A lunch at Coco Safar, followed by a dinner three days later, were two chalk and cheese experiences, the former excellent and the latter hugely disappointing, especially as it was a birthday dinner treat for a special friend! I had last been to Coco Safar for breakfast early this year, after it opened in Sea Point, having moved from Cavendish Square. Continue reading →
A record 111 South African wines received a coveted 2018 Platter’s Guide five-star rating at the Awards ceremony held at the Table Bay Hotel tonight. Raats Family Wines was named as the 2018 Winery of the Year. Continue reading →
Yesterday I attended the Chenin Blanc Showcase, a tasting of a selection of 50 Chenin Blanc wines, at the Cape Grace Hotel. Chenin Blanc is a cultivar growing in popularity, and we tasted the different styles of Chenin Blanc. Continue reading →
The Chenin Blanc Association hosts a tasting of its top members’ wines twice a year, to match the summer or winter season. Last week a tasting of 25 top Chenin Blancs was followed by a summery Italian-inspired lunch with a view onto Table Mountain at Meloncino in the V & A Waterfront.
The tasting of the 25 Chenin Blancs was divided into five groups of five wines, and was led by Jeff Grier of Villiera, a gentle good off-the-cuff speaker, being so good with his notes that he often knew more about the wines than was shared by the winemakers. Jeff stood in for Ken Forrester, Chairman of the Chenin Blanc Association, who spends a lot of his time marketing his wines in the USA. What makes these events great is that writers can meet a number of the winemakers at the table, getting to know them a little better, the Simonsig (Hannes Meyer), Ayama (Liezel Delport), and Rijk’s (Pieter Waal) representatives sitting Continue reading →
The inaugural Standard Bank Chenin Blanc Top 10 Challenge winners were announced yesterday at a cosy function on a wet Winelands day at the ever smart Delaire Graff. The function and competition, combined with the recent three-year sponsorship by Standard Bank of the Chenin Blanc Challenge, are giving Chenin Blanc the recognition it deserves, said Ken Forrester, Chairman of the Chenin Blanc Association. ‘Chenin Blanc is a wine whose time has come’, he said, adding that ‘Chenin Blanc is THE white wine of South Africa‘!
A total of 126 wines was entered for the Challenge, and assessed blind by a panel of judges which included chairman Christian Eedes, Jamie Goode, Alan Mullins, Carrie Adams, and Higgo Jacobs. Interviews were conducted with the judges, Allan Mullins of Woolworths saying that Chenin Blanc has been underrated for so long. He lauded Standard Bank for the support of the competition, and as Chenin Blanc drinks so well, it should be drunk by all. It is a gem of a wine variety, and ranges in price between R25 – R 300 in retail outlets. British wine writer Jamie Goode said that our country has a variety of Chenin Blanc styles, ‘ranging from the ‘VW Beetle to a ‘Rolls Royce’! Eedes said that he was honoured to chair the judging panel, and while he may be ‘shot down‘ for the results, having the auditors made the results indisputable. Out of the wine Continue reading →
Whilst in Stellenbosch yesterday, I popped in at the new Schoon De Companje, the expanded De Oude Bank Bakkerij which opened three years ago and which is now a collection of mini artisanal ‘shops’ under one roof, whilst retaining its cosy restaurant section at the back of the restaurant.
The entrance is now on the corner of Bird and Church Street, where the Dylan Lewis art studio used to be, and opens into the market style space, with different section, each branded separately, most on a Dutch theme. A mat on the floor says ‘Die Kaap is weer Hollands’, reflecting the Schoon family’s Dutch roots. One of the staff told us proudly said that owner Fritz Schoon’s mother Jenny had planned the old-world character wood-dominant interior, and has done an excellent job, not being an interior designer. Design quirks attract attention, like a picture of Jan van Riebeeck in the upstairs seating area. The menu introduces the thinking behind De Companje: ‘Schoon means beautiful in Dutch. It is a fitting description for what we do here, the way we do it, where we are and our opinion of you, the people we do it for. De Companje is a collaboration of artisans in the Continue reading →
Even though it shouldn’t have been a surprise, it was a most impressive visit to the new wine tasting center at Babylonstoren, not only offering a tasting of its own four wines, but also offering for sale two wines from each of the wine estates surrounding the Simonsberg, as well as gorgeous produce in its cheesery, bakery, and charcuterie, which opened two months ago.
One enters the tasting centre, housed in the original smithery and stable on the farm, which has been beautifully restored by owner Karen Roos and her GM Terry de Waal, to keep the building as authentic as possible. Flooring which looks weathered and as if it has been there for ever, comes from the old Dietman piano factory in Wellington. The walls are part raw brick and part plastered and painted. As Ms Roos has shown on the estate, she is a ‘less is more’ decorator, giving the tasting room a spacious feel, with only a central table displaying the Babylonstoren wines and one other Simonsberg wine, as well as a cheese of the day to taste. A small wooden table with a bench on one side is the only seating in the room, beautifully ‘decorated’ with a box of just picked and washed vegetables, including carrots and purple potatoes. From the central room the cheesery and charcuterie are on the right, behind modern glass doors, and the bakery is to the left.
Koos Bekker, husband of Ms Roos, has a passion for the terroir of the Simonsberg, and came up with the idea of a ‘home’ on his wine estate for the wines produced at the wine estates on the ‘inner circle’ surrounding the mountain. When Babel restaurant opened on the wine estate over a year ago, it served wines from the neighbouring wine farms when it had not yet made its own wine, a commendable service. A ‘map’ showing the ‘Simonsberg Wine Route’ is painted onto a tile collage on the wall, showing where each of the 27 wine estates, being Vuurberg, Zorgvliet, Thelema, Tokara, Neil Ellis, Rustenburg, Glenelly, Morgenhof, Remhoogte, Quion Rock, Knorhoek, Muratie, Delheim, Uitkyk, Kanonkop, Natte Valleij, Marianne, Mt Vernon, Anura, Glen Carlou, Neil Joubert, Backsberg, Noble Hill, Rupert & Rothschild, Vrede & Lust, Plaisir de Merle, and Babylonstoren, is located. A shelving unit stores the wines of the other Simonsberg estates, and as they are lying, it is difficult to see the estate names. Each is price marked, and sold at the cellar door price of each wine estate. Because the ‘Simonsberg Wine Route’ is not a formal one, there are no maps, no price list, nor information about any of the wines, including the Babylonstoren ones, a surprise, given the marketing and advertising background of Mr Bekker (Y&R, M-Net/Multichoice/MWeb, Naspers). None of the four Babylonstoren wines have their 2011 vintage indicated on their bottles, and the staff could not explain this unusual strategy. They called winemaker Charl Coetzee to come over for a chat, and he seemed to think it odd that I was asking questions about this, only mentioning that they were matured in tanks (with the exception of 20% of the Viognier, which was matured in barrel). He was generally cagey about providing information about the Shiraz, Viognier, Mourvèdre Rosé, and Chenin Blanc. He explained that there is no price list, as the two wines sold per Simonsberg wine estate will change over time, depending on their customers’ interest in them. He referred to the launch of their flagship Chardonnay and Shiraz in September, and these will have the vintages on them, having been matured in barrels. He was previously at Clos Malverne and Kaapzicht, and has been at Babylonstoren for about eighteen months. He said that he personally loves Pinotage, but this grape variety is not grown on the estate. Grapes were on the farm when it was bought by the Bekkers, and the vines are 14 years old. This is the first winemaking on the farm. The wine side is so new to the wine estate that it is not even on their website yet, he said. In the upstairs section there is a private winetasting and wine storage area, with minimal decor.
Having got stuck on the wine information, Karen ‘Bread’ Pretorius came to my rescue before the winemaker could be found, and she was extremely friendly and informative. She is in charge of the tasting centre, and also doubles up as the baker, having previously worked in the Babel kitchen. The breads baked vary every day, cost R25 each, and include baguettes; a 50% Rye, with Rooibos and raisins; and a tomato relish on a white loaf. All are baked with Eureka stoneground flour in their wood-fired oven, which looks like it has been there for ever. Karen is not formally trained in breadmaking, she said honestly, learning through ‘trial and error’, and ‘stealing with my eyes’, describing herself as a passionate breadmaker. She was the Head Chef at Umami in Stellenbosch previously, and praised Maranda Engelbrecht for what she has learnt at Babel. The Charcuterie is a large room, and its painting of a duck, bull’s head, and a pig onto the white brick wall, which is visible from the tasting room, reminds one of the bull painted on the Babel restaurant wall. The meats are supplied by Jason Lucas’ Jamon from Prince Albert, who also was the thatcher of the building roof. They sell pre-packed portions of Black Forest, Parma ham, Pancetta, and Coppa hams, salami, Kalbsleberwurst, and biltong. The cheeses come from nearby Dalewood predominantly, but also from Kleinrivier and Nuwehoogte. The cheeses are displayed in fridges, and also in the airconditioned cheese room, which opens into the charcuterie. Karen told me that they have a close relationship with their suppliers, all having passion for their products in common with Babylonstoren, being chemical-free, MSG-free, and healthier.
Babylonstoren is bound to come up with further surprises in future. A Loyalty Card is in the pipeline. A visit to see their extensive vegetable and fruit garden, to eat at Babel restaurant or at the Babel Tea House, to try their wines in the winetasting centre, and shopping at their bakery, charcuterie, and cheesery is highly recommended. As the tasting centre is only two months old, there were some information deficiencies amongst the staff, which Karen will fix through training. A coffee machine may be in the pipeline for the tasting centre too, as Babel does not serve coffees only, and the Babel Tea House is a long walk away.
Babylonstoren Tasting Centre, Bakery, Charcuterie, and Cheesery, R45, Franschhoek. Tel (021) 863-3852. www.babylonstoren.com Twitter: @Babylonstoren. Cellar Tour 12h00 Wednesday – Sunday, must be booked ahead as they only take 12 – 15 persons, R100. 10h00 – 16h00 for tasting centre. R10 per person entry fee to the wine estate.
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage
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
Whilst visiting Grande Provence in Franschhoek yesterday, I came across the Pebbles Project in the Gallery, and a collection of artwork by children from disadvantaged backgrounds in Western Cape schools. We bought a painting of a beach scene for our Whale Cottage Camps Bay, which had been painted by Elizna Gertse, a 13 year old learner attending the Bergendal School, and who lives on the Fairview wine estate. In a description attached to the painting, Elizna wrote that she wants to become an actress when she leaves school, and enjoys doing her school work, because it will bring her far.
The Pebbles Project was launched in 2004, and its focus is children whose lives are affected by alcohol. The fundraising organisation works with wine farm owners, to uplift farm worker communities and encourages the education of workers’ children. Wine estates that support the Pebbles Project include Backsberg, Delheim, Eikendal, Fairview, L’Avenir, Villiera, Bosman, Remhoogte, Neil Joubert Wines, Hartenberg Estate, Kaapzicht, Koopmanskloof, and Morkel.
We are proud to have assisted Elizna and her classmates in raising funds for the Pebbles Project and the good work that they do. www.pebblesproject.co.za
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage