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Restaurant Review: Indochine at Delaire Graff a fine high note, after flat start

It is not often that an evening that starts as a disaster ends off on such a high note.  Our evening at the two month old Indochine at Delaire Graff could have gone horribly wrong, but the service recovery from the Duty Manager Sabrina D’Agrossi, chef Jonathan Heath and waiter Nick all combined to rescue the evening, pulling out all the stops to ensure that we were made to feel very special, and to enjoy the outstanding unique and special Asian-fusion menu.

I had booked a table for a Thursday evening two days earlier, and confirmed that I had pronounced the name of the new restaurant correctly, so there was no mistaking at which of the two restaurants on the estate I wanted to book.   We drove through the open gates at the security entrance, passed the Delaire restaurant, looking for the new Hotel, designed by French architect Pierre Bories, but there was no signage yet for the hotel, and the security guard we asked in the parking area had never heard of Indochine, nor had the person he asked via his walkie-talkie!  I then Googled the telephone number on my phone, and had the luck that Sabrina answered the phone.  She gave me the news that the restaurant was closed as they had no bookings!   I told her about my booking, and she told me where to find the hotel, through the gates, ‘guarded’ by the two Dylan Lewis cheetahs.  Nick met us outside, and walked us into the restaurant, showing us the tiny cinema, and we noticed the outstanding artwork inside the generous hotel reception area.  The chef was called and he came to the restaurant from Stellenbosch, to prepare our meal, with such graciousness that you could have sworn that it was a pleasure for him to be called away from home.

The owner Laurence Graff (owner of Graff Diamonds International Ltd, victim of one of the biggest jewellery robberies in London last year) is known as an art collector from the original Delaire restaurant, and he has invested in four further Dylan Lewis cheetahs on the lawn outside the restaurant, each costing R 250000, we were told.  He has also focused on father Anton and son Lionel Smit, with sculptures and paintings by the Smits, especially the latter featuring strongly.

The restaurant is a large open plan one, with the bar at the entrance, and two comfortable chairs if one wants to sit at the fireplace.  The interior design has been done by London-based David Collins, who did the Delaire restaurant and wine centre too.  If the Delaire restaurant leans to the orange side in terms of its decor, Indochine is definitely blue – blue leather chairs (strangely low, indirectly admitted by Sabrina as not intended to have been so low), and small blue leather couches with round dining tables, one could say “cut-up” and small versions of the large orange couches in the Delaire restaurant. The tables have a copper top, the colour a warm decor touch, but with a wooden bar underneath the tables facing one, which means that one can bump one’s knees against it, and one therefore has to put one’s legs on each side of it, an uncomfortable position. There is little art inside the restaurant, and it is understated relative to the sister Delaire restaurant.  The view must be magnificent by day, onto Stellenbosch.  The glassware probably is from Riedel, the cutlery is the most modern chic Italian, and a wooden board on the table holds a lantern with a candle.  The music is reasonably soft Eastern style.   The Hotel building only houses the spa and restaurant, and guests are accommodated in 10 “lodges” outside the hotel, with Cape Dutch style gables (the cost for one night starts at R8000).  Graff has so much faith in his team, that he has supervised the building work via DVD, the staff tell us, and he has yet to see his new hotel and restaurant.

We were presented the blue-cover menu and winelist, and were served a glass of Delaire Sauvignon Blanc (initially the Chardonnay was brought to the table in error) for my guest, and a Red Blend 2006 for myself (the Delaire Shiraz was a 2009, so I declined), expensive I felt at R50 and R60, respectively.  Only the Delaire wines are served by the glass.  Nick told us that they had not intended to serve wines by the glass, but have realised that there is a demand for it, so they will be added to the winelist.   Nick struggled to get away from serving us bottled water, when I asked for fresh Stellenbosch water.   The Delaire wine labels are beautifully designed. The winelist is interesting, in being only two pages (not likely to win the Diner’s Club Winelist Award), and offering a very restricted choice of no more than four/five brands, but in many cases only one or two per varietal.  Only the champagne (Billecart-Salmon Rose, Laurent-Perrier and Louis Roederer Cristal), and six other wines are imported (the Chateau Pichon Lalande 2005 costing R 5500, Hospices De Beaune 2002 R 1950), and Delaire Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Rose’, and the Red Blend are offered.   Vintages are specified on the winelist, but no wine descriptions are provided.

I noticed references to chilli, pepper and curry in the menu, and did not want to order anything that was too hot.   The chef came to the table, and explained the menu to us (what a great touch, given that the menu creation is his “baby”, so who better to describe it?).  I had not heard of Chef Jonathan Heath before, and most of his experience after he started his apprenticeship at the Lord Charles Hotel in Somerset West was at Southern Sun Hotels both domestically and in Africa, his last stop having been the opening of a Southern Sun in Nigeria.   He loves Asian-fusion food, and is therefore in his element.   Mr Graff does too, and that is why such a style of restaurant was selected for the hotel.   It also contrasts the cuisine of the Delaire restaurant, is healthier in that the food is only steamed and poached, and is light.   Chef Jonathan is a big fan of Heston Blumenthal, and is into foams and froths, and molecular gastronomy, he says.  He also sources organic produce where he possibly can.

Sabrina came to the table with a customer feedback form, so that the problems experienced can be addressed by the management, as well as a media pack.  She also brought a gift pack with a bottle of Delaire Shiraz, to express her apology.  She offered me her card, so that I could book directly with her in future.

The menu offers 2 courses for R 225, 3 courses for R290, 4 courses for R385, and 5 courses for R 470.  Like Overture, one may choose the dishes from any of the sections on the menu.   The Chef quickly sent an amuse bouche of duck liver parfait and a home-made paneer cheese, with a strong lingering aftertaste.  Chef Jonathan impressed us by bringing each of the dishes to the table, and explaining the ingredients to us.  My guest’s Tikka Duck Marsala was served with curried lentils, coriander, cumin, spring onion and red pepper, garnished with pea shoots, and had a wonderful cucumber and cumin riatta.  My duck springroll was made from rice paper and was steamed, Chef Jonathan saying that it has close to zero calories, with julienned carrots and beans, and served with pickled cucumber and daikon radish, a bamboo shoot salad and dipping sauces.   Other starters are marinated beef salad, tuna loin, poached tiger prawns, and wild mushroom salad.  This was followed by a wildberry and litchi sorbet.

My guest had the salmon trout, topped with squid and caviar, with tomato and chilli broth poured over it by the Chef at the table.  My four 7-Thai-spice braised pork belly slices also had caviar on them.  We ordered a bowl of Jasmine rice and a butternut salad with the main course (one is allowed one side dish each).   Other mains offered are seared scallops, steamed line fish, duck breast, and Green tea poached Quail Breast.  We did not order dessert, but were served a trio of treats with our cappuccino – pistachio mousse, a chocolate amaretto cycle, and a macadamia nut spear.   Dessert choices are de-molded chai brulee, butternut sponge, citrus baked cheesecake, 5-spice malva pudding, and passion fruit panna cotta.

Chef Jonathan impressed us with his ability to interact with his guests, with his creativity in food preparation and presentation, and the generosity of what was sent out of the kitchen (a 2-course meal had an added amuse bouche, sorbet and sweet treats).   He comes to greet and chats with guests as a matter of course.  One hopes it stays this way.  But none of this would have been possible without the calm and efficient way in which the Duty Manager Sabrina dealt with the problem, and had turned it into a wonderful evening.  The restaurant is one of the finest in Stellenbosch, its addition strengthening our call for Stellenbosch to be given the Gourmet Capital crown, and to develop a Restaurant Route.  Another fan of foams and froths, Richard Carstens, opens across the road at Tokara in October.

Indochine, Delaire Graff Lodges & Spa, Helshoogte Pass, Stellenbosch. Tel (021) 885-8160 (Ask for Sabrina to book). www.delaire.co.za.  On the Stellenbosch Restaurant Route.

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

Restaurant Review: Piroschka Kitchen’s Hungarian food for hungry appetites

A little hidden gem in the center of Cape Town, that offers a warm and welcome escape from the cold winter, is the recently opened Piroschka’s Kitchen.   It offers a very small selection of only four dishes, inspired by the Hungarian grandmother Piroschka of sisters Jutta Frensch and Inge Niklaus.

I had heard about Piroschka’s Kitchen a few months ago, but could not find it when described as being opposite the Christiaan Barnard Memorial Hospital, but I was looking on Loop Street.  It is one of a collection of outlets underneath the Saint Stephen’s Church on Bree Street, near Cheyne restaurant and &Union.  Jutta was on duty, and our German roots and guest house experiences connected immediately.  When the other guests had left, she sat down, and told me about herself.  She came to South Africa to follow her sister Inge, who came to live in Cape Town fifteen years ago.  Jutta is an architect by training, and worked on a house she saw in De Waterkant, which became the guest house Cedric’s Lodge that they created, followed by another in Greyton.

As if the two guest houses are not enough to challenge them, the two sisters took on the responsibility of looking after the two children of their late housekeeper, and put them into private schools.  To pay for their education, the sisters had to earn extra income, and they decided to start at the Neighbourgoods Market at the Old Biscuit Mill in Woodstock, selling Flammkuchen there.  The downside for them was that their home smelt of onions, and so they sought a venue in which to prepare it.  They found the Bree Street premises, and loved the space, its natural stone walls, and the fact that it offered them a small and cosy space in which to set up a tiny restaurant with a few tables inside.  A bar counter takes four chairs, and one can sit outside when the weather is good.

The first thing you feel on entering is how warm it is inside, a modern gas fireplace creating the heat.  A welcome sight is the sign that says that Gluehwein is served – a good start to the weekend on a Friday afternoon.  The menu is on a flyer on the table and also written on a blackboard, the latter containing the prices.  The tables are covered with a sheet of white paper, and a small container with crayons encourages the inner child to come to the fore, and to decorate one’s own table cloth.   Jutta tells me that they will photograph the best designs, and make tablecloths from them.  Mine served as a handy sheet on which I made all my notes while we chatted.

I ordered the “Hungarian Original Puszta Goulash soup”, which one could say is expensive at R 50, but it was a broth with lots of shredded beef, slow cooked with seven paprika spices in Gypsy style, says the menu.  I found the broth a bit thin, and would have preferred it thicker and creamier.  It was well matched to the Gluehwein (R25).  The Goulash soup is served with a slice of delicious rye bread from Jardine Bakery, but no butter is served with it.  The split pea soup costs R 40, while the Flammkuchen costs R 50.   Flammkuchen is a thin crispy base covered with creme fraiche, smoked ham, baby leek and red onions, for the savoury option.  I had the sweet one, containing vanilla cream, apple slices with cinnamon and sugar, and topped with almond shavings.   It was huge, served on a wooden board, and I could only manage a few small pieces, taking the rest home with me, Jutta generously giving me the board as a memento of my visit.

Excelsior and Arabella wines are sold, both being from Robertson, in fact from two neighbouring farms owned by two brothers who do not get on, Jutta tells me, and both love horses and have these as the logo on their wine labels.   Pierre Jourdan bubbly is sold at R 160.   I missed a cappuccino to have with my Flammkuchen, and Julia quickly organised a good one for me from another restaurant close by.  We discussed Social Media Marketing, and I encouraged Jutta to embrace Blogging and Twitter – they are already on Facebook.

Jutta and Inge do private catering, and also offer private functions for up to 30 persons in their restaurant.  I will be back, to try the savoury Flammkuchen and the split pea soup, especially on a cold winter’s day, Piroschka’s Kitchen being the warmest place in Cape Town, in its temperature and its welcome!  On Saturdays the Piroschka sisters can still be found at the Old Biscuit Mill.

Piroschka’s Kitchen, 106 Bree Street, Cape Town.  Tel 083 327 3203.  www.piroschka.co.za.  (The website is more focused on the activities at the Old Biscuit Mill, and does not have the menu or the wine prices.  A large part of it is in German).  Open Mondays – Fridays, 11h00 – 19h00.

POSTSCRIPT 27/7 : I returned 10 days after my first visit, and Jutta proudly told me that they have addressed some of the issues raised in this review.  Bread is now served with butter, and they have added the menu to the website.

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

Why Americans do not drink more South African wines

The blog Grapesmart.net, written by an American winelover, investigated the question first raised by “infamous” Jancis Robinson, according to the blog, as to “Why aren’t SA wines more appreciated in the US?”

Grapesmart came up with the following reasons for why wine sales in the USA are lower than they should be:

1.    At the time that Americans became wine drinkers, South African wines were banned from the USA, due to South Africa’s political stigma in its apartheid era, resulting in import embargoes, meaning that Americans learnt to drink Californian, French and Italian wines.

2.   Americans are “Xenophobes”, says the blog, meaning that the country’s winelovers struggle with brand names they cannot pronounce – German wines are drawn into this criticism as well, for also having difficult to pronounce wines, and therefore being equally unpopular.

3.   American wine labels look different to those from South Africa, and this can prevent Americans from buying local wines, as they “reflect a different culture of marketing & packaging design than ours.   What works in America doesn’t work in other places.   Other cultures have different aesthetics than ours and while other cultures like what we do, we shy away from what seems different than our ‘style’ of doing things”.

4.   Americans associate wines from the Southern Hemisphere to be cheap wines, as the Australians have already learnt, especially driven by supermarket advertising of these wines in America.

More information is available here.

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