Yesterday I attended the first birthday celebration of Tokara Restaurant with its new management team and chef Richard Carstens, and its tenth anniversary overall. It co-incided with the news that Tokara Restaurant had been named the best Winelands restaurant in South Africa by the Great Wine Capitals Global Network the evening before.
The first birthday celebration was an opportunity for Chef Richard to present four items off his new summer menu, and for the main restaurant players to look back on the first year, in which 22000 guests had been served, with such dignitaries as the Dutch royal family amongst them. Owner Wilhelm Kühn told us that Stellenbosch locals support the restaurant in the main, appreciating its views, at sunset in particular, and the quality of the food, wines and service.
The amuse bouche was a small colourful collection representing Chef Richard’s creativity, consisting of a cob sashimi, compressed watermelon, with crisped seaweed and ginger ponzu, each item creating work to make up this opening taster. As Chef Richard is so hands-on in the kitchen, it is a shame that he is not able to explain to his guests how he creates each of his masterpieces. This was followed by what was the highlight of the meal for me, being a Baked Alaska of rainbow trout, with a soft meringue, on which was served smoked salmon ice cream, with citrus salsa, and a ginger, soya and mirin sauce. Sommelier Jaap-Henk Koelewijn told us that he worked with Chef Richard at Lynton Hall in 2003, a Top 10 restaurant in Richard’s reign, and that he had said that he would love to work at Tokara one day. Jaap-Henk has been with Jardine and Tokara for five years now, and expressed his gratitude to Tokara owner GT Ferreira for allowing him to add other wines to the winelist, as he felt that the Tokara wines are strong enough to stand up to these. He has sought balance in the list, across different price points, and chosen winemakers with passion. He has a number of wines by the glass, and ‘chops and changes’ his winelist as Chef Richard changes his menu, which is frequent, he said.
The second starter was an attractive salad of turnips, a trio of mushroom styles (marinated, seared, and soil), goat’s milk cheese, pear, pea sponge, and hazelnut streussel, served with a Tokara Chardonnay dressing. Manager Johan Terblanche spoke about his good service staff, and how he whittled down 800 Gumtree applications he had received before they opened the restaurant. He has a mix of permanent and student waiters, and they meet with Chef Richard before every service, so that he can explain the menu to them. All staff try Chef Richard’s new creations. He described Chef Richard as a ‘giving and sharing chef, with an amazing brain’.
A tiny intermezzo of rose geranium sorbet served with a wasabi and lemon emulsion was a fresh palate cleanser. The main course was slices of beef fillet served with wasabi potatoes, finished off with a blow torch! It appeared the most ‘simple’ dish of the day, served with asparagus, blanched tomato, carrot puree, wasabi yoghurt, and teriyake jus. Chef Richard said that he is working with a brand new team, not having brought any previous kitchen staff along, and they are passionate. There is perfect synergy between the front of house and the kitchen, and he calls his kitchen his ‘training school’. His sous chef Zané Pelser has just returned from Australia, having worked with Australia’s Chef of the Year Dan Hunter at the Royal Mail Hotel in Dunkeld, who grows his own herbs and vegetables. She praised Chef Richard for the repertoire that he has built up over twenty years, and that he is not side-tracked by whims. She said he makes ‘magic out of everyday ingredients’.
I am convinced that Tokara Restaurant will not only feature in the Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant Awards list on 20 November, but that Richard Carstens will be named our country’s Top Chef and the restaurant crowned as number one. Chef Richard has been criticised for his lack of staying power at restaurants, having lost out on a number of Top 10 awards for not staying at a restaurant for a year, but he seems to have found his ‘home’ and happiness at Tokara.
POSTSCRIPT 4/11: I popped in at Tokara, after a concert at the Endler Hall this evening, and Chef Richard offered me a dessert off his new summer menu, introduced today, and well received by their guests. I chose a chocolate pavé, crémeux, with chocolate ice cream, meringue, and aerated chocolate, served with an amazing basil ice cream, a surprisingly good marriage with the chocolate.
Tokara Restaurant, Helshoogte Pass, Stellenbosch. Tel (021) 885-2550. www.tokararestaurant.co.za Twitter:@Tokara_
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage