Restaurant Review: No horse play at Equus at Cavalli Estate, hungry for success!

Equus Interior Whale Cottage PortfolioI had eagerly awaited the opening of the Cavalli Estate on the R44 between Stellenbosch and Somerset West,  its majestic entrance having been completed about two years ago, and having heard a number of times that Chef Henrico Grobbelaar would be heading up the kitchen in the Equus restaurant.  Its Equus Tasting Room, Gallery, Boutique, and Restaurant opened a month ago, its 54 thoroughbred saddlebred horses, and olive and vine plantation make up the Cavalli Estate.  It must be the largest Winelands tourism offering in terms of size and facilities offered.

Horses dominate everything at Cavalli, the Italian name for the animal, and the racehorse stud was developed while the Equus centre was being built.  The stud is the main reason for the estate’s existence, and one passes the large stable building as one drives to Equus, with fynbos evident in the gardens landscaped by Keith Kirsten, who also did the Delaire Graff gardens.   I had been invited to be shown around by mother and daughter Gundel and Annette Sogor from Gordon’s Bay, who had been to the tasting room before, but had not yet eaten at Equus. Arriving separately, we each shared how unprofessional the welcome at the security entrance as well as at the parking had been, and Lauren Smith, owner’s daughter, architect, and Operations Manager of the estate, made quick work in having the problem addressed and the outsourced security men replaced.

The Equus building is vast, and consists of a massive art gallery, a boutique, a 350 seat conference centre doubling up as wedding venue (they have sold out their weddings for February and March), the whisky room with seating for 16, the tasting room, a 75 seater conservatory, and the 60 seater restaurant. The building is rectangular, with grey exterior walls created through a cladding of stones covered with wire mesh, a look which is carried through to inside the building too.  The architect was Hannes Bouwer together with Lauren, an American trained architect, and she also did the interior design.   Outside an exterior section is a green wall, with plants growing on it.  The Equus name is discreet at the door through which one enters, it not being made clear by the security person in the parking area at which of the doors one should enter.   From the parking area one can see Table Mountain, and on a clear day one can see the ocean too, we were told.

A ‘shattered glass’ design effect is used throughout the building, in the mirrors, on their Equus branded water bottles, on the small ‘handbag table’, and on a screen as one enters the restaurant.

Equus Tasting Room Whale Cottage PortfolioWe met in the tasting room, which is in the basement, to which one can take the stairs or travel by lift.  The tasting room is large, with a central ‘desk’ made from what looks like a collection of  wooden planks hanging in midair.  One can sit at beautiful leather covered bar chairs at the desk, or at chairs and tables too.   A massive marble clad fireplace will make things cosy and warm in winter.  It felt a little unfinished, sparsely furnished.  A first reaction was to the darkness of the room, but one became accustomed to it, and the lighting wasn’t too bad for the photography. Candles are lit to add ambiance, the tasting room manager Nathan Blair told us, and the idea is to create the feel of a cellar, and it was lovely and cool too.  It has a massive storage space for its wines,Equus Wines Whale Cottage Portfolio the first wines just having been produced.  A separate room linked to the tasting room is owner Jerome Smith’s whisky room, housing the largest private collection of 450 brands in the Southern hemisphere, Nathan said. Mr Smith is aiming to add to his collection, to own the largest number of whiskys in the world.   We felt the tasting room to have poor acoustics, evident as a group of noisy wine tasters made it almost impossible to hear what Nathan was telling us.

The wines are made at Dornier, as Cavalli does not have its own cellar.  They bought the farm with vines on them, and removed some to plant others.  They buy in grapes from nearby farms, carefully having tested the similarity between their terroir and that of the potential grape suppliers.   Guillaume Nell is the winemaker, having been at Cavalli for the past two years already, previously having worked at the Winery of Good Hope and at Backsberg.  The estate size is 110 ha, of which 26ha is under vine.  Cavalli is one of only five estates growing Verdelho in South Africa. They plan to produce a total of 300000 bottles, and will remain a boutique winery.   They are exporting a small number of cases to China and Canada, and are aiming to get listings in Woolworths and TOPS at SPAR.

They have two wine ranges, and unsurprisingly they are linked to horses:

*   The Flagship range, consisting of Cremello 2012 ( a blend of 67% Chenin Blanc, 19% Viognier, and 14% Verdelho, which was fermented in French oak, and costs R95); Rogue 2010 ( a blend of Pinotage and Malbec at R95); and Warlord 2009 (a Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz blend, costing R 125). They are planning to produce 35000 bottles of each.

*   The Passions range, with White Knight 2013 (Chenin Blanc, at R45); Pink Pony 2013 (Grenache, at R45); and Black Beauty 2012 (Shiraz, at R49).  A total production of 65000 bottles each is planned.

Jerome Smith founded Medpro in 1993, and was renamed Cipla Medpro when the company had its generics manufactured by Cipla in India.  It appears that Mr Smith left the company under a cloud last year, and that Cipla India has bought the South African operation. Lauren got involved with the restaurant operation when Carl Habel, who had moved across from the Equus Lauren Smith Whale Cottage PortfolioMount Nelson Hotel as sommelier and restaurant manager, left their employ suddenly.  She is hands on, requesting feedback, moving from table to table.  To inspire her design of the building, she travelled to Californian wine estates.  Nathan described the high standards that Lauren sets, always being available, despite the time of day (or night), and everyone working there plays an important role, the team being small.

Downstairs it is a surprise to enter the Equus gallery, and to see its massive size, first down a long passage, and then into a massive room, which houses the Smith family’s own private art collection (I saw a Pierneef  from a distance) and is not for sale, as well as the modern art  collection of over 100 pieces, curated by Julia Meintjies Fine Art, which also handles the art at Tokara. Some of the artists include Deborah Bell, Marco Cianfanelli, ClaireEquus art gallery Whale Cottage Portfolio Gavronsky, Virginia MacKenny,Equus Horse art Whale Cottage Portfolio Johann Moolman (horse figure), and Simon Stone.  The music piped into the gallery was very loud, and not appropriate to enjoy the art on display.

When we entered the Equus restaurant, the heat compared to the coolness of downstairs was evident, making it uncomfortable on the 30°+C day.  The airconditioning did not appear to work, and opening some doors to outside did help to cool things down.  The restaurant space is large, easily seating 60 patrons, with seating also available outside on a deck overlooking a dam and the Simonsberg in the far distance.  The white chairs outside have a similar shattered glass design. The room has an industrial feel to it, dominated by a brass-clad bar counter (with quite plain shelving for the bottles of spirits) and opposite it a copper-clad fireplace, clearly not yet having been used.  Above the fireplace is a massive white space, crying for a horse painting.  At another end is a large table seating about 20 patrons, and opposite that, near the entrance, is the serving kitchen with Chef Henrico in action, plating the dishes on an asbestos counter top heated from underneath, not requiring pass lights to keep the food warm.  Tables have a light Scandinavian wood look, and attractive and comfortable brown swivel chairs.   The idea of the handbag tables must have come with Carl from The Mount Nelson, and were designed by Dear Zania Interiors. The staff are the most smartly dressed I have seen, wearing a white shirt, grey tie, dark pants and a black waistcoat, reflecting the neutral interior colours of white, grey, and black.   Gold comes through in the logo on the business card, on the back of the chef’s jacket, and in the restaurant name on the grey menu cover. Ferai came to greet me, remembering me from the wonderful Sagra Foods foie gras Chef’s Table lunch at the Mount Nelson hotel some time ago, and he looks after the running of the restaurant with Lauren. Graham Massyn manages the pass, having been at Delaire Graff,  at L’Ormarins making wine, and working with table grapes near the Orange River.  He is so passionate about wines that he is joining the wine side at Cavalli from January.

White bread with cumin and brown bread with walnut was brought to the table on a wooden board, shaped in a stone, together with a pink coloured butter which looked more like sorbet, and our waiter Freedom (who remembered me from eating at Overture some time ago) tried to tell us that it is Warlord butter, but we could not understand him initially – only in typing this blogpost did I understand that it was the name of their Cabernet Sauvignon/Shiraz blend wine, mixed with the butter.   He was pushy in trying to force me to order a starter, which I declined, as I wanted  a dessert instead.  Chef Henrico said that most patrons order only one or at most two courses for lunch. Cutlery is by Hepp Exclusiv, glassware is by Spiegelau, there are material serviettes but no table cloths, coarse salt is in a bone container, and there was an orchid on the table.

The menu is short and sweet, offering three starters, five main courses, and Equus Carpaccio Whale Cottage Portfoliothree desserts. Gundel and Annette shared the sliced venison carpaccio (R85), which was hidden underneath a salad which came with it, with orange segments, pea shoots, rocket, and parmesan cheese, the plating being off-centre, to be different Chef Henrico said.  We had tasted an excellent ‘cigar’ of thinly shaved pear with gastrique, a sweet and sour vinegar, in the dish too.  He is still waiting for plates that were ordered some time ago, and he will use these for the starter plating in future.   Other options are an estate salad (R65), and a salmon skewer with salsa verde (R75).

Gundel and I both had the slow roasted pork belly, a generous portion which was served with mash, heirloom carrots, a warm puy lentil salad, bean sprouts, fried potato, apple mousse, a collection of herbs and bread crumbs, Equus Pork Belly Whale Cottage Portfoliocrackling that looks like popcorn, and a jus served in an onion skin, plated on a plain dark grey plate made by ceramicist Mervyn Gers. Annette’s broiled linefish of the day was tuna (R95), and she felt it to be overcooked.  Other main course options are miso glazed aubergine (R85), sous vide chicken breast (R90), and pan seared rib-eye steak (R110).

For dessert I had Chocolate Crémeux, served with a berry gel smear, and white chocolate ganache (R60).  The other options are coconut crème brûlée (R60), as well as an artisan cheese board (R85).  Equus Dessert Whale Cottage PortfolioCoffee was made perfectly, using Legado Coffee from across the road, offering three roasts: Los Idolos Columbian Relationship Coffee, Kenyan Kiamabara Peaberry, and Finca Caylan Guatemala Organic coffee.  One can choose one’s beans for the coffee at dinner, and tea is by Yswara from Johannesburg.

Chef Henrico studied engineering, and while he did not practice as an engineer, finding his calling as a chef, he designed the kitchen system, telling us that he has three kitchens (pastry kitchen, satellite serving kitchen, and the production kitchen), all of which are downstairs other than the serving kitchen, in which Chef Henrico is Equus Chef Henrico Grobbelaar Whale Cottage Portfoliovisible to his patrons. Chef Henrico proudly told us that he can plate 200 starters in 9 minutes.  He is very proud of his 35 raised boxes of heirloom vegetables, mentioning how green the estate is a number of times.  They have added bass to their four dams on the farm, and want to try farming tilapia too. Olive trees are growing, and they will make their own olive oil.   Guavas have been planted too.  The restaurant is foie gras-free, Chef Henrico said, and they only serve green rated SASSI fish.

Despite having cooked for a full restaurant for lunch, and dinner service lying ahead, he came to chat at our table, raving about five hundred Chef David Higgs and what a great mentor he had been when they worked together at Meerendal and at Rust en Vrede.  He admires Chef Luke Dale-Roberts too, saying ‘I’d love to spend a day in his mind’.   We talked about the Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant Awards, and it is clear that this is his ultimate goal, devoting all his energy and that of his team (Jean Delport the Sous Chef, Cold Kitchen CDP Carolize Coetzee, and Hot Section CDP Kevin Grobler) to achieve this goal, and to work extraordinary hours, 18 hours on average, working on his off days too.  He has not taken leave in 11 years, he said proudly.  He took Azure restaurant at the Twelve Apostles to the Eat Out Top 20 shortlist.  They have worked non-stop for the past four months, in getting everything ready, and Chef Henrico seems to have lost a huge amount of weight, and looked very pale too.  He is grateful to the Smiths for giving him free reign, asking him what he needed for the kitchen, which he did not exploit, he said.   They respect nature as much as they can, being green-orientated.

Lauren brought the dinner menu as well, which is a cut above the lunch one, Chef Henrico said.  It offers an amuse bouche (none at lunch), but there were excellent crisp and crunchy mini choc chip biscuits after the coffee had been served.  Chef Henrico’s amuse bouche theme for last night was sweet potato, which was served pickled, in a purée, and a wafer.  The dinner menu has more options and is more expensive, starters ranging from R85 for Waldorf salad to R120 for seared scallop, broad beans, turnip, parsnip, and squid ink.   Main courses cost around R150, including calamari, beef fillet and sweetbreads, a vegetarian dish, Springbok, and crayfish.   Desserts cost R75,  include ‘fosselised strawberries’, chocolate fondant, lemon slice, and a cheese board.

The wine list is extensive, with Cavalli, other local, and imported wines.  Carl Habel had prepared the local section, while new wine consultant David Clarke is assisting them with systems and the international wines.  The Cavalli wines are marked up by at least 50% in the restaurant, and some are offered by the glass. MCCs by the glass cost R50/R235 (Môreson Solitaire Blanc de Blancs N/V) – R85/R430 (Charles Fox Brut Rosé 2010). The list offers 16 white, two ‘pink-ish’ wines, and 17 red wines by the glass.  Wines are imported from France, Spain, Australia, Italy, Portugal, Germany, Austria, the USA, Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, and Lebanon.  The South African section categorises wines in Mount Nelson style by descriptors ‘Crisp & Refreshing‘, ‘Rich & Opulent‘, ‘Fragrant & Floral’, ‘Wild Whites’, ‘The Great Whites’,  ‘Pink-ish’, Elegant & Fresh’, ‘Silky & Smooth’,  ‘Rich & Concentrated’, ‘Racy Reds’, and The Reserved Reds’, rather than by wine variety.

Equus is overwhelming, being far more than a restaurant, everything being bigger than one has experienced in the Winelands, but without any arrogance. While there were some service issues to address, the service was generally of a good standard, although Freedom was not at our table enough to pour the water, of which we drank a lot due to the heat.  By the time I had arrived back in Cape Town, the menus and winelist had already been e-mailed by Lauren.  Chef Henrico’s dedication to his new challenge is impressive, as is his honesty. He said that he is married to the business, and will give it his all for the next three years.  Typing errors in the dinner menus and especially in the winelist are inexcusable for a restaurant of this calibre.

Equus Restaurant, Cavalli Estate, R44, Stellenbosch.  Tel (021)  855-3218.  www.cavallistud.com   Twitter: @CavalliEstate   Wednesday – Sunday lunch, Wednesday – Saturday dinner.

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

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3 replies on “Restaurant Review: No horse play at Equus at Cavalli Estate, hungry for success!”

  1. DearZania Interiors says:

    LOVE this Chef!!!!!! South Africa’s jewel!

  2. DearZania Interiors says:

    Thank you for recognizing my table design

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