One of South Africa’s Top 10 restaurants, Rust en Vrede, did a special dad’s 94th birthday celebration proud on a weekday night 2 weeks ago, just four days after it was announced as 3rd place winner on the Top 10 list, as winner of the Service Excellence Award in the Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant Awards, and a week after it was named the best Restaurant in the winelands in the world, by the Great Wine Capitals Network.

A terrible drive due to after-hours roadworks near the airport made the journey from Cape Town doubly long.   The arrival at the wine estate wiped away the frustration, it being dark already, and the lighting romantically showing off ancient oak trees and a beautiful garden.

A staff member stood outside the door to welcome us, and we were taken to the rest of the party, having a drink on the terrace outside.  Our table for 6 was set apart from the rest of the restaurant, in its own alcove, two sides filled with wines on glass shelves.   This gave a feeling of privacy, yet one felt to be part of the restaurant.

The menu and winelist covers were one of the few aspects to criticise, looking like plastic “mock-croc”.   The menu is informative, with a foreword by Jean Engelbrecht, the owner of the wine estate, David Higgs the chef, and Neil Grant, the sommelier.   The menu is simple – one has two choices – 4 courses at R 400, or 6 courses at R 550 without paired wine, or R 800 with wine paired per course.   The only catch is that all persons in the party must have either the 4- or 6-course meal.

As the 4-course meal allows one an option of three choices per course, our party chose this option.  A first course choice offered was a scallop “gazpacho” that was not a soup at all, foie gras and cherries, and sweet onion soup.  The second course choice consisted of a salmon trout, organic chicken, and fennel and creme fraiche risotto.   The third course offered tuna, loin of lamb and springbok.   The 4 th course choice was between goat’s cheese and melon, strawberry and nut parfait with marzipan, and baked apple and pastry with cream cheese ice cream.

The 6-course meal starts with tuna, followed by scallop, rabbit, Chalmar beef, Tetede Moine and ends with Chocolate Marquis.  No options are provided within each of the 6 courses.

The menu also contains the supplier information, looking a little like an add-on to the otherwise slick menu.   Beef and venison come from the estate’s Kalahari farm, herbs come from the estate’s herb garden, Magic Steve supplies the vegetables, The Wild Peacock supplies ingredients, duck and rabbit, Neil Jewel the chacuteries, and Wayne Rademeyer from Wellington the Buffalo Mozzarella.   Reubens is the only other known restaurant which states its suppliers in its menus.  

The meal was preceded by an amuse bouche of scallop.   As each dish is brought to the table per course, the waitress reminds one of the choice one ordered, pointing out what is on the plate.   She explained everything so well and efficiently, that everything seemed to taste even better.

The winelist reflects about 270 wines on 28 pages, and a neat index at the start of the winelist categorises the wines on offer, and an easy reference to the page.  An oddity is the fact that only Champagne is served, and that South African Cap Classiques are not available.  This is justified in the menu on the grounds of David and Neil being fanatical about the Champagne region in France!   The winelist has 24 Champagnes, ranging from R 500 for a Mailly to R 1 800 for a Laurent Perrier.   Wines by the glass are available, at R 30 for a Cederberg Chenin Blanc to R 50 for a Fryer’s Cove.

Similar to The Big Easy, a Portfolio of Wines is referred to in the winelist, and all wines from Rust en Vrede, Cirrus, Guardian Peak, Ernie Els, and Engelbrecht Els are listed separately in the winelist.   The Rust en Vrede wine offering is extensive, and a separate price is quoted for each vintage.   So, for example, the Rust en Vrede Merlot ranges from R 200 for a 2008 to R 900 for a 1989, the shiraz from R 230 for a 2006 to R 750 for the 1992, and R 95 for a Cab blend.    Other wine brands are offered as well, and the Meerlust Rubicon costs R 350, and the Schalk Burger costs R 700.   A Pol Roger bubbly was followed by the Rust en Vrede Shiraz, and was decanted by Neil.  So professional is the wine team that when a second bottle of the same Rust en Vrede Shiraz was opened, a new round of Riedel glasses was brought to the table.  

The spacing of the serving of the four courses was just right – not too slow nor too fast, and one lost track of time, not necessarily a good thing on a weekday evening!   Service is unobtrusive, polite, reserved, and no proactive conversation is made – all communication relates purely to the meal and the drinks.   An interesting but professional looking touch is the pouring of the bottled water with a cloth, to prevent the bubbles from wetting the guest or the tablecloth.   This has not been seen anywhere else ever.

Unusual too is the multi-gender bathrooms – one does not expect to see a gentlemen coming through the door!  Molton Brown bathroom products are available, being of a very good quality.

What was missed relative to a visit a year ago was David Higg’s regular visits to the table, after each course, to check on the guests’ satisfaction with and feedback about each course.   David appeared more hands-on in the open-plan kitchen than a year ago, and would not have had the time to do so.   He did come to chat after the meal, and  impresses with his modesty, charm and gentleness.   Even more commendable is the pride and dedication to his restaurant – if he should be ill, or is travelling, he closes the restaurant, he said.  He will not allow it to operate without him being present.  This places a huge burden on him in the five nights a week that the restaurant is open, but ensures consistent service – David Higgs probably is the only chef in the country to take his craft and reputation so seriously.

A small irritation, which Rust en Vrede shares with almost every restaurant in the country, is a bad habit of staff stretching past one from the left to place a knife or spoon on one’s right.   This was the only aspect of the service that can be faulted.   The music is nondescript and irritating, and sounds too canned – it is not well-matched to the decor, and quality of the food and wine, and does not add to the ambiance.   Smoking is strictly forbidden on the estate, but an exception is made for cigar smoking when one is outside with no one else present, the cigars are for sale on the menu!

The 4-course meal for 6, a bottle of Pol Roger champagne, 2 bottles of Rust en Vrede Shiraz, some pre-dinner drinks, cigars as well as the mandatory 10 % service charge for a table of 6 came to R 4 700.     The birthday boy received a tiny chocolate cake to take home, and each guest receives a roll wrapped up as a “gift”, an oddity, as rolls are not served with the meal, when one leaves.

POSTSCRIPT 9/4: Sommelier Neil Grant tonight telephonically denied the rumour on Twitter that David Higgs is leaving Rust & Vrede and moving to Johannesburg in June.

POSTSCRIPT 15/4: It has been announced that David Higgs has resigned, and is leaving Rust en Vrede mid-June.  John Shuttleworth will step into David’s chef’s shoes.

Rust en Vrede is open from Tuesday to Saturday evenings.  During the day one can enjoy only one dish – steak and chips – for lunch.  Bookings are not taken for lunch.  Tel 021 881 3881, www.rustenvrede.com.  On the Stellenbosch Restaurant Route.

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