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The food that's on posh plates

Published Jun 19, 2015

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Cape Town - What are fine-dining restaurants featuring on their gourmet menus this winter?

A whip-around a few Cape five-star venues revealed that top chefs are presenting exciting and distinctly different dishes to titillate fussy palates. And, although each has his or her own take, there are several common threads running through the cartes – these can be summed up as fermenting and preserving through curing, drying, smoking and pickling.

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The second major trend is the elevation of vegetables to pride of place in every course, including dessert.

And foraging is still prevalent – a fashion which started last year, as various wild greens and unusual edible funghi appeared on designer plates.

News from Luke Dale Roberts of The Test Kitchen and Pot Luck fame – widely acknowledged as South Africa’s finest chef – concerns the forthcoming opening of his third restaurant in the Biscuit Mill precinct next month. Named Naturalis, this is where he will be experimenting with voguish techniques.

These global trends reflect a return to roots, to techniques developed centuries before refrigeration became commonplace. They also include everyday treatment of ingredients we take for granted – like yoghurt, buttermilk, soy sauce, gherkins, sauerkraut and other pickles – along with the yeast-fermented malt that produces beer and the fermented grapes that make wine.

At the Hemelhuijs in Waterkant Street, talented and innovative chef Jacques Erasmus lets vegetables star in complex winter salads like roasted cauliflower with poached egg, avo, croutons and a parmesan lemon anchoiade dressing. Another pairs maple-baked parsnips with whipped herb cheese, orange, prunes and mustard dressing.

He also caters for more conservative tastes with classics such as lamb kidneys with mushrooms, mustard and Marmite toast soldiers and gives the nod to Cape comfort fare with sago melkkos on his all-day breakfast menu. When temperatures plummeting, he recommends a drink of hazelnut dark chocolate ganache with steamed milk, which sounds like a chocoholic’s treat.

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Following the Atlantic coastline to Llandudno and the The Twelve Apostles hotel, we find chef Christo Pretorius celebrating culinary styles with enthusiasm in the Azure restaurant kitchens.

He says: “Making charcuterie in-house is a beautiful trend at the moment, whether it’s smoking your own fish, making biltong, pickling duck breast or making lamb pancetta from the belly.”

Banting followers should relish his starter of cauliflower, roasted, pureed, grilled and pickled and served with chutney and fenugreek yoghurt. Pickled duck breast is teamed with liver parfait, toasted pumpernickel, gooseberry jam and creamed celeriac. Fermented white cabbage (junior sauerkraut!) partners ostrich fillet with a frikkadel of the neck meat, baby kohlrabi and a blueberry liquorice jus.

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At the historic Constantia Uitsig estate, now under new ownership, the River Café has morphed into the just-opened Open Door restaurant where executive chef Annemarie Steenkamp presents a diverse menu set to please conservative and adventurous palates. Among the starters is roasted pumpkin with curried fritters, seed crumbles, buttermilk labneh and ginger, while venison sirloin is partnered with sweet potato, puy lentils, pickled cucumber and cranberry jus. An innovative mix of textures and flavours features in a dessert of lime mousse with buttermilk parfait, coriander emulsion and rye crumble.

Moving to the Boland, the upmarket Pierneef restaurant at La Motte estate has just marked chef Michelle Theron’s first anniversary at the head of this kitchen where traditional winelands flavours are given contemporary treatment. This season she’s making good use of heritage grains, is fermenting some of them and is using buttermilk in place of rich cream in sauces.

Diners can order slow-cooked lamb with brinjal molasses, warm curried lentil salad and mint-infused sour milk puree. Her warm vegetable salad of farm produce, is paired with fruited rye, millet and honey-and-buttermilk dressing. A vitamin-rich starter combines a gluten-free savoury pancake with cabbage and quinoa rolls and kale and almond pesto. Voguish veggies also feature in some of her desserts, such as a butternut and vanilla risotto with beetroot puree, brown butter icecream and tonka chantilly – a finale with a serious wow factor!

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Then there’s Boschendal, the Cape Dutch farm in the Drakenstein valley where diners will recall languid picnics in summer and robust Cape fare in winter. This restored, renovated and transformed estate now presents upmarket farm-to-table cuisine showcasing produce from the huge organic herb and veggie gardens. Items I sampled during a recent lunch at the Werf restaurant in the historic cellar included a starter of smoked chicken, tree tomato jelly and fermented cream, and a main of butter-poached hake paired with fermented millet, shallots, okra and hake roe crumble.

To Stellenbosch and the timeless, much-gabled Spier farm where organic produce has ruled the roost for a considerable time. In the Eight restaurant Chef Charl Coetzee has added exciting items to his winter menu: contemplate a salad of nasturtium flowers, egg and kale salad, radish and wild rocket, or start the meal with oxtail croquette, teamed with almond skordalia and roast garlic salsa. He coats angelfish in an ale and ginger batter, and pairs braised short rib teams with garlic mash and farm green beans.

To finish by way of complete contrast, chef Rudi Liebenberg of the Mount Nelson hotel offers guests an optional heritage winter menu titled Old Days, Nowadays. It’s inspired by the cuisine served in the first class dining-rooms of the Union-Castle shipping lines, and the fare created by the much-admired former Nellie chef Hans Kuhnel.

Diners can start with a seafood cocktail or a consommé croûte au pot, go on to roast fillet of beef with stuffed mushrooms and stuffed tomato, with castle potatoes or crumbed and deep-fried Sole á la Colbert with herb butter. Poire belle Helene or crepe Suzettes conclude this dose of nostalgia.

While fast food joints, pizza dens and steakhouses mostly stay with standard popular items, it’s good to know that when we want to splash out on posh nosh, we know that trendy fare in our top restaurants is of a standard that can compete with the best on the planet. Bon appétit.

Cape Argus

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