We had been eagerly awaiting the opening of The Millhouse Kitchen by Chef Bjorn Dingemans at Lourensford Estate, having been impressed with his country fresh cuisine at The Franschhoek Kitchen at Holden Manz. The menu has some old-time favourites, the portions are huge, and the prices are very reasonable, making it excellent value for money.

As my parents live in Somerset West, it was a good opportunity to pay them a visit and invite them to eat at The Millhouse Kitchen, as we had not been to Lourensford in years.   Signage on the estate to the restaurant is not good, so one should follow that to the tasting centre, as it is located close to the restaurant. The restaurant was previously The River Garden, and prior to that the home of the mill master, the estate having had a flour and a saw mill.  Walking from the parking to the restaurant, the neat landscaped garden and water feature, with garden sculptures as is so popular, was evident.  The restaurant building has been cleverly divided into sections, with an outside front deck, two inside separated sections, and an outside back deck, each section with different tables and chairs, and difference in style, Chef Bjorn explained.  The front wooden deck has smart white tables and white moulded chairs, branded umbrellas, is surrounded by old oak trees, the beautiful garden, and some peacocks wandering by.  Inside the two sections have wood top tables and silver Bistro chairs, with glass windows to show off the garden, and sporting lots of wood, all support beams clad with wood from branded Lourensford and Lanzerac fruit crates (Lanzerac is a previous sister property, having belonged to Christo Wiese too until earlier this year), a design theme carried through to the kitchen counter too.  The back outside terrace opens onto another garden, with play equipment for the children, a perfect and safe family section, where guests mainly order the pizzas prepared in Chef Bjorn’s new wood-fired oven, in which he is also preparing many of his meat dishes. In total about 120 guests can be accommodated, and we were surprised (and impressed) to see a Fully Booked sign as we entered, beautifully styled with vegetables, even though many tables inside were still available. Our charming waitress Gercia said that Chef Bjorn controls the number of guests he allows, relative to the pressure on his kitchen, so that service is not compromised, a commendable policy one would welcome at other restaurants too. The variable weather is another factor, so that all outside guests could move inside, if required.

Chef Bjorn is not only the chef but also operates the restaurant, with the assistance of his partner Rachel Davis.  Chef Bjorn was unable to leave his station, cooking in his open plan kitchen for a busy restaurant, and we missed him coming to chat at the table, as he did at the previous restaurant.  The staff wear white shirts and black pants, with black aprons, and the black tie makes the uniform look smart and professional.

There are no tablecloths for lunch, but they are used for dinner.  Material serviettes, still-shiny Wilkinson cutlery, and already-ground pink salt and black pepper are on the table.  The ciabatta is brought to the table on a branded wooden board, the butter being served in an espresso cup, but Willowcreek olive oil and balsamic vinegar on the table too.  The water with slices of strawberry and mint leaves was an unusual mix, and very refreshing.  The menu is a double-sided laminated A4 sheet, with twelve starters, eight main courses, and five desserts. Each item on the menu has a suggestion for a Lourensford wine with tasting notes, all served by the glass and all reasonably priced.  Chef Bjorn is very focused on reducing the carbon footprint, and almost all produce is sourced less than 50 km from Lourensford.  Chef Bjorn is blessed to have a bountiful supply of plums, peaches, trout, honey, chickens, eggs, pears, grapes, and more on the estate. Urban farmer Matt Allison is consulting to the restaurant, to build a vegetable and herb garden.

The Chicken Liver Parfait starter was topped with rock salt and is served with pear chutney (R52), Chef Bjorn’s parfait has a new sophistication, served with Melba Toast.  The pairing suggestion is Winemakers Selection Viognier 2010 (R40/R120). My father loves calf’s liver, so had his ‘fix’ as a starter, topped with a strawberry salsa and drizzled with aged balsamic (R52), paired with Lourensford Selection Merlot 2010 (R47/R140).  My mother enjoyed three oysters (R60), the recommended pairing being the Lourensford Cap Classique 2008 (R44/R225).  Other starters are grilled squid; mussels served with cider and cream; a Caprese salad;  sardines served with an unusual combination of breadcrumbs, pinenuts, raisins, chilli and lemon; a delicious sounding mushroom risotto with black truffle, slow roasted tomatoes, and rocket; and grilled green asparagus.  None of the starters cost more than R60.

Three salads are available, a chicken, beetroot and goats’ cheese, and a Lourensford trout salad, costing between R60 – R68.  Pizzas are available with a wheat and gluten free base, at an additional R12.  Prices start at R55 for a Mozzarella, basil and tomato pizza; with wild mushroom, proscuitto, and salami, avocado, and chilli all costing R75.  Even though the main course portions are huge, one can order additional sides of Bearnaise or pepper sauce, vegetables, Parmesan sweet potato chips, a salad, or plain chips.  My dad loves duck, so he ordered the seared duck breast, potato rosti, grapefruit, blueberries, and sweet potato ribbons (R120), for which no wine pairing was suggested. My mother and I both had the pork belly, a huge delicious portion served with buttered mash, braised red cabbage, and an unusual apple and bacon sauce (R90), the pairing suggestion being Lourensford Estate Shiraz 2010 (R47/R140).  Other main courses include a Seafood platter at R360, which includes grilled prawns, crayfish, squid, mussels, fish, lemon butter, and aioli; lamb burger; rolled lamb shoulder; the Millhouse prawn risotto; and fillet and sirloin steak.

Chef Bjorn is a mean cheesecake maker, and his vanilla cheesecake with a kumquat preserve topping was no exception (R45), the pairing suggestion being Lourensford Noble Late Harvest 2009 (R27/R188).  I enjoyed the superb Summer berry stack, which was layers of crispy biscuit, vanilla mascarpone, and berry mousse (R42), the pairing suggestion being the Lourensford MCC 2008 (R44/R225). Other desserts are Crème Brulee, and Naked Chocolate Torte. The Millhouse Kitchen has just switched to Terbodore Coffee, and Chef Bjorn has created his own blend.

Breakfast is served from 8h30 – 11h00, the Full House of eggs, bacon, pork sausage, grilled field mushrooms, roasted tomatoes and toast costing R55, and a more simple Mini House costing R35. One can also order Omelettes, French Toast, Muesli, filled croissants, Eggs Benedict, Eggs Florentine, Eggs Royale, and muffins and scones.

Corkage is charged at R35 for wines, and at R50 for MCC and sparkling wines.  The winelist is an A4 page, unlaminated, providing a short description of the 312 year old wine estate.  Its MCC costs R44/R225, and the three wine brands of the estate The River Garden, The Lourensford Estate Selection, and The Winemakers Selection range from R20 – R40 for Sauvignon Blanc, for example.

Chef Bjorn is onto a very good thing at The Millhouse Kitchen, and he proudly shared that he has already cooked for 21000 visitors since opening two months ago.  He has the right mix of decor, service, menu, Lourensford wines, and excellent fresh and locally sourced foods to make it one of the best in Somerset West, a town which has a shortage of good restaurants. He explained that the restaurant is a juxtaposition, a unique mix of rustic and fine dining.  When asking our waitress for the bill, she said that Chef Bjorn did not want me to pay, a most generous gesture.

The Millhouse Kitchen, Lourensford Estate, Somerset West. Tel (021)   www.lourensford.co.za Twitter:@TheMillhouseSA Tuesday – Saturday 8h30 – late, Sunday 8h30 – afternoon.

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