Restaurant Review: Heaven in Hermanus Hemel-en-Aarde Valley is a little cloudy!

On my previous visit in August to the Hermanus Wine Route in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, I popped in at Newton Johnson winery, and was impressed with the location of Heaven restaurant, and my chat with its new chef Stefan Louw. This was confirmed when I returned on a cloudy day with my colleague Carole earlier this week, but there were small problems that clouded the visit.

Newton Johnson winery is well known for its organic wines, and Carole and I wondered why its logo contains seahorses, when it is not directly at the ocean.  We thought angels may have been more appropriate, given the name of the restaurant!  The tasting room is impersonal, sparsely furnished with only one couch and a surfboard, and one is not encouraged to taste or buy wine there.

Heaven is a complete contrast, and we received a warm welcome, and Chef Stefan remembered me by name, even though I had been there 3 months ago, and only had a cappuccino there on my last visit.  Chef Stefan came to bring us menus personally, and apologised for doing so, saying honestly that he was short-staffed.  Our waiter was very new to the restaurant, but was prepared to ask Chef Stefan any question we had.

The table tops are made from wine barrels, and the chairs have orange upholstery. Cheap brown placemats cover the unique tables, but a nice touch was the pin-cushion on each table. The restaurant can seat 40 patrons, and a few more outside.  The kitchen is high-tech stainless steel, open plan to the restaurant, and it seemed as if there was more kitchen staff than guests. One would not look at the kitchen much, as the highlight is the magnificent view, Newton Johnson having one of the highest located tasting rooms.  One can see as far as the ocean from the building.

The menu is presented in a Newton Johnson branded black plastic cover.  It contains a long introduction by Chef Stefan, emphasising that he grows and sources produce locally and seasonally.  Calling himself the ‘chef patron‘, he invites his guests into the kitchen to see what he is preparing.  After qualifying at the Cordon Bleu cookery school, he worked as the executive chef at game lodges, casinos, restaurants, his last contract having been in the Channel Islands, where he received an AA rosette for two years.  He took over Heaven about six months ago: “Truly… bought my way into heaven”.  The menu is changed regularly, and Chef Stefan encourages one to express one’s dietary requirements, so that they can be accommodated as best possible.  The menu also states that the whole restaurant is non-smoking, even outside, due to the fire danger on the farm.

Breakfast costs R45 – R55, and each breakfast item has a quirky title: The ‘Direct Access Breakfast’ appears to get one to heaven faster, with bacon, Cumberland pork sausages, Portobello mushrooms, tomato, baked beans, toast, pastries, a choice of eggs, and a beverage.  ‘Half way there’ is a reduced version of the full cooked breakfast. ‘Selling your soul‘ is Eggs Benedict, and ‘Sleeping with the fishes’ is oak-smoked salmon with scrambled eggs. ‘Buying your way in’ is a parfait of natural Greek yoghurt, honey, fruit, and granola, served with a croissant.  Chef Stefan clearly had fun devising these descriptions.  The rest of the menu has ‘functional’ descriptors, and each menu starter and main course has a Newton Johnson wine recommendation, but the wine prices are not specified.  The list of starters runs over two pages, which I did not pick up, reducing the number of options we chose from.  Carole loved her Ginger chilli tempura prawns, which was served with a brunoise of papaya, cucumber and cilantro salad, soy and mint dressing (R60), a colourful spring dish.   My charred spring asparagus was served (on a chipped plate) with a poached egg, hollandaise sauce and lavosh (but advertised as homemade seed loaf on the menu), costing R50. Other starter choices include a black and wild mushroom risotto (R80); a Heaven Platter for two of charcuterie, cheeses, pickles and preserves (R145); Caesar salad; The Heaven salad with Brie cheese and toasted pumpkin; confit chicken and artichoke puree; and a duet of mushroom and venison carpaccio.

Main courses offer a range of price options between R75 for Bevan’s Caesar salad to R135 for dry-aged beef sirloin.  Other choices include pan-seared linefish (yellowtail on our visit), savoury tarte tatin, watercress pesto lunguini, and Indonesian soy pork loin.  Desserts cost between R45 – R60, and Butterscotch and praline bavarois, strawberry and pistachio tartlet, baked chilli fondant, and a seasonal fruit platter are offered, as is the Heaven cheese selection (R65), which Carole and I shared.  The waiter wasn’t sure of the cheese types, which turned out to be Brie, Boerenkaas, Emmental, and Blue cheese, which were served with water biscuits (not ideal for cheese) in addition to bread, green fig preserve and pickles (the menu offered grapes too, but were not served).  Chef Stefan has some exciting ideas to host theme-specific evenings, including a crayfish braai, and beer pairing evenings.

Heaven is one of four restaurants on the Hermanus Wine Route on the R320 (with Creation, Mogg’s Country Cookhouse, and La Vierge), and has the potential to be the most-talked about restaurant on this route, if Chef Stefan addresses the menu description inconsistencies, and throws out his chipped crockery. These improvements, combined with a friendlier winetasting assistant and more furniture in the tasting room, would add to a heavenly visit to Newton Johnson.

Heaven Restaurant, Newton Johnson wine estate, R320, Hemel-en-Aarde valley, Hermanus.  Tel 072 905 3947/(021) 200-2148.  www.newtonjohnson.com/heaven.  Breakfast 9h00 – 11h00, Lunch 12h00 – 15h00.  Dinner for parties of 15 persons or more, by arrangement.   Tuesday – Sunday.

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

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