About ten days ago Orphanage Cocktail Emporium co-owner Katie Friedman introduced me to new eateries Mother’s Ruin Gin Bar and Palma in the next street block on Bree Street, being landlord to both. My experience of Palma on that evening differed vastly from that of our dinner last night.
I had invited my friend Whitney to join me, and we chose an outside table, given how hot it still was when we arrived. It was lighter than on my previous visit, and the ‘less is more’ interior design impressed. General Manager Roberto Carluzzo did not seem to recognise me, or to react to the Facebook posts and the blogpost I had written about the 26 eateries on Bree Street subsequent to my first visit. The doorman did however welcome me back, a nice touch. Mama Palma Carluzzo was in the bar, putting on finishing touches to leaving, and I was disappointed, as we had been told that she is the chef, in charge of the kitchen. Her presence seemed to have made a difference on my first visit. Roberto told us that he had come on holiday to Cape Town, and fell in love with our city. He wanted to open a Cape Town branch of Palma, the family already owning a Palma restaurant in Santa Margharita near Portofino. Papa Carmelo runs Delfino restaurant in Portofino, and will come to take over the kitchen in March, when Chef Palma returns to her home country. Roberto’s sister works as hostess, with a family friend. Roberto shared what work went into opening the restaurant in December, with six months of paperwork handled from Italy, needing the services of an immigration lawyer. Being a Cape Town branch of Palma in Italy helped in getting an inter-company transfer permit. Taxes are higher in Italy, Roberto said, but rent is much higher in Cape Town, which means that their menu prices are higher. Sad was hearing how many persons warned Roberto against setting up in Cape Town, due to crime, but he and his family are enjoying it here.
I did not recognise Roberto from the previous visit, his hair looking wild, and his interaction with us completely different to that of ten days ago, when he spent most of our half an hour at our table, but last night he interacted with us functionally, and without passion. He was there, but not really present.
Jacques Paulsen was the architect, and he merged two cottages in Bree Street by breaking down walls, and building a high-tech kitchen downstairs, described as modern, clean, and tidy by Roberto. He has created small rooms flowing into each other, with a bar too, with minimal lighting, and interesting furniture, being wooden tables and white chairs. He did the decor design too, other than the wallpaper in the bar. Outside the same furniture is used, but with black chairs. Outside woven couches and chairs in grey, with bright cushions, have been placed on the pavement, and attract attention. There are no table cloths, just wood-top tables, with Eetrite Newport cutlery and thick woven paper napkins. Small salt and pepper grinders are on the table. From where we sat we could admire the orange-coloured church across the road. Roberto told us how successful Open Street festival was for them on Sunday, not having planned to be open originally. He said he wanted to run away at one stage, it being so busy inside and outside the restaurant, creating good awareness for the restaurant. They are receiving a regular following of local and visiting Italians.
The menu is simple but nicely presented in its design, incorporating the winelist too. It welcomes patrons, and states that ‘all products are sourced respectfully’, sounding like a lost in translation statement. The menu warns that some of the dishes contain allergens such as egg, nuts, gluten, shellfish, dairy, and garlic. Each menu section only offers four options. Most Appetizers cost R85, and are Insalata Palma (containing beef, nuts, prawns, and more); melanzane alla parmigiana with aubergine; mini burgers Caprese, which Roberto explained was their ‘worst dish‘ when I wanted to order it, another lost in translation moment, when what he wanted to say was that it is their least Italian dish, trying his best to dissuade me from ordering it; and beef carpaccio di manzo. First courses average at R90, and offered are Delize (ravioli with prawns and curry); penne alla Portofino with tomato sauce, pesto, and cream; and tagliatelle Palma with beef sausages and olives. All pasta is made by Chef Palma.
Main course prices range from R115 to R290 (for two). Offered is Scampi Portofino, sounding delicious, cooked in lemon and white wine; Milanese crumbed veal; pollo al Balsamico chicken; and Grigliata Palma which is what Whitney and I shared, a sizzling hot plate dish with chicken, sausage, steak, and vegetables, with a most wonderful aroma of rosemary, the meat having been placed on a base of bunches of this herb. The steak was a little chewy. I had tried the excellent Tiramisu when Katie and I had stopped by for coffee ten days ago, so I ordered the chocolate mousse, disappointing in being solid, dense, and bland tasting. Whitney ordered the Tiramisu, but was not very impressed with it. Other options are Panna Cotta, and fruit and gelato, desserts costing no more than R60. My dry cappuccino was less successful than the one I had ten days prior.
The winelist carries small quantities of wines per category, but with no vintages added. ‘Bubblies’ include Moët et Chandon Imperial (R1000), Graham Beck Brut (R250/R55 by the glass) as well as Graham Beck Brut Rosé (R250), and Bacio Detla Luna Prosecco Brut (R250/R55). Prosecco cocktails, including Bellini, and Rossini with strawberries, cost R55. White wines offered are Mulderbosch Steen op Hout Chenin Blanc (R150), Tokara Chardonnay (R180/R60), Plaisir de Merle Chardonnay (R230), Waterford Pecan Stream Sauvignon Blanc (R160), and Diemersdal Sauvignon Blanc (R150/R50). Rosés and blends are mixed, with De Grendel Rosé (R140), Haute Cabriere Pinot Chardonnay (R170/R60), and Rupert & Rothschild Vignerons Classique (R260). Red wines include one of each major variety, Plaisir de Merle Merlot (R320), Tokara Shiraz (R220/R70), David Nieuwoudt Ghost Corner Pinot Noir (R350), Waterford Cabernet Sauvignon (R330), and Diemersdal Pinotage (R200/R65). Italian wines cost between R260 and R320, and include Ca’ Bianca Gavi, Lamberti Pinot Grigio Santepietre, and Rapitala’ Nero d’Avola Templi. Grappa, brandy, and other spirits are available too.
Theresa Beukes, owner of Duchess of Wisbeach and Ann Crotty, former editor of Business Report, and now writing for the Sunday Times Business Times and columnist at Daily Maverick, sat at the neighbouring table. I had just told Whitney the story about 2Oceansvibe writing about a bad customer interaction between Beukes and a customer (the daughter of Protea Hotel magnate Arthur Gillis), a slinging match played out on Facebook on Monday. I thought that Theresa looked familiar, but had last seen her in her restaurant more than 5 years ago. She asked me who I wrote for, and she did not react when I gave her the name of the blog. Crotty had not been told anything about the Facebook saga by Beukes, and Beukes dismissed the story as if she herself had not seen it either, but she did reply to Gillis’ accusations, so she did know about the story. Beukes was very gentle, nice, soft-spoken, and friendly last night, rare words spoken about her, especially in the past few days!
I am still trying to work out why Palma, and Roberto specifically, was so different last night. Beukes thought that they were nervous about my presence. The Italian staff kept together, talking and singing along to the music, which was extremely loud Italian pop, and we had to request them to turn it down at one stage. Palma specialises in Ligurian food, and brings Cape Town a taste of its ‘mother restaurant‘ from Santa Margherita, even though it seems to specialise in pizza in Italy. It is not advisable to sit outside when the South Easter blows, a gust blowing sand from the pavement onto our table and dessert! I will go back to check if last night’s experience was just an aberration.
Palma, 213 Bree Street, Cape Town. Tel (021) 422-0948 www.palmacaptown.com Twitter: @PalmaCapeTown Monday – Saturday dinner from 18h00, Lunch Monday and Friday.