended) smokiness of the fireplace in the lounge.
Saffron Restaurant is expensive, but its pricing no doubt is based on supply and demand, and its five-star grading – there is no other reasonable equivalent in Paternoster, except for Gaaitjie and Ah! guest house, where I also ate during my holiday. I will be back to try the restaurant under the new management of Darren and Lindsay Stewart, the new Executive Chef and GM, respectively.
Saffron Restaurant, Abalone House, Kriedoring Street, Paternoster. Tel (022) 752-2044. www.abalonehouse.co.za(the Image Gallery is very slow to download. There is no menu nor winelist. The name of the new chef has not been updated on the site, which probably means that the dishes in the Image Gallery are those of ex-Chef Nickie).
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com