The Red Table Restaurant at Nederburg opened last week, and is the first restaurant to operate on this historic wine estate.  As Nederburg is synonymous with MasterChef SA, it was a surprise that the restaurant interior, service, and food are so far removed from what the reality TV series epitomises, and the quality positioning of the award-winning Nederburg wine brand.

The decor was done by Espresso, an interior design consultancy specialising in contemporary furniture for kitchens, bedrooms and living spaces from leading Italian furniture brands including Euromobil™, Zalf™, Silenia™, Desiree™ and Tonon™. The latest Italian functionality, practicality and style is brought to life by our award winning design team. We have showrooms in London and Cape Town” its website states.  No signs of this were to be seen in the restaurant, which consists of the main room and the side room (in which classic concerts were held) in the Manor House.

One notices the red signage for the restaurant as one arrives, odd looking small signs giving one a temporary feel, directing one to the restaurant at short intervals.  In the parking area, an overturned table holds the signage, and square exterior tiles have been painted red, as if to resemble a red carpet, to indicate the path one is to follow.  One is led to the front of the Manor House, shown the many tables outside, and enters the restaurant here, and no longer at its back entrance.  Pot plant holders have been painted red, and one took strain from the terrible southeaster blowing a gale at the wine estate on Friday. The tables look like they were original antiques from the Manor House, their tops having been given a red lacquer treatment, but I was assured that they were newly made. So too the chairs, with riempie seats, were painted white with one red backrest.  The 212 year old manor house has retained its beautiful wooden ceiling, and its brass lamps, but red splashes of colour are carried throughout both the rooms, with red ice buckets, red plant holders, red edging on weird shelves that look like tables ‘growing’ out of the wall, and red print on the menu.

I could not help but feel that the decor was amateurish, forced, someone having chosen a colour and creating a faux interior, clashing with the historic interior of the building.  Burrata’s use of its colour red is sophisticated and classy by comparison. Green touches are everywhere, with a ‘portrait’ of succulents over the fireplace in the second room, and hanging plants in the main room. The grand piano serves as a display surface, with bell jars containing stacked cups and saucers, books, and music scores. A children’s collection consists of a drum, a Children’s Britannica set, marbles, dinosaurs, Scrabble, sports cups, and more.  The fireplace is stacked with almost perfectly shaped logs. There are no curtains or drapes anymore, making the previous concert room echo.  The Persian carpets have been retained.  Books form part of the decor display.  No red serviettes have been used to carry through the colour theme.  The bathroom decor is untouched, with heavy drapes, a contradiction to the design of the restaurant rooms next door!  Sarah explained that the design is meant to be ‘colourful, vibey, aimed at modernising the brand, and attracting a broader group of people‘.

Cutlery was an ordinary looking Forum.  The table had tiny bowls with coarse salt and crushed black pepper. The orange pincushion protea in the vase on the table did not match the red colour scheme. The restaurant brochure (incorrectly) waxes lyrical about the restaurant: “Picture a novel (pardon the pun!) configuration of red tables meandering (sic) through the heritage building Manor House and into the gorgeous gardens (one enters FROM the garden into the building!) with lots of fun activities for both young and old, like croquet, giant Jenga games, skittles, reading spots and other fun options“!

I happened to walk in at the same time as did Sarah Proudfoot, the Restaurant Consultant working with Dish Food & Social, which operates the restaurant.  We talked about MasterChef SA, and she said that M-Net is working on a new set design for the second season of the TV show, everything used for season one having been removed.  The venue will be used for events after the second season has come to an end, meaning that a third season seems unlikely.  Sarah bent over backwards to find information, and to keep things running as smoothly as possible.  Dish Foods & Social has been contracted to operate the restaurant, a further shock, given the high standard and quality one associates with Nederburg and its wines. The contract caterer runs SideDish, the restaurant at The Theatre on the Bay, and does catering for functions and events. All staff have been brought in by Dish Foods & Social, and wear black pants and shirts, with a red branded The Red Table Restaurant apron.  Waitress Elmarie addressed me in German immediately, which would have been a sweet touch had I been a tourist.  She told me that she had grown up in Paarl, and recently returned from Germany after living there for 15 years! The more I replied in English, the more she spoke back in German, whereas the other tables with German tourists did not benefit from her language proficiency.  The Chef is called Mr X, as most of the staff cannot remember or say his name, being Nqobani Mlagisi, who was a member of one of The Ultimate Braaimaster teams.  It was here that Oscar Foulkes, husband of Dish Foods & Social owner Andrea and also a participant in the Braai competition, had met Nqobani.

The menu is an odd collection of loose slim pages, only two for the food, and seven pages dedicated to beverages, all wines being from Nederburg, clipped to a wooden board.  Strangely one page is dedicated to Dish Food & Social, but none to the history of Nederburg or a description of its wines and its awards overall. The menu is introduced as follows: “One of life’s delights is eating with friends, second to that is talking about eating. And, for an unsurpassed double whammy (who writes copy like this!?), there is talking about eating while you are eating with friends”!

Rolls were brought to the table on a wooden board, with soft butter.  The waitron staff take the order via iPad, but on my visit this hi-tech tool was not foolproof!  I ordered the Chilled gazpacho with roasted tomato and cucumber salad served with crispy parmesan chards (R45), a thick chunky refreshing portion brought to the table within minutes of placing the order, the only fast service I experienced. Other starter options are Salad Lyonnaise (with lettuce, bacon, croutons and poached egg), available as a starter or a main (R40/R60); a Brie, roasted wild mushroom and caramelised onion tart (R50); Confit duck, roast beetroot, orange and baby spinach salad, served both as a starter and main course (R60/R90); and a twice-baked cheese soufflé (R50). For the main course I ordered Kingklip with a pesto soufflé, crispy new potatoes, and peperonata (R115) from the blackboard. A staff member came back to tell me that the kingklip was sold out.  Sarah returned and apologised, saying that mine was the last portion of kingklip.  It was the most disappointing kingklip I have ever eaten, being over-complicated with the pesto ‘soufflé’, and the pesto clashing with the ice cold peperonata and the lemon aioli. The potatoes were not an ideal combination with the fish either.  The menu main course options are very restricted, and not particularly attractive: a venison, avocado, and caramelised onion burger (R95), Mozzarella roulade filled with aubergines, peppers, grana padano cheese, and basil pesto (R65); chicken and mushroom pot pies (R65); and free-range sirloin steak with fries and salad (R95).  Children can order a sirloin steak roll, a thin-based pizza, or sticky chicken skewers, at R40 – R50.

For dessert there are only four options ranging in price from R35 – R45, of which two are brûléed, being a lemon tart with mini strawberry milkshake, and an espresso brûlée.  I ordered the yoghurt panacotta with a refreshing strawberry and mint salad, and a cappuccino with it (requested as dry, with coffee and foam, but what came to the table was undrinkable). What followed was a case of broken telephone, the iPad no longer being used.  I was asked what I wanted for dessert, and I said that I had already ordered.  Sarah returned, saying that the staff said that I had said that I had already paid.  I explained to her that I had said that I had already ordered the dessert.  She returned to the kitchen, but they clearly could not find the order, and so she had to return to ask what I had ordered.  Sarah comped the dessert, as an apology for the dessert disaster, which cost almost an hour of waiting time.  One can also order a chocolate fondant with ice cream, or a cheese and preserves platter (R65).

The Nederburg wines are very reasonably priced, and many are available by the glass. The Première Cuvèe Brut costs R22/R69; 56Hundred Chenin Blanc 2012 R16/R55 and Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 R18/R60; Winemaster’s Reserve ranges from R18/R57 – R27/R87; Baronne 2011 R62; Manor House Shiraz 2009 R43/R125, Sauvignon Blanc 2011 R115, and Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 R125; the Heritage Heroes R39/R105 – R43/R120; Ingenuity at R175; and II Centuries Cabernet Sauvignon costs R245.

The only classy red touch in all the redness of The Red Table Restaurant at Nederburg was the bill brought to the table in a red envelope!  Odd was the choice of a Friday lunchtime for a major construction project at the entrance to the wine estate, meaning that one had to drive on a grass verge without any warning or guidance.

Originally the restaurant was meant to be a pop-up one until the end of April, but it has since been decided to continue running it through the winter.  I must commend Sarah for her calmness in trying to deal with the staff problems, given that the restaurant had only been open for three days, although they had ‘practised’ on Nederburg staff before opening.  I found it a shame that the lovely Nederburg Manor House, a national monument, has been cheapened with such a faux interior, such a poor menu, such poor food quality, and such poor service!  I would find it hard to give it a second try unless there is a radical improvement and change.  Poor Johann Graue, one of the earlier owners of the building, must be turning in his grave!

POSTSCRIPT 9/12: in reconciling my credit card slips this evening, I saw on the slip for my lunch at Nederburg that the credit card machine has been set up as ‘Dish Nederberg (sic)’.

The Red Table Restaurant at Nederburg, Nederburg Wines, Sonstraal Road, Daljosafat, Paarl.  Tel (021) 862-3104.   www.nederburg.com Twitter: @Nederburg  Wednesday – Saturday à la carte lunch, Sunday lunch buffet (R195).

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