I was invited by Katie and Jonny Friedman to dinner at Kitima in Hout Bay, an icon of Asian cuisine in Cape Town, and winner of the Best Asian restaurant in South Africa in the Eat Out Restaurant Awards in November. It was a most interesting evening, not only experiencing the good value food, but also hearing the story about Elsa’s Table, named in honour of one of Hout Bay’s longest standing ‘residents’!
The Friedmans own Orphanage on Bree Street, and we got to know each other at their cocktail emporium when it opened earlier this year. They have done so well with Orphanage that they are linking it to a double story behind the existing building, with an entrance on Orphan Street, adding another bar downstairs, and creating the Orphanage Club upstairs in which 1920’s style jazz, blues, and other music will be performed live. Reservations must be made, and it is planned to serve canapés with the drinks, served by the bottle in this venue. The Friedmans live in Llandudno, and love Kitima, usually eating there once a week. They were surprised that I had never been, and wanted to share one of their favourite restaurants with me.
Kitima is close to the Imizamo Yethu township in Hout Bay, but one feels very secure, as one is guided into the parking by their security staff, and shown the entrance to the building. The old Cape Dutch building, originating from 1670 when it was a manor house on the first farm in Hout Bay, and having been a National Monument for more than 50 years, is called The Kronendal, and is a tasteful marriage of its untouched historic Dutch origin with Thai decor touches added. The building relives the history of the Cape via the Dutch East India Company, which connected Europe, the Cape, and Siam (now Thailand). There are two generous bars, with lounge seating at one, and bar seating at the other, serving fresh ‘Thai and Western cocktails’ , which are prepared by mixologists. I had a taste of Katie’s Strawberry Rose Martini, a delicious cocktail with a minute rose, and it was actress Halle Berry’s favourite when she ate there while filming in Cape Town two years ago. It was amusing that my simple request for a medium cream sherry appeared a more exotic order than the martinis which Katie and Jonny ordered. There are three rooms (Bangkok, Boat, Temple) and the VIP Room, in which the restaurant patrons sit, up to 160 in winter and about 220 in summer, when they can expand outside. Tables are placed quite close to each other, yet one does not hear the other patrons. Tables have white tablecloths, and the chairs are upholstered in a black and grey/silver fabric.
Waiting for the Friedmans to arrive, I was shown around the restaurant by host Stian, and our first stop was at Elsa’s Table in the entrance hall, the only table in this large space, and which attracted my attention with its plates of food on the table, with a glass each of red and white wine, and a vase with red roses. It looked like a table at which a very special event was about to be celebrated, one assuming that the couple had temporarily vacated the table to go to the bar. It was quickly explained that this is Elsa’s Table, Elsa having been the daughter of one of the first Dutch owners of the building, Sir Abraham Josias Cloete, who lived there with his family between 1835 – 1849. Elsa fell in love with a British soldier. Their union was not sanctioned by her parents, so he committed suicide at the oak tree outside the restaurant building. It is said that Elsa died of a broken heart. Since then her ghost has regularly been seen in the building on moonlit nights, and her existence felt inside the building. In accordance with Thai culture, the table laid for Elsa and her soldier is a blessing, and has been prepared in honour of the spirits. Since Kitima has opened and dedicated the table to her, there has been minimal activity and no more sightings of her ghost, I was told. Our waiter was kind enough to check which dishes were served at Elsa’s Table that evening, and his list was Pad Pak Rum (seasonal vegetables wok-fried with a garlic and oyster sauce), Pla Neng Ma Nao (steamed kingklip), steamed rice, and Crêpe Suzette. The dishes served at Elsa’s Table are changed daily. The red wine was a Barista Pinotage, but the white wine was an artificial liquid, he said, and the roses plastic. I was reprimanded for putting my handbag on one of the chairs to make a note about a piece of information, reflecting how serious the restaurant is in honouring its previous resident.
The restaurant is named after its owner Kitima Sukonpongpao, who arrived in Cape Town from Thailand ten years ago. She opened Kitima five years ago, specialising in Asian cuisine, including Japanese, Chinese, and Thai. Ten ‘5-star Thai chefs’ run the kitchen. Chef Kent came to the table, telling us that he had just returned from Thailand, but that he was teaching students at the University of Thailand about restaurant service and food preparation, an honour to do this for the King of Thailand, only seeing his mother for two days, and barely having a break. Thai cooking is characterised by its use of herbs, and lemongrass in particular, I was told, but its true recipe to success is its service, making it unique, and therefore better than Nobu and Haiku, said the restaurant host. The restaurant is so popular that one must book ahead. The website introduces the philosophy of the restaurant: ‘Only passions, great passions, elevate the soul to great things’.
The brown covered menu is the largest I have seen, even more extensive than that of Haiku. It is neatly organised into Appetisers, Soups, Salads, Sushi and Sashimi, Dim Sum, Soup, Salads, Seafood, Duck and Chicken, Beef, Pork and Ostrich, Curries, Vegetables, Rice, and Noodles, each section offering a large selection of options. The first observation was how inexpensive Kitima is, when compared to Haiku, Nobu, and Willoughby’s, for example. The waiter told us immediately that most of the Dim Sum was not yet available, needing a few days to be prepared after the restaurant re-opened from its winter break. When Katie wanted to order the tuna, she was told that it was out of stock too. One is served a spoon and fork, and chopsticks, and I asked for a knife for both the starter and main course. I ordered Ebi (R40), which is a prawn, avocado and Japanese mayonnaise handroll, as a starter, beautifully presented on a stand. Appetisers include oysters (R15 each), a number of spring roll options, including duck, cheese, vegetable, and prawn, and prawn cakes cost R45 for three. The sushi selection is extensive, tuna and salmon sashimi, and prawn, tuna and salmon Nigiri costing about R15 each. Platters of eight pieces of sushi range from R38 – R55, a number of handroll and fashion sandwiches are offered, and salmon roses cost R52 for four. Dum Sum is defined as ‘little treasures’, and include a number of ingredient combinations, including prawns, pork, shiitake mushrooms, chicken, ginger, and chives, at a price range of R33 – R40. The well-known Thai Tom Yum Goong prawn soup with mushrooms, galangal, lemongrass and coconut milk, topped with fresh coriander (R39), and traditional Japanese Miso soup with tofu and spring onion (R25), are included in the soup list. Numerous salad options are available, including beef, prawn, chicken, duck, fish, seared tuna, and vermicilli, costing between R50 – R70.
For the main course I tried my Haiku favourite, being Duck à L’Orange. Katie told me that the duck comes from Thailand, as they were not happy with the quality that they source locally. The duck dishes cost R105 – R125, while the chicken dishes cost around R65. Seafood main course options are dominated by prawns, including a prawn basket, and sweet and sour prawn. Kingklip, salmon, and Bluenose (not on the SASSI list) can be ordered, steamed, fried with batter, or wok-fried. All the beef, pork, and ostrich dishes are wok-fried, and cost about R75, with the exception of the ostrich, which is a little more expensive. Red and green chicken and seafood curries, chicken and beef peanut curries, and lychee duck curry are some of the curry options. For vegetarians there are a selection of choices, including a green or red vegetable curry, costing about R55. Steamed rice costs R12, but one can also order egg fried, vegetable fried, or prawn fried (R49) rice. Noodle dishes are served with chicken, prawns or vegetables.
For dessert Katie and I shared Crepe Suzette, which was served with ice cream (R45), and I had a cappuccino (R18) with it. The other dessert options are more Western, including Crème Brûlée, Bread and Butter pudding, deep fried bananas, chocolate or fruit spring rolls, lychees, sorbets, and ice creams, inexpensive at R28 – R45.
The Waterford Kevin Arnold Shiraz (R270) was decanted, and was a good choice for our meal. The winelist recommends the pairing of Riesling for medium-spiced and steamed dishes; Sauvignon Blanc for chicken, fish, and seafood; Chardonnay for milder dishes and sushi; Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot for pork, duck, and spicy beef dishes; and Pinot Noir for more subtle-flavoured beef dishes. The rules are quite strict, with corkage costing R35 for local wines and R50 for champagne. However, one may not bring any brands that are on the restaurant’s winelist. Disappointing is that no vintage information is provided, and that there are typing errors, unforgivable for a restaurant that has invested in an extensive wine, spirit, and liqueur offering. A list of 13 champagnes is offered, ranging from R110/R660 per glass/bottle of Guy Charbaut Selection Brut to R3200 for Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 1998. Other champagne brands include Bollinger, Ayala, Veuve Clicquot, Dom Pérignon, and Billecart Salmon. Only seven MCCs are available, starting at R35/R140 per glass/bottle of Beyerskloof Pinotage Brut Rosé, peaking at R 490 for Steenberg 1682 Pinot Noir Brut. A wide selection of varieties is offered. The Shiraz prices start at R33/R90 for Arabella by glass/bottle, and include the excellent Andreas, as well as Holden Manz.
For a first time visitor Kitima feels overwhelming, both in terms of its size, and its extensive winelist and menu. One could go back week after week, as the Friedmans do, and try something different each time, the variety offered being so extensive. The prices are unbelievably good for having received the Eat Out accolade of the best Asian restaurant in South Africa. Service is very attentive, polite and correct, starting when one parks on the property, and one is guided by attendants. A nice touch was the chef’s visit to the table. I will certainly be back, to try more of the menu. I loved the story of Elsa’s Table, and the respect that is paid to this spirit.
Kitima, 140 Main Road, Hout Bay. Tel (021) 790-8004. www.kitima.co.za. Twitter:@_Kitima. Tuesday to Saturday dinner, Sunday buffet lunch. Booking recommended.
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage