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Restaurant Review: Act Restaurant at Baxter does not have its act together yet!

It was a surprise earlier this week to discover that the buffet-style dinners at the Baxter Theatre have been discontinued, to be replaced with a fine-dining style restaurant called Act, and owned by The Forum, a catering company from Johannesburg, I was told.  I went twice this week, preceding the Beethoven Piano Concerto Festival performances.

On my first visit only six tables were available for service, those deeper in the restaurant not laid as there were construction workers working on the bathrooms.  Luckily they did so without one hearing them.  One must pre-book a table, and I did so for the second concert.  The manager found a small table for me for the first (unbooked) dinner.  The second evening was almost fully booked when I arrived, and my booked table could not be found.  I was taken deep into the restaurant, not as attractive looking as the entrance section.   A table was found for me there.   The tables have a yellow table cloth and serviette, a vase with a pink dahlia (an old-fashioned flower type not often seen, yet so pretty), a little candle, and  small containers with coarse salt and ground black pepper, one with a spoon, and the other without.  The modern cutlery is by Fortis Hotelware, and beautifully new and shiny.  The glassware is of an excellent quality.  This is where the quality ends.

With so many more tables to serve on my second visit, the service was even worse than it was on my first visit.   I quickly saw that one should only order one item from the menu to have any chance of seeing one’s show on time, even if one arrives an hour or longer before the start of a concert or show.  The service is inconsistent – on the first visit I received a basket with bread presented in a serviette, but not on my second visit. The menu is in a good quality leather holder, and easy to read.  Surprising was that the winelist was not offered on both occasions, and that I had to ask for it.

To try out the restaurant on the first visit, and due to less time available, I only ordered a green pea, spinach and watercress soup, sprinkled with bits of feta (R36).  This symphony in green was nice and thick, filling, the feta was a good marriage with the mix of three greens, and offered good value.  On my second visit I ordered organic trout on potato rosti, with vodka cream cheese, black caviar and chives (R72) – the dish sounded promising, and looked beautiful, and there were two slices of trout, in between two slices of very thin rosti, sprinkled with a little caviar.  The rest of the dish I struggled with, not tasting the chives, nor the vodka in the cream cheese.  The rosti was very dry, and the cream cheese was just a drizzle, not adding enough moisture to the rosti to make it pleasant to eat.  I felt it to be overpromised and overcharged for what one gets.  The port and peppercorn chicken liver paté (R48) was more successful, served with bruschetta, yet I could not detect the peppercorns nor the port in the taste nor the texture!  This order caused a service let-down.  When I explained that I wanted to take the paté home with me, due to a time shortage, the supervisor said they do not do take-aways. I asked him to bring me the starter, wanting to photograph it anyway, and then I would ask for a doggy bag.  I was surprised when I received the take-away container with the paté, and had to request that they plate it for the photograph, and then put it back in the container! Other starters include beetroot and apple soup (R32) and mussel pot (R55).  Main courses range from R65 for “fish and fat chips” to R145 for loin of lamb wrapped in potato rosti.  One can also order fillet; lamb shank; spinach and feta cannelloni; Thai green calamari; and chicken stuffed with truffled mushroom and Gruyere cheese.  Desserts cost around R45, and include Amarula crème brûlée, yoghurt Amaretto panna cotta, twice baked goats’ cheese and red wine pear soufflé, and chocolate fudge torte.

The serving of the two starters took an hour, but I did manage to get a weak cappuccino (R13) organised from my waitress.  Her initial response was to point upstairs, meaning that I should get it in the upstairs bar.  I asked her to oblige, which she did!  Payment by credit card was done at the table, but took time to organise. The bill was presented with a “commenting” card, the waitress asking me to provide my feedback.  I have not received a response from the restaurant to my feedback.  One of the biggest service issues is that the entrance to the restaurant, leading from the steps down to the theatre entrances, is not manned by any staff, to deal with new ‘arrivals’, mainly being Baxter ticket holders who are inquisitive about the new restaurant, distracting the staff from serving the guests who are eating there.

As an alternative, one can go upstairs to the Play Bar, have a drink and order tapas, which come from the same kitchen, probably causing some of the service issues experienced.  The tapas menu is a tiny laminated list consisting of five options: olive plate, mezze, chicken and mushroom, savouries, and cheese, ranging from R46 – R68 for two persons.   By day the Play Bar is a coffee bar, serving sandwiches and other light meals, on Mondays to Fridays, until 17h00.

The winelist is a tiny unlaminated piece of paper, almost looking like an after-thought, and its selection of four white and three red wines is far too small to match the ‘fine-dining’-style of the restaurant, and its typing errors are unforgivable.  White wines offered are Pecan Stream (R85), Remhoogte Chenin Blanc (R20/R88), Villiera Sauvignon Blanc (R25/R90) and Steenberg Sauvignon Blanc (R140).   The Beyerskloof Pinotage was unprofessionally crossed off the red wine list, leaving only a Remhoogte Aigle Noir (R20/R90) and a “Roupert & Rothchilds” (ouch, with a double typo!) Classique (R150).

Act needs a lot of hard work to improve its act, its service performance being unsatisfactory – all the staff are understandably new, but unforgivabley untrained.  The manager seemed nice, but was running in and out of the kitchen with dishes, not managing what was going on in the restaurant on both evenings.  The design of the restaurant, being a long ‘rectangular’ shaped open space, seperated by the bar in part, means that staff at the back end of the restaurant have no idea of what is happening in the front section.  Act is not cheap, and the time limit one has before the show is likely to cause service issues for its customers.  Ideally one should phone through one’s order when making the booking, especially if one is planning to order more than one course!  I am not sure if such a service exists.

POSTSCRIPT 11/4/11: I was impressed to receive the following e-mail from Glynis Hyslop, MD of The Forum, today: “Thank you for taking the time to review our new, as yet unopened restaurant. Based as I am in Johannesburg I am delighted to have a Mystery shopper who delivers such comprehensive reports! In particular thank you for your comments on the quality of the table appointments. As you correctly point out, the kitchen services both the restaurant and the tapas bar upstairs which can be difficult if both are busy. To mitigate this you will have noticed the extensive open cooking area within the restaurant. Unfortunately until this weekend this was not in use.  During our renovations we discovered that the previous restaurant’s gas installations were both illegal and leaking.  As I am sure you are aware the current regulations call for submission of plans to council and approval before new gas points are installed.   On Friday morning we received permission from the Baxter   for a further temporary installation of   gas to the front kitchen whilst we wait for council approval.  Even though this is a soft opening it has been very difficult to operate, with only 1/3 of the kitchen, but we hope to be fully operational as soon as this approval is forthcoming. We have noted the comments on the food and have changed the rosti, they will be future be made thicker which will hopefully ensure that they are not dry. Thank you for the comments re the service.   This is an issue that we are working on. I am however very perturbed to find that your comment card has not made its way to either the Exec chef, the manager of the restaurants division, or myself. The forum is committed to world class food and service and you clearly experienced neither.  I would be delighted if you could let me know when you will next be at the Baxter so that I can organize a complimentary meal for you to experience the forum as it should be.  I would also be delighted   if you could attend the opening on Thursday evening the 14th. We will be forwarding you an invitation tomorrow.”

POSTSCRIPT 12/4/11: Kim Roberts, the GM of the Restaurant Division of The Forum, has written today: I am aware that our MD has been in contact with on receiving the review you gave our soon to be opened new restaurant at the Baxter Theatre Centre, feedback is always greatly appreciated as it keeps us on our toes and ensures that we are continually working to achieve on the goals we set out.  Attached is your comment card and am in agreement with regards to the service issues not being to standard.  We are currently training staff daily to ensure better communication from our staff to our patrons.  We run a custom touch points program for all our service staff and believe once they have completed this that service levels will be where they are.  I know that you are aware that we have had limited gas supply and with the front kitchen being incomplete, the espresso machine only going in there  last Friday and staff running up and down service stairs to get a patrons coffee order has certainly compounded our service delivery.  The theatre going crowd is time poor with show starting times, but wanting a nibble, meal or a beverage before a show, we made a call to serve under not so perfect circumstances while building construction was going on,  will so I do hope you will return in a more settled time.  I am on route to Cape Town today for the re-opening of the Baxter Hospitality facilities on Thursday and am looking forward to meeting you then.  In the interim, I am now following you on twitter to see what else you are up to! “

POSTSCRIPT 14/4/11: My colleague and I attended the official opening by David Kramer of Act Restaurant and Play Bar.  I met both Kim Roberts and Glynis Hyslop from The Forum.  A proper winelist has now been compiled, I was told.

POSTSCRIPT 4/4/12: The Cape Times reported yesterday that the ACT restaurant and PLAY bar vacated the Baxter Theatre overnight last weekend, not having paid their rent for three months.  It was predictable that the restaurant and bar would not survive, their service being so exceptionally poor!

Act Restaurant, Baxter Theatre, Main Road, Rondebosch.  Tel (021) 685-3888.  www.theforum.co.za (The website has only a short reference to Act restaurant and Play Bar, and shows photographs of the renovations, as well as sketches of the new interior design. The site refers to its ‘gourmet a la carte menu’, but none is provided. The Forum positions itself boldly as follows: “The Forum company team is dedicated to delivering world-class services”!   The website also refers to Act’s ‘extensive winelist’.   I did not see any of this at Act restaurant this week).  The Forum has other projects in Johannesburg, and a second project is underway in Cape Town, but the staff could not tell me where it is.  Monday – Saturday evenings.

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

Restaurant Review: Ah! Restaurant a Paternoster secret

Arnold Hoon and his actress wife Annelise Bosch opened their 4-star Ah! guest house in Paternoster almost four years ago, and accommodate guests in three bedrooms.  They prepare gourmet dinners for their guests, as well as for any other visitors in Paternoster, for up to eight guests in total.  It was the best all-round restaurant experience I recently had in Paternoster, and this was the second visit for a meal, after having been impressed by Arnold’s creativity on a visit in January.

The wooden table looked beautiful, with a selection of 16 different candles in holders lining the centre of the table.   The serviette was laid in the center of the place setting, unusually knotted.   The fun part of Arnold’s table is the luck of the draw, in who one gets to meet at the table, and sits next to.   On our January visit we shared the table with very entertaining Cape Town advocates and their friends, while on the latest visit I met a lovely couple from Hermanus and their friends from Worcester, and Trevor Richardson and his wife from Durban.  The other luck of the draw is the menu, as one has no choice on the items on the menu, which costs R 225 for the 4-course dinner.  However, Arnold is a most accommodating host, and does his homework when one books, to check on any food allergies or dislikes, and will make something especially.

Arnold ran a catering company in Johannesburg before falling in love with Paternoster.   He has an amazing ability to remember his dinner and guest house guests when they return unannounced, a reflection of the personal care that he takes.  Nothing seems to be too much trouble for him and Annelise, and the care they put into their dinners they also put into their beautifully presented three-course breakfasts.

One can order a bottle of wine with the meal, and pairing each course with a different wine is not the main focus of the evening.  Arnold supplies West Coast wines in the main.

Arnold’s dedicated yet seemingly relaxed preparation of the meal takes place while one chats around the table.  I arrived a little late, and the other guests were already seated and eating their mussel and Guinness soup, one of Arnold’s specialities, and often requested by past dinner guests.   Mussels were on my food-dislike list, and therefore Arnold prepared a special dish just for me, a courgette soup served with a beautiful stack of smoked star-shaped angelfish samoosas.  The highlight of the meal was a Three Cheese Salad, with beetroot, fresh pear, gorgonzola, labna, parmesam shavings, and brittle, served with a soy and sesame seed wholegrain mustard dressing.   Everyone at the table loved the crunchy brittle, and the gorgonzola in particular.  Our main course was a red wine and mushroom risotto served with tubes of calamari stuffed with oxtail – an usual combination of elements but very tasty.   For dessert we were served a vanilla semifreddo with a slice of dried fruit and nut baklava, on top of which was a slice of port-soaked fresh fig, drizzled with mint syrup.  An heavenly end to an ah! evening.

Ah! Restaurant, Ah! Guest House, 1 Mosselbank Street, Paternoster.  Tel 082 464 5898.   www.ahguesthouse.com (The website is disappointing in not providing a sample menu or winelist, with very few food photographs in the Image Gallery.  However, Ah! Restaurant is one that one would get to hear about by word-of-mouth in the main).

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

Restaurant Review:Sommelier Restaurant at Sante Hotel has no sommelier!

Yesterday we set the scene for the Sante Hotel and Wellness Centre, which re-opened just over two months ago.  In our review of the Hotel and Spa, we painted a picture of mis-management, and our tale continues with our review of the Hotel’s restaurant Sommelier, a disappointment, in not having a sommelier, for being expensive in what it offers, and for its below-average service.  The restaurant Sommelier was in place when the Hotel originally opened.  I am not aware that a sommelier was ever in operation. The new owner of the hotel has maintained the restaurant name.

The restaurant is large, and not well filled with furniture, seating about 50 persons on four completely different styles of chairs, which makes it look more empty.  There was no music, no candles, nothing to create some mood – even if I was the only person eating there on the first night.  The menu was neatly typed on a sheet of paper, presented on a brown leather holder which I have seen often recently (Restaurant at Majeka House, Jordan Restaurant with George Jardine, Overture), but nothing like the “gourmet menu” nor offering a “choice of South African and international cuisine”, as claimed by the Hotel website.  Three choices are offered per course.

The “Wine Collection” (nice name) is an impressive looking document, bound in brown leather, and commendably has the Platter star-rating of every wine listed.  Each of the more than 70 wines is described in detail.  It is however the most difficult winelist from which I have ever chosen a wine.   Instead of going the predictable wine variety route in classifying the wines, the “authors” of the winelist (the GM Kristien de Kinder and two wine consultants) went the wacky route of trying to be “clever” in classifying the wines stocked in terms of sometimes funny, sometimes weird headings they have given, which means that one does not understand what the headings refer to, and therefore one must go through each of the 17 pages to find a wine one knows or would like to try, which could easily take half an hour.  The Wine Collection must be so new that one feels that one is touching its pages for the first time.

Only one Wine Collection category is understandable (“French Champagnes”), but most are not.  So, for example, “Taste the Stars” lists sparkling wines (e.g. Miss Molly from Moreson, Krone Rose Cuvee Brut); “Great Whites” (all Sauvignon Blancs); “White Collar Whites” (e.g. Groote Post Unwooded Chardonnay, Bosman Old Bush Vines, Veenwouden Vivat Bacchus, Warwick Professor Black); “The Crowd Pleaser” (e.g. Altyd Gedacht Gewurztraminer, Glen Carlou Chardonnay); “Rich Whites” (Constantia Uitsig Semillon); “Scented Garden Wines (all Rose’s); “The Outsiders” (De Krans Tinta Berocca (sic), Idiom Sangiovese);  “Cheerleaders” (Seidelberg Cabernet Sauvignon); “Sensual Reds” (Seidelberg Un Deux Trois); and “Incredible Reds” (De Toren Fusion V).  Wines-by-the-glass cost between R40 – R50, and the vintages of the two reds (Seidelberg Cabernet Sauvignon and Bell Post Merlot) are both 2006.  I enjoyed a bottle of Rijks Shiraz 2004, which I spread over my two dinners whilst at the hotel.  Commendably, they have a special closure to pump out the oxygen once the bottle has been opened, to keep for the next day.

I was interested in finding out about the chef, and Terence told me his name is Neil.  He went to find out his background, and told me that he came from the restaurant at Rickety Bridge outside Franschhoek.  I asked if I could meet him – when he came to the table, his name had changed to Neville, Chef Neil Rogers having been one of the 20 staff to have been fired the week prior.  Sous Chef Neville Appollis came to the table wearing the chef’s outfit of Proviant Hospitality, a catering company he worked at more than two years ago.  He had been at the “old” Sante, and his last job was at Rickety Bridge.   There is no Executive Chef at Sante, I was told.   (Guests Larry and Heather Katz I met in the restaurant on the second night were told that a chef from Grootbos is to start in September).

I was not offered any bread, and when I questioned the waiter Terence about it, he said they don’t serve it.  The chef Neville was more honest in admitting that they had forgotten to bring it to the table!    Starters are a choice of butternut and orange soup, expensive at R50, a smoked “salmon gravadlax” salad, and a chicken salad, both at R55.

The main course (Pan-grilled lamb noisette rolled in marjoram, coriander and paprika) was served within 5 minutes of giving the go-ahead, after the difficult wine choice.   This meant that the food had been pre-prepared, even though I had asked for it not to be prepared until I had been through the Wine Collection, which explained why the food was not served hot.  The lamb was very fatty, served on mash (which I had requested instead of the couscous), and served medium rare, even though the waiter had suggested it should be served medium.  Stirfried red cabbage and red pepper strips were served with the dish, and had a surprising sweet taste. The dish was served with a Red Wine jus.  I felt that the cost of R130 was expensive for a restaurant stuck away in the middle of nowhere, not having a sommelier, not serving bread, and for having no ambiance at all.  Chef Neville admitted that he may not have cut off enough of the fat before preparing the dish.  Other main course choices were Grilled Dorado (R95) and Oxtail (R140).

I had springrolls with an orange and chocolate filling, with a spoonful of vanilla pod ice cream served in a  Chinese spoon for dessert (R45) – the rolls were very crispy, but I felt that the orange was dominated by the chocolate filling.  Other options are creme brule (sic) and chocolate fondant with chocolate ice cream and chocolate sauce, at the same price.

Things looked up on the second night, as there were more guests in the restaurant, music was played and a candleholder was on the table, but the candle was not lit.  A new waitress was far more efficient in service, but once again there was no bread (I had been promised it for the second night).    Mannie, the Duty Manager of the hotel, came to the rescue, and bread was brought to the table.  I had chosen to eat at the hotel again, because of the bad condition of the gravel road off the R45 to the hotel, and because the waiter Terence had promised that the menu changes every day.  Only one of the three dishes per course was different to the menu of the night before.   A Greek salad was brought to the table, which was not for me, and was not a menu option.   I had the Beef fillet served on shitake mushroom risotto, served with vegetables, and could not help but think that the mushrooms were fresh out of a tin, chopped up.  The size of the steak was tiny, meant to be 200 gram, I was told, and the risotto was heavily overcooked, cloying and mushy.

The bottom line is that the restaurant name is misleading, in there not being a sommelier.  The quality of the service staff is poor, and there is no Restaurant Manager on duty in the evenings.  The food is not well prepared, portion sizes are small, prices are high, and the kitchen seems to be out of its depth without an Executive Chef.  The winelist is odd, the ambiance non-existent, and there is poor co-ordination between the kitchen and the waiters.  The retrenchment of 20 staff last week, only two months after opening, plus the threatened further staff cuts, have created a staff complement that is ready to jump off what could become a sinking ship, badly influencing the operation of every aspect of the hotel, spa and restaurant.

Sommelier Restaurant, Sante Hotel and Spa, off R 45, between Klapmuts and Franschhoek.  Tel (021) 875-1800.  www.santewellness.co.za (The website does not feature the menu of Sommelier, but it does have a menu for Cadeaux, a restaurant which is meant to be run in the Spa building, but has not re-opened.  It states that Chef Neil Rogers is running both these restaurants, but is dishonest in that only Sommelier is open, and that the Chef has been fired.  The food photographs are extremely misleading relative to the presentation of the food).

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