Cape Town’s fine dining scene: fancy, fab or just fussy?
What entices people to eat out at the top end? Are they after dining exhilaration and thrill, or perhaps sophisticated meals that satisfy the senses?
I’ve been trying to get a handle on the finer dining scene in the Cape. In tougher economic times, what entices people to eat out at the top end? Are they after dining exhilaration and thrill, or perhaps sophisticated meals that satisfy the senses?
Gåte Restaurant at Quoin Rock winery outside Stellenbosch has intrigued me since a friend whose tastes I trust ate there on a December dinner date and loved it.
Gåte — it is pronounced like latte and is the Norwegian word for riddle — opened in November and people on restaurant groups rave about it.
On the Boring Cape Town Chick blog Gåte was declared "hands down the best fine dining experience".
An eatout.co.za reviewer described one course as "unbelievable, like nothing I’ve ever experienced while dining before".
I had to satisfy my professional curiosity. But a declaration: on my visit I was hosted as media, asking executive chef Rikku Ò’Donnchü to send only a few courses, instead opting to spend time in the kitchen observing him to understand his process.
Ò’Donnchü grew up in the UK with Irish-Icelandic parents. His restaurant stints include The Fat Duck in England and The French Laundry in the US.
Spend time with this chef and you hear about merging tradition and science and about playful food and playing with senses.
The 50-seater restaurant offers what a media release described as "boundary-breaking cuisine".
Dinner consists of 16 courses — though it’s probably more accurate to call it "visual eating drama".
It costs (without wine) R1,450 a person; a reduced, seven-courser is R1,050.
The five-course lunch is R650.
Vitali Gaiduk bought Quoin Rock in 2012, having made his fortunes as a metallurgist in steel mills. He was previously involved in Ukrainian politics.
His son, Dennis, is Quoin Rock’s MD and holds a PhD in architecture. His wife, Julia, facilitated the architectural revamp of the space and applied her eye to its interior spaces.
I liked Julia’s enthusiasm, even if sticking to a budget did not appear to have featured. Her meticulous detail to dining comfort was illustrated by a customised Pierre Cronje chair. "This took four months. We changed the length of the chair arms three times," she said, turning over winter white leather to expose the base. "Even the joints underneath had to be perfectly finished in brass seams."
A similar don’t-skimp approach applies to the food.
Fine dining aesthetics rule, but hi-tech tools in a hyper-modern kitchen transform flavours into foams. Luxury ingredients create "The Birth of Liver" or "Not an Ashtray" (the latter a "lit" rye bread cigar). Some call this style molecular.
The farm produces hydroponic microherbs, cultivates mushrooms and grows fresh produce. Yet the kitchen sees the need to differentiate, with imports that range from wagyu beef to black cod.
If simple cooking is what you yearn for, make a reservation elsewhere.
Ò’Donnchü claims to "make ingredients taste better than they already are". The Italian caprese salad is a deconstructed version, removed from the original sliced tomatoes, mozzarella and basil. So oil is extracted from basil leaves and frozen mozzarella cheese whey self-sauces at the table, with baby tomatoes spilling out. Dehydrated skins, centrifuged juice and natural tomato sugars merge into meringue-like tomato shards that are too sweet for my taste.
This chef has a dry sense of humour. When asked why the dinner menu highlighted no Cape signatures, he inclined his head towards a box of fresh tomatoes and said that was his bit of Cape. Meanwhile, Japan was the inspiration for the ramen course. Diners sear their own Japanese wagyu sirloin strips on a hot rock. "Our guests braai at the table," he said. "There’s your local flavour."
Before the meat arrived, I was handed a syringe to inject my bowl of hot beefy broth with a green honey and coriander oil "ramen". The bowl’s crunchy textures and flavours worked tastily in unison. But I wasn’t as taken by the fussing to get there.
The simple cauli cheese dish won my approval. It’s an upskilled classic, offering cauliflower in three ways: butter-caramelised in a puree, pickled, and as rich panna cotta.
Mature parmesan cheese wafers and espuma foam added umami pleasure.
Some plates were inspired by a place. Other dishes required diner interaction and special tools. Ò’Donnchü said: "Every dish has a story and there is a journey to the end. You’re coming here not for your experience — you’re coming here for my experiences."
Expertly cooked offerings had elements of brilliance. Some experiences did impress. But the distractions and playing about had me less riveted. Was I jaded, or was I experiencing déjà vu? I’ve spent a day at The Fat Duck, and I quizzed chef Ferran Adrià after a thrilling El Bulli meal in 2007.
More than a decade later, food has moved along. Shouldn’t a plate be evaluated mostly on delivering harmonious results in a diner’s mouth? "There’s a lot of effort and soul going into it," said Ò’Donnchü, summarising his culinary approach. No disputing there.
"If you can’t appreciate that, Gåte is not the right restaurant for you."