It was the photograph of the prawn and pineapple tian that wine writer Edo Heyns took at Laborie Le Restaurant earlier this week, and tweeted, that made me drive to Paarl to try Laborie Le Restaurant.  I was surprised to find a restaurant with outstanding food, but sadly the service left much to be desired.  I am not sure of the exact name of the restaurant – it is generally referred to as Laborie Restaurant, but the winelist and the website refer to it as ‘Laborie Le Restaurant’, as does the business card for Executive Chef Alicia Giliomee.

My last visit to Laborie was a few years ago, for a family birthday lunch.  I remember it being a set menu, and being okay, nothing spectacular.  I’ll start at the end, which was the part that finally drove the nail in the service coffin, and that is that the property belongs to the KWV, and the restaurant is leased out to the Belgian owner Peter Rues.   The security staff at the boom are contracted out, and when I wanted to exit, I had to stop at the boom and hoot, despite the security guard being able to see me driving down from the parking area, which meant that he could have opened it so that I could just drive through.  He was incensed that I had hooted, and a war of words erupted.  I had to call the restaurant to ask them to get the boom opened, and as soon as he saw me making the call, he opened it.  I was seething when I left.   The incident left a very bad taste, and the Manager Nadia Beutler was very sweet in reporting the matter to the estate manager, and in apologising via Twitter.

Since I had last been to Laborie, the parking area in front of the building has been planted to lawns, and the parking is now behind the building.  There is no signage to indicate where to go to the restaurant entrance, so I followed other guests to find the entrance.  On non-windy days one can sit outside, and enjoy the view onto the Drakenstein mountains.  On my way in I noticed an outside table that had an old tree trunk as the base, with a glass top.   As the southeaster was blowing quite strongly, all the doors were closed, and we were uncertain as to where to enter.  I chose the first door, and saw staff talking to guests who had used the next door.  I was ignored and had to request someone to seat me – the waitress spoke to me across the spacious restaurant, and no one bothered to come over to me.   Flora finally decided to help me, and I chose a table.   The restaurant filled up quickly, and it was a contrasting mix of older Paarl residents lunching ahead of the Garden Club AGM to be held there, and business executives, including some journalists, and KWV CEO Thys Loubser, whom I have known for many years. 

The restaurant building is beautiful from the outside, dating back to 1961, and looks like a historic building with thatched roof and gable in the Cape Dutch style.   Inside the large room is functionally filled with tables, with a surprisingly modern chandelier, and chairs are brown leather.  The table cloth is a yellow/gold colour, and the patterned green curtains could probably do with an update.  The serviette was white, and one set of heavily used cutlery was set on the table.  I liked the vase with fresh flowers on each table.  Greenhouse olive oil and balsamic bottles are on the table, with small salt and pepper grinders.  Flora brought the menu and winelist, both with a mock-croc cover, and well-branded and identifiable as the winelist and menu (the bill was presented in a green plastic holder, and should have had the same cover, to create synergy).  Flora and I did not get on well at all, and she neglected me service-wise, so much so that I had to request my order to be taken by another waiter.  I was told that she has worked there for 30 years, and unfortunately it shows.  I asked her for the name of the chef, and she only knew her first name, but quickly added that she was off-duty, and that Lesley was in the kitchen, being “the Coloured one”!   Flora’s apron was dirty, not acceptable for the start of the lunch service, and her name tag was upside down.   Staff wear white shirts and black pants, and a Laborie branded apron.   She removed my side plate and serviette when she removed the other table settings.  I had a wow moment when I received a Direct Message on Twitter, welcoming me to the restaurant.  I had not booked nor had I identified myself on arrival, and I also had not tweeted about being at Laborie at that point in time.  The Manager Nadia said she recognised me, and had been the Tweeter.  She was helpful in providing information, and coming to my rescue at the boom.   The chef is Alicia Giliomee, who previously worked at Sand at The Plettenberg hotel and at Fairlawns in Johannesburg.

The menu has ‘footnotes’ on almost every page, some of which are repeated, and one is the pay-off line: “Laborie – where yesterday and today meet…”, not a bad description, the ‘yesterday’ aptly describing the service, and the ‘today’ the excellent cuisine, not quite what the owner had in mind, I am sure!   Another note warns one not to be in a hurry: “We are passionate about delivering delicious food and quality service, and thank you in advance for your patience”.  The note that impressed me was the following: “Laborie Restaurant is passionate about reducing our carbon footprint.  We support accredited suppliers within a maximum of 150 km radius and only serve seafood on the SASSI accredited green and orange list.  Our meat and poultry products are all free range and grain fed to add to your taste experience.  We also support small industry producers that can provide a product of quality”.  They write that they recycle waste too, as part of this policy.

The menu has a number of options: ‘Light Lunch’ includes salads ranging between R55 – R68, a Laborie Winelands platter of charcuterie, patés, cheeses and pickles (R85), a seafood platter of pickled calamari, mussels, tiger prawns and linefish (R92), as well as a mezze platter (R82).   A quick business lunch, entitled “Pronto! Pronto!”, consists of a Laborie salad, Cape Malay chicken curry and wild berry Vacherin, at a cost of R145.   A Food and Wine Tasting menu costs R245 for four courses, with a wine paired to each course.  Then follows the a la carte menu.  Flora brought the bread basket with wrapped butter portions.  I liked the bread with raisins in it.   I ordered the prawn and pineapple tian (R62), and felt it to be a generous portion as such, and also in terms of the number of prawns that it contained.  I was a little disappointed that there was little avocado in it, one of my favourites.  It was set on thin strips of cucumber, sprinkled with coconut flakes, decorated with cherry tomatoes, a miniature apple on top, and drizzled with a sweet chilli vinaigrette, almost a meal in itself.   Other starter choices include an onion tarte tatin,  steak tartar a l’Americaine, springbok carpaccio, and a salmon and spinach/basil cream roulade, all costing around R60.  

For the main course I had the slow roasted duck, with a crispy skin (R118), two pieces served with mash, peach slices, raspberries, an orange slice, and topped creatively with the thinnest potato wafer, a twig of rosemary, and a branch of basil, giving it a decorative touch.   It was the best duck I have had in a long time.  However, I was unimpressed with the side dish of mixed stirfried vegetables, so old-fashioned, and ‘done before’, consisting of red and yellow peppers, mushrooms, carrots, beans, corn cob, red cabbage, courgette and mange tout, being superfluous, given the generous duck portion.  None of the main courses exceed R129, and average at about R100.  One can also order linefish (silverfish on Thursday), roast chicken, artichoke and green olive gnocci, Cape Malay chicken curry, Chateaubriand, beef fillet, rolled stuffed loin of lamb, and Karoo lamb shank (I am not sure how the 150 km radius links to this item on the menu).   Desserts range from R30 – R45, and include a raspberry soufflé, truffles, cinnamon brûlé, frozen mint mousse, and a summer fruit savarin. 

The wine list has an introduction to the Laborie wine estate, and is named after the La Bri district in France.  In 1685 the farm was awarded to the first French Huguenot farmer Jean Taillefert, and the manor house was built in 1750.  The wines made by him on this farm were subsequently described as being “the best in the colony and similar to our small wines of Champagne”.  The wine list also states the following about the restaurant: “Your visit to Laborie Restaurant will allow you to reminisce about the Cape as it once was hundreds of years ago”.   The winelist is proudly-Paarl, or rather proudly KWV/Laborie.  Cap Classiques offered include the Laborie Blanc de Blanc (R40/R135), its Brut (R35/R125), and Brut Rosé (R35/R125).  KWV Cuvee Brut and Pearly Bay Celebration (also by KWV) cost R85.   KWV Roodeberg is available at R95.  The Laborie Shiraz 2008 is very reasonably priced at R35/R105, while the Laborie Limited Collection Shiraz 2008 costs R135.  The flagship Laborie Jean Taillefert Shiraz 2006 costs R 295.

Nadia is relatively new in managing Laborie Restaurant, and she is full of ideas.  She has marketed the Laborie Lazy Days market, which started three Saturdays ago, and it has become hugely popular already, being held on the new lawns – Nadia has an events consultancy background.   The lawns are ideal for functions, such as weddings and other parties.  She also wants to set up a champagne bar at the far end of the restaurant, to kill “the dead space” there, she said.   Gourmet picnics can be ordered at R145 per person.   There was good synergy between the restaurant and the tasting room, a note in the billfold inviting one to visit the tasting room.  I did not see where it is, relative to the restaurant.  The bill had a thank you in English, Afrikaans, German and French, a nice tourist touch.   I will certainly come back to Laborie Le Restaurant for the excellent food, and hope that I will strike it luckier with the service via a different waiter and in being let out at the boom.  I am confident that Nadia will look at improving all aspects of the restaurant, and will focus on the service side too. 

POSTSCRIPT 19/3:  I returned to Laborie le Restaurant for lunch today, after visiting the disappointing Laborie Lazy Days market.   I received a friendly reception from Nadia, and was delighted to receive her excellent service throughout the meal.  I was disappointed with the roulade of salmon and pesto, mixed with cream cheese, feeling it to have been overpromised in its description, but loved the airy and light frozen mint mousse. 

Laborie Le Restaurant, Taillefert Street, Paarl.  Tel (021) 807-3093.  www.laborierestaurant.co.za  (The website lists the full a la carte menu.  The Gallery only has a few photographs of events, and there are barely any photographs of Chef Alicia’s beautiful food presentation).  The business card for the Executive Chef is one of the best I’ve seen in a long time, with appetite appeal, showing a delicious dessert and glass of wine, representing exactly what the restaurant is all about.  Twitter: @LaborieResto   Tuesday – Sunday lunch, Thursday – Sunday dinner.

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