Chefs Warehouse takes plates of wonder to the vineyard
Liam Tomlin’s much-loved tapas creations are now also being served at wine farm Beau Constantia
Chefs Warehouse & Canteen in Bree Street has long been one of my favourite Cape Town restaurants. It serves dependably excellent, creative and interesting food. And yet I’ve always felt a tad conflicted about the place.
Its no-reservations policy, for starters, makes it difficult to get a table – a situation hardly soothed by interacting with the front-of-house manager. Deploying all the grace and charm of a Rottweiler guarding her food bowl, she gloats as she turns you away, giving you the sense that she’s doing you a huge favour by putting you on the waiting list.
The unembellished interior — one-part canteen, one-part kitchenware store — certainly wouldn’t win any design awards But that’s fine: you come here for the food.
Stools arrayed along communal tables means you’re bound to be cramped and uncomfortable for the duration of the meal. It’s certainly not a set-up that encourages you to linger – and perhaps that’s the point: after you head off, those milling by the door (or at the bar downstairs) can grab your spot – the next in a conveyor belt of drooling patrons.
It’s a shame because food this good deserves languorous savouring. Fortunately, though, a new branch of Chefs Warehouse at the Beau Constantia wine farm is all about that. Where Bree Street is frenetic and uptight, the Constantia outpost (which opened in December) is its easy-going suburban sister. And it takes bookings.
The high-ceilinged indoor section was full when we visited a few weeks ago, but fortunately, temperatures were conducive to sitting on the stoep outside.
It was magic – the table was spacious, the chairs comfortable, the views sublime. We were high, high up: below us were the vineyards of Constantia valley, although we could see beyond that, as far as the Drakenstein mountains. As dusk arrived, the city’s patchwork began to pulse and glisten.
The service was friendly albeit a little leisurely – but that’s okay, we were in the suburbs; there’s a different pace here and, in such lovely surroundings, we were grateful for that.
Given that Liam Tomlin, the Irish founder of Chefs Warehouse, also has a busy role as a consulting chef (currently to the Singita group of lodges, though he’s also worked on menus for British Airways, the Cape Grace and heaps of others too), it was excellent to hear he had signed up someone highly celebrated in his own right to be the on-site chef and partner.
Ivor Jones, 31, has a CV that must surely be the envy of young chefs the world over. He was sous chef at La Colombe for almost five years and then spent another five as head chef at The Test Kitchen. For much of his career, he has worked alongside Luke Dale-Roberts (who was chef at both restaurants). So, he has worked with arguably the country’s most internationally awarded chefs (and certainly its most hyped).
Under the helm of Dale-Roberts and Jones, The Test Kitchen’s welter of prizes included Best Restaurant in Africa at the World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2016 (where it was ranked 22nd internationally) and 2015 (28th internationally). A few months after Jones left, 2017 was the first time since 2013 that the restaurant wasn’t in the World’s 50 Best (coming in at 63 this year).
Like the Bree Street original, Chefs Warehouse Beau Constantia offers a fixed tapas menu: seafood, meat and vegetarian plates – eight in total, that arrive in three waves over the course of about an hour.
Tapas for two costs R650; if you want starters or dessert that’s extra.
Jones’s menu is constantly evolving, depending on his mood and ingredients that are available – some of which are grown on the Constantia farm.
I ask him what he has in common with Tomlin, and he says they "both like food that is surprising and full of flavour".
"Liam’s warehouse concept really opens the doors to cook whatever you want and explore all different food cultures, both local and international," he says. Jones’s food philosophy is to "keep it real and original".
Rene Redzepi, chef and co-owner of Copenhagen’s acclaimed Noma restaurant, is a big inspiration. "His team are always thinking out of the box and it’s a huge example of what kitchens of today are about. Work and play – happy chef [equals] happy food."
And such happy food it was. We started off with silky-fresh oysters and a glass of bubbly. Then the first of the tapas arrived: line-fish sashimi (with lemon atchar, a buttermilk dressing, toasted garlic and smoked paprika oil); seared tuna (dressed with saffron and tom-ato dashi, a garlic emulsion and garden herbs) and the stand-out beef tataki, which arrived with fermented black bean salsa, slow-dried tomato and onion pickle with sour cream.
The next two dishes – the tempura cauliflower and creamy parmesan risotto, as well as the beetroot tart with homemade cottage cheese – proved that Jones’s vegetarian options deserve as much attention as the fleshier counterparts that soon followed: the soft and succulent roast pork belly; tender and spicy Moroccan-style lamb rib served with ric-otta (also home-made); roasted hake with a green pepper and olive refogado sauce and charred leeks.
Having wanted a wine that was versatile enough to keep us company over the entire meal, we had the terrible task of trying to decide between two of Beau Constantia’s loveliest wines – named after members of the family that owns the estate.
Although I was rather besotted with the intense berry flavours and elegant structure of the Lucca 2013 (a Bordeaux-style blend of 60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet franc), in the end, we opted for the Cecily 2015 – which beautifully balanced richness with a hint of acidic restraint. It was a good choice, amply holding its own against whatever we ate.
By the end of our dinner, we could all agree that Beau Constantia and Chefs Warehouse is a moreish pairing and a desperately needed addition to the southern suburbs’ somewhat staid dining scene. I can’t wait to return.
• Matthews was a guest of Chefs Warehouse.