Cape Town’s only Eat Out Top 10 restaurant, Aubergine, went about its business as if nothing had changed for the team of Harald Bresselschmidt the day after receiving its special honour, it seemed. The Eat Out plaque is on the shelf in the entrance hall, and if one had not read about the Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant Award winners announced on Sunday evening, one would not have known that Aubergine has been crowned as Cape Town’s best restaurant, except that the restaurant was fully booked on a Monday evening.
I took relatives from Germany to try out Aubergine last night, and had not been there for many years. My overall reaction was one of uncertainty of how I felt about the evening there. I was not sure if I could agree with the Eat Out judges that this is the one and only top restaurant in our city, as judged by them.
The building is Victorian, located in Gardens, but the interior was very unmodern, functional, almost old-fashioned, with some interesting looking lampshades (looked like serviettes hanging over the light fittings), with wooden tables and woven chairs seating 60 – 70 guests, woven beige placemats, and some paintings of aubergines downstairs (including one by Father Claerhout), and more modern artwork upstairs. One enters past a bar counter, and a wine storage system separates the restaurant from the bar counter. I was fascinated by the changing lighting effect on this wine storage section, and wondered whether it enhanced the wines. We sat in the upstairs section, with just four tables, a reed ceiling, and a triangular window offering a peek of Table Mountain. It became very hot upstairs, and the small open window did not cool things down much. Lighting was very low upstairs, from interesting wall light fittings creating the shadow effect of branches on the walls. Serviettes are of good quality, as is the glassware, but the cutlery seemed too ornate compared to the unfussiness of the decor.
The lovely hostess Jacqueline heard us talk, and immediately switched to German, and served us in German for the rest of the evening, which impressed my relatives. Jacqueline has only been at the restaurant for three weeks, and is a most efficient and helpful hostess, answering our many questions. The menu is divided into an a la carte section, and a degustation menu, but one is allowed to “mix and match”, which caused confusion at the time of the presentation of the bill, as every item ordered was itemised and not charged as per the set degustation price. The menu is attached to a leather holder, with Aubergine branding. The menu has a welcome from the “Cuisinier”, as Bresselschmidt calls himself on the business card. The introduction to the menu states: “Ingredients come first”. As Chef Patron he emphasises the “honest use of prime South African products, often enhanced by Oriental spices and cooking styles, leads you to appreciate the subtleties of what I try to produce”. The degustation menu costs R344/R485 for three courses, R 420/R600 for four and R 525/R745 for five courses, the second price reflecting the cost with a wine paired to each dish.
Howard Booysen was a very knowledgeable sommelier, who studied at Elsenburg, and makes his own Weisser Riesling under the HB Wines label, which is on the Aubergine winelist. He shares the sommelier honours with Dominic Adelbert, who studied hospitality in Geneva and Adelaide, and learnt about wine at Gleaneagles in Scotland, he said. The winelist is impressive, neatly bound in a leather folder, with 30 pages each in a plastic sleeve. Vintages and regions are mentioned, and each vintage of a wine stocked is priced separately. The winelist contains about 490 wines, and a full page is dedicated to wines by the glass. A good spectrum of local and imported brands, and prices, is included in the extensive winelist. We ordered the Catherine Marshall 2004 Shiraz at R 225. The champagnes include Pol Rogers (ranging in price from R580 – R2200), Le Mesnil (R790 and up), Billecart Salmon RosÃ© (R1300), Drappier (R375 – R500), Tribault RosÃ©(R696), Laurent Perrier (R1000 – R1450) and Duval Leroy (R795 – R 3300). Local brands of bubbly are Steenberg (R220 – R425), Teddy Hall R(385), Villiera (R220 – R300), Simonsig (R430), Krone Borealis (R270 – R3000), Silverthorn (R280) and Jaques BruÃ©re (R230). Shiraz choices start at R52/R215 for Migliarino, with 27 brands offered, Signal Hill and Eben Sadie ranging in price between R1000 – R1200, depending on the vintage. White wines by the glass cost between R35 and R50 a glass, and red wines R45 – R65 per glass. Bresselschmidt told us that he is a Riesling fan, and calls himself the ‘Riesling ambassador in South Africa’. He is importing 500 bottles from Germany. His cellar at Auslese, the events venue he opened close by in the past year, holds 25 000 bottles in total.
A number of bread options was offered, and the wholewheat bread I chose was crispy and crunchy, freshly baked. We tried to order a variety of dishes amongst the three of us, to be able to taste as widespread a range as possible. The amuse bouche was an unexciting kingklip terrine, topped with salmon caviar and vinaigrette, served with a mini cucumber salad. The triangular plate it was served on did not hold the knife, and it kept falling off, a frequent complaint one has of restaurant plates these days. The support staff, wearing burgundy shirts, did not match Jacqueline’s level in any way, even though the lady that served us had been at the restaurant for four years. I found her hard to understand, and she kept stretching in front of my cousin to pass on plates and cutlery to me, an absolute no-no for a top restaurant. We were surprised that more senior staff do not bring the food to the table and explain the dishes. The waitresses tried hard but lacked polish.
I had the Delice of smoked salmon trout and caper butter, served with roccula dressing, and poached quail eggs in a potato nest (R85). No fish knife was served with this course. My cousin had the Carpaccio of cured beef, served with marinated Burrata mozzarella, and a tomato and herb salad (R89). She expressed surprise at how thick the beef slices were. Her husband had the fish soup (R65), and felt the fish taste too pronounced, not something he is used to in German restaurants, being prepared in the French style.
The highlight of all the dishes was an ‘in-between’ dish, being steamed crayfish served with black noodles and a saffron sauce. Then came a sweet melon and mint sorbet palate cleanser, too sweet to our liking.
Something odd happened with the serving of the “Cape Sea Harvest” main course (on the degustation menu), which my cousin and her husband had ordered, described as a duo of kingklip and kabeljou when the menu was explained and our order taken. When it was served, it only had one piece of fish. We were not told proactively that the kingklip had run out, and whilst Jacqueline expressed her sincerest regret about a communication error between herself and the kitchen, it seemed unacceptable that an order taken was served incorrectly and was only reacted to when questioned. I had a most unusual tender tongue dish, with very finely sliced marinated tongue, served with asparagus and a delicious vanilla and green tea veloutÃ© (R160). Other main courses are duck (R182), lamb (R178), beef sirloin (R175) and ostrich fillet and tartare (R174).
For dessert my cousin had a very generous duo of Aubergine Créme Brûlée (R65). I chose a Beignet of Tomme Obiqua cheese from Tulbagh, served with Golden Delicious apple (which I could not taste), roccula and walnuts (R105). Other dessert options included a Charlotte of pear and ginger served with prickly pear sorbet (R75), assiette of chocolate (R84), Delice of lemon and strawberry meringue (R58), and a chef’s surprise (R94). I had ordered a cappuccino with the dessert, but it was only brought to the table after we had finished it, sweetened by a lovely plate of friandises served with the coffees.
Bresselschmidt came to our table and was very generous with his time in answering all our questions. He opened Aubergine 15 years ago, and chose the name because of his respect for a vegetable that is flexible and offers versatility. He had come to South Africa in 1992 to work at Grande Roche, and thereafter at Rhebokskloof. He has lost track of how many times he has been on the Top 10 Eat Out list, and thinks it is six or seven times. He told us how hard it is to run a restaurant, when you have to double and triple check everything, something that can affect one’s creativity, he said. He called for a score from the Eat Out judges, so that restaurants making the Top 10 list can get feedback about their performance relative to their colleagues, and not just on a ranked basis. We discussed the variability in the Eat Out Top 10 list, and Bresselschmidt felt it may be the magazine’s way of keeping interest in the Awards. Rust en Vrede is his favourite restaurant, and Bresselschmidt plans to take his team there next month to allow them to experience the country’s top restaurant. He is also loyal to Bosman’s, celebrating his wedding anniversary there, having met his wife at the Grande Roche. Nobu is another favourite.
I am yet to be convinced that Aubergine is the best restaurant that Cape Town has to offer. I did not experience it last night, mainly due to the inconsistency of the service and of the food served.
Aubergine Restaurant, 39 Barnett Street, Gardens, Cape Town. Tel (021) 465-4909. www.aubergine.co.za Mondays – Saturday evenings, Wednesday – Friday lunches.
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage