It was a Tweet by Mike Ratcliffe of Warwick on Friday that ‘announced’ the long-awaited opening of Casparus on Dorp Street, the new restaurant of both renowned (for his sauce-based food) and infamous (for his temperament) Etienne Bonthuys, who had been at Tokara restaurant for 10 years, but had left last October to make space for Richard Carstens, another iconic chef.
Being in Stellenbosch, I had called the restaurant and tried to make a booking for dinner before the start of a concert at the Endler Hall, but the person answering the phone said their dinner only starts at 7.30 pm (information which turned out to be incorrect – they open for dinner at 7 pm), putting an end to that plan, and I went to Christophe’s instead. Not one to be put off easily, I decided to pop in after the concert, just at the 10 pm kitchen closing time, I had been told on the phone, even if it was just for a coffee. I was most surprised when I was greeted and seated with great friendliness, and offered a menu and winelist.
At this point I was in awe – I have never seen a restaurant interior quite like this, and one quite so large, one long open-ended area, made up of numerous ex-rooms, in part looking unfinished, but so by design, an open-ended construction that opens into the open air and eventually a garden and trees, with a Bauhaus look on one side mid-way in red and blue. Let me start at the beginning though. The exterior of the building on DorpStreet is a 1820 historical home, and there were very tight restrictions on renovations to that part of the restaurant, so it has been kept as it was, a generously-spaced open-plan room through which one walks to get to the huge restaurant part. A dispute with a neighbour about the approval for a window caused the long hold up in completing the building work and opening.
The entrance room has the feeling of an art gallery, and only in talking to Bonthuys’ wife Jane Moses did I understand that the new restaurant is jointly owned by Bonthuys and his friend Strijdom van der Merwe, a land artist I had to admit I had not heard of before, but whose work in tying red bows on oak trees on Dorp Street (not sure what symbolism was intended then) was well publicised in the local papers. Bonthuys and Van der Merwehave different creative strengths, and it is evident that they feed off each other, and will continue to challenge each other. In the entrance room, a modern artwork which has become the logo, reflecting the ‘unfinished’ wooden roof ‘planks’, fills one wall, another wall is filled with photographs of the red ribbon tree project, and a third wall has the original plan of the erf, dating back to 1820, printed onto the wall! Of course one does not appreciate any of these images until one sits down, and someone explains it all. The first owner of the erf was Dr Casparus Termytel, and he was allocated the land in 1791, being the “Burgergeneesheer” of the Dutch East India Company, and the restaurant has been named in his honour. The records do not show whether Dr Termytel actually erected a building at that time, having died in 1793. The first recorded plans for a building on the erf are dated 1820.
One walks through an in-between room, which is a smaller section containing the bar, and the cash register. It looked a little untidy, but one is so ‘distracted’ by all the artwork hanging on the left, being photographs of ‘naturescapes’ created by Van der Merwe, and presented as banners, to ‘hide’ the kitchen from view. Bonthuys must be suffering from ‘Platzangst’, having had a massive kitchen at Tokara, and he is far more constrained in space at his new ‘home’. Having only heard the worst about Bonthuys, and that he never ventures out of his kitchen, I asked Jane to photograph him for me. She sweetly took me to him, and I even got a smile out of Bonthuys, yet looking rather shy and bashful.
To continue the guided tour – beyond the kitchen the restaurant becomes very broad, and extends deeply towards the garden area, now totally modern, with a protective sheet over one of the sections, as if the building construction is not complete, and a set of planks criss-crossed above the seating area, also looking unfinished. Looking carefully, one can see the doors that can be locked at night, but the general effect is one of a massive open space with an unfinished look above it. On one of the walls inside the seating area a slide show runs continuously, showing lovely old historic homes of Stellenbosch, projected against one of the walls. The slide show is one of Van der Merwe’s ‘works’ too, and is the third slide show Van der Merwe has compiled since the opening of the restaurant, and is the one that has attracted the most positive feedback, Jane told me. The tables are all wooden, a mix of more old-fashioned ones as if coming from someone’s home, and others contemporary, and the chairs at almost every table are different, but that is probably also part of Van der Merwe’sdesign. There is no table cloth, but a good quality material serviette, trendy Fortis cutlery, and a little table light, as the back end of the restaurant is very dark. Jane told me that heaters and fires in drums are planned. I saw the guests at a table next door wrapped up in blankets, provided by the restaurant. I also saw these guests smoking, which could put other guests off – the open roof makes it difficult to draw the line about the smoking/non-smoking sections, if there is such a delineation. There is seating for 60, but they can expand to 80 should they make use of the garden at a later stage, Jane said. Bonthuys has retained most of his kitchen staff from Tokara, but most of the waiters are new, and therefore Jane was assisting.
The restaurant is a gallery too, and ideally needs a guide to explain its artworks, and the meaning of and rationale for the ‘unfinished’ construction look of the restaurant. Jane was a wonderful ‘tour guide’, and explained all the art and action at Casparus. I could not have wished for a better person to talk to, so as to find out more about the restaurant,its chef and the artist. Bonthuystrained in Belgium, and started his cuisine career with Rosenfontein in Paarl in 1997, and then owned Floris Smit Huis and then Bonthuys in Cape Town. He opened at Tokarain 2000, a massive restaurant space with a wonderful view, and a huge kitchen. Here too there were no table cloths, and the staff were allowed to dress how they wanted to, something that surprised me then, and does at Casparus as well, where the same staff policy has been introduced. Jane explained that Bonthuys wants the staff to look as if they are eating at the restaurant too! She also told me that Bonthuys likes anonymity, and that is why he likes to stay in the kitchen – do not expect him to come out of his kitchen enclave to greet his guests, but Jane more than makes up for this in charm and friendliness.
The menu and wine list look neat in black leather covers. However, the pages in the menu look heavily used already, while those in the wineliststill look fresh and new. A crispy bread roll was brought to the table, with a substantial slice of butter. When I expressed surprise about the unbelievably low prices, Jane explained that Bonthuys wants to serve a ‘bordkos’, which their customers can afford and enjoy to eat there regularly, and not be a ‘fine dining’ restaurant that customers only visit once a month or less often. He wants Casparus to become a ‘home’, a place one can pop in to, much like I did on Saturday evening. There are 13 starters to choose from, and Jane said that Bonthuys’ oyster starter served in a delicious sounding Cap Classique wine buttersauceis a signature dish, and is the most expensive starter at R80. A carrot soup, and an avocado soup with a prawn, cost R30 and R35, respectively, the least expensive starters. One can also order a Caprese salad or Salad Nicoise, hake souffle with shimejimushrooms, salmon tartare, and mushrooms in puff pastry. I wanted to have the grilled kingklip(R90) as a main course, but it was sold out by the time I arrived. I settled for a wonderful Norwegian salmon, served witha delicious light chive sauce witha taste of mushroom, as well as superb baby potatoes and asparagus (R100). The signature main course is beef fillet with bone marrow served in a red wine sauce, and has come to Casparus from Tokara, costing R140. Grilled springbok served with a lobster sauce is the most expensive dish, at R150, and all the other main courses cost less than R100. One can also order linguini with prawns, tagliolini with Thai chicken, baby calamari and oxtail in a saffron sauce, as well as rump or sirloin.
The dessert selection is smaller, but the prices are unbelievable, in ranging between R30 – R45. Most of them contain ice cream, Jane saying that Bonthuys is also known for his home-made ice creams. On her suggestion, I tried the Meringue Negresco, praline ice cream served on a meringue and topped with Advokaat, absolutely delicious and amazing value at R30. Other dessert options are Sabayon Surprise, a sorbet selection (raspberry and pineapple), frozen dark and white chocolate mousse with mandarin custard, a trio of ice cream (chocolate, praline and coffee), and fresh berries with mint ice cream. The cappuccino was foamy, and very strong.
The wine list details the vintage of the wines, and simply lists the brand names and prices per variety. There are wines at low, medium and higher price points. No wine-by-the-glass is indicated. Sparkling wines are Pierre Jourdan Brut (R165) and its Cuvée Belle Rose (R200), as well as Steenberg Chardonnay Brut (R175). Sauvignon Blancs range from R85 (Kaapzicht) to R110 (Alluvia Ilka, Neil Ellis Groenkloof and Tokara Reserve). The cost of the eleven Shiraz wines start at R80 (Tokara Zondernaam), and Waterford Kevin Arnold is the most expensive, at R240. AA Badenhorst Family Wines’ white blend is the most expensive wine on the list, at R435.
The newness of the waitrons showed, especially with the waiter serving me – I asked him if it was his first night working at the restaurant, as he had no idea of the ingredients of the desserts, yet he was willing to ask the kitchen everything. His sweet yet smart reply was that “this is one of my first nights”! Jane will need to up the training of the waiters, not only their product knowledge, but also that of the artworks and of the meaning of Van der Merwe’s interior design. What is exciting is that Casparus will be an exciting palette, likely to be continuously changing. One hopes Bonthuys has left all his quirks and tantrums behind at Tokara, and that his six-month wait to open the new restaurant will have helped him to find himself. No doubt Casparus will become a talking point, for its excellent and value for money food and wine, its creative and unusual interior decor, and its art gallery. Casparus is a new star on the Stellenbosch Restaurant Route, in the new Gourmet Capital of South Africa. I predict that Casparus will feature on the Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant list in 2012.
POSTSCRIPT 28/3: I was in Stellenbosch today, and returned to a (closed) Casparus to photograph the building exterior. It struck me how humble and low key the brand name is on the windows – one would never guess what an exciting restaurant is deeper inside the restaurant building, not visible from the street when closed. I spoke to the Manager of Detail Interior Design shop across the road, asking her if she had seen it, and she had no idea that it was a restaurant.
POSTSCRIPT 30/3: Emile Joubert has sent this background to Etienne Bonthuys, and his restaurant history: “Just a bit of Bonthuys history: Rosenfontein opened in the late 1970s, not 1997. I was 16 yrs old when I bit into a piece of venison he cooked at Rosenfontein and had a “did the earth move for you?” moment. The late Anton Rupert used to fly business associates from Jhb to Cape Town to dine at Rosenfontein. After Rosenfontein he had headed up the restaurant at Buitenverwachting where Bonthuys had a major impact on Cape Town’s culinary pedigree during the 1980s. Floris Smit followed, and in the early 90’s he opened up a restaurant in Belgium, returning to Cape Town in 1995 as owner/chef of Bonthuys in the CBD where Jinja used to be. Tokara followed. And I can’t wait to visit Casparus as like Elvis, Bonthuys will to me always be The King.”
POSTSCRIPT 9/4: I had to go back! The Oysters in Cap Classique butter (R80) beckoned, and were amazing. I asked for a spoon to have every last bit of the sauce! It is one of Bonthuys’ signature dishes he brought along from Tokara. They were delicious with a glass of Pierre Jourdan Brut at R40. I had a second starter, to allow the indulgence in one of Bonthuys’ fabulous desserts. It was mushrooms in puff pastry with bacon, sundriedtomatoes and butternut cream (R55). The puff pastry was very tough, even hard to cut with a knife, but its content was delicious. The Trio of ice cream (to-die-for coffee, praline and chocolate, all made by Bonthuys) in a chocolate cup (R35) tasted even better with the glass of 2003 Cabriere Pinot Noir, which Achim von Arnimbrought to my table. I ate the ice cream with a teaspoon, to make the enjoyment of it last even longer! The waitress, Katrien, is the daughter of Johan Slee, the architect of Casparus and a good friend of Bonthuys and Van der Merwe. Her service was excellent, and she was knowledgeable about the menu. Whilst there have been complaints about slow service, I did not experience this, despite the restaurant being full. Jane Moses came to say hello, and told me that they had their best night last night, with 78 covers. Strijdom van der Merwe launched a new slide show today, focused on his ‘naturescapes’, and how they are made. I have found such amazing energy at Casparus. I chatted to the Von Arnims, as well as to Louis Nel, winemaker of Hidden Valley, Jonathan Snashall of hunter gatherer vinter blog, and Georgie Prout of Glen Carlou, adding to the enjoyment of the evening. The question on everyone’s lips was what would happen in winter, with so much of the restaurant being open-ended, so to speak. A fire was lit, and was quite smoky initially. The architect comes to pop in regularly, and the thinking is that he will address protection against the Cape winter weather when it comes!
POSTSCRIPT 16/4:I am Casparus-addicted, and told Etienne Bonthuys so tonight – I cannot stay away. My third visit tonight, after another concert at the Endler Hall, and it was so nice to be recognised by two waiters Pierre and Katrien, who served me last Saturday. It was exceptionally busy at 9.45 pm when I arrived, but the waiting time for my amazing thick and creamy Avocado soup with cucumber and prawn (R35) was not long. My bill for R120 for the soup, another lovely ice cream dessert, a glass of Kaapzicht red wine and cappuccino came to R120 – one cannot beat Casparus for value.
POSTSCRIPT 21/4:It was my first lunchtime visit today, and I missed the magic that the dark brings to the restaurant. The slideshow by Strijdom van der Merwe cannot be projected, as it is too light. Given the first bite of winter, some of the tables have been moved to the ‘voorkamer’, the room one enters. The kingklip, served with the Cap Classique sauce from the Oyster starter instead of the balsamic sauce, was exceptional, and amazing value at R85. I did not like the frozen mousse as much as I love the ice creams.
POSTSCRIPT 30/4: I noticed the hand of Strijdom van der Merwe in the design of the sand outside the restaurant. It was lovely to be welcomed back to my 5th visit by three waiters who have served me previously. I also met Martin, the winemaker of Kaapzicht, the housewine at Casparus, as well as the marketing manager of Nederburg, sitting at the neighbouring table, and to chat to Delaire Graff chef Christiaan Campbell. The salmon in the Linguine (R85), with prawns, was the softest and tastiest I have ever eaten. Happy 60th birthday chef Etienne Bonthuys for tomorrow.
POSTSCRIPT 13/5: A 6th visit to the restaurant followed a disappointing concert at the EndlerHall, and at 9 pm the restaurant was still full, so I was seated in the ‘lounge’ outside, withfires. I had a lovely light clear soup withshellfish (the mussels removed, and including salmon, scallops and prawns). Then I had sirloin steak with a delicious mushroom sauce. The steak was a little tough and fatty in sections. The bill arrived with a R90 charge for a bottle of wine, but I had not ordered any. The charge was quickly removed by Pierre when I pointed this out to him. An Irish coffee was well-made.
POSTSCRIPT 21/5: My seventh visit, and the most disappointing one – the kingklip I had before had noticeably shrunk in portion size, and the wine list had at least two wines advertised as 2007 vintages available only in 2009 – the waiter honestly told us that most of the wine vintages are out of date, unforgivable for a restaurant less than 2 months old. When I chatted to Chef Etienne about it afterwards, he just shrugged, and I had the sinking feeling that nothing will be done about it. The winelist is a collection of typed pages, and the vintage information can easily be rectified. Tried the Sabayon Surprise dessert for the first time – still love the home-made ice creams more.
POSTSCRIPT 17/6: Visit number 8! Nice to know that Jane and Etienne are reading this blog, and read my previous comment about the winelist. I was happy to see the winelist amended with the new vintages, on a return visit tonight. Also loved the staff saying yes, without hesitation, to my arrival at 22h30, for a cappuccino and Bonthuys’ wonderful ice cream.
POSTSCRIPT 4/2: I have lost count of the number of times that I have been to Casparus – it remains my favourite! The prices have increased slightly (by R5 a dessert, for example), and more main courses are over R100. New dishes have been added, including this delicious rump of lamb with lobster sauce!
POSTSCRIPT 15/6: A colourful addition to the menu is pork loin with citrus segments, prunes, and a mandarin sauce. Very poor service from the waitress unfortunately, bringing the credit card machine whilst we were still eating, unasked.
Casparus Restaurant, 59 Dorp Street, Stellenbosch. Tel (021) 882-8124. No website yet. email@example.com Tuesday – Saturday lunch and dinner.
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter:@WhaleCottage