By Roberta Muir
Within half an hour of the centre of Cape Town is South Africa’s oldest wine region, Constantia. The city has now grown south to engulf it, but it lives on as a remnant of the past set amidst beautiful rolling farmland. The wines, especially the Sauvignon Blancs, are good, and some of the food is excellent. Constantia Uitsig wine farm is a large estate, producing very good Chardonnay and Semillon and catering for everyone and every mood with three distinctly different restaurants: the casual River Café, the Italian-inspired Constantia Uitsig and the extraordinary La Colombe.
After eating here for the first time in 2005, I wrote in my diary: “WOW! One of the best dining experiences I’ve ever had”. That’s a big statement I know. Perhaps it was one of those holiday romances, the relaxed rustic ambience of dining outdoors around a fountain in the pebbled courtyard with a grapevine covered trellis creating a delightfully sun-dappled space? The original restaurant was the pool house (with the pool in the courtyard) and the bar was the cricket changing room (they have one of the country’s few privately owned cricket ovals, as well as another area for equestrian events). Renovations in mid-2004 saw the 30-seater restaurant expanded to seat 100, without losing any of its charm.
But it was more than just the bucolic setting. The service was excellent, without pretension and with a ‘nothing’s-too-much-trouble’ approach. Large concrete tables were set with double linen and the beauty was in the details: the Crabtree & Evelyn toiletries in the bathrooms, the waitress who took time to sit with us and talk about the restaurant’s history, and the willing offer to serve half portions so we could try more dishes.
Chef Franck Dangereux is a man for whom food is a sensual obsession. Like any Frenchman (but so few restaurants), he expects his bread to be baked twice daily. The restaurant’s wood-fired oven turns out focaccia-style bread with tomato, onion or olives baked into it as well as great plain breadsticks fresh for each service (with the leftovers given to a local orphanage, an important touch in a still-developing country like South Africa where dining well can sometimes seem inappropriately decadent). Crudités arrive in little terracotta flowerpots, which could be a touch chi-chi if the accompanying basil dipping sauce wasn’t so moreish. An amuse bouche of kingklip samosa in a spicy lemongrass froth works equally as well, setting the palate for what’s to come.
While hardly a revolutionary concept, an entrée of deep-fried goats cheese in a sesame seed crumb works because of the contrast between melting cheese and crunchy coating and the quality of the produce. Quality produce also brings a more rustic pan bagna (baguette slice soaked in ripe tomato with a very good balsamic, green leaves and green beans) to life, while steak tartare, with the lovely detail of a yolk in a speckled halved quails egg, is lifted by a green sauce providing just the right foil to the creamy, fresh meat.
Dangereux trained in his hometown of Cannes and gained experience in the Caribbean and northern Africa, before being lured to Constantia in 1996 to open La Colombe. He isn’t afraid to serve quality produce simply – a thick slice of kingklip (a large white fleshy fish similar to blue-eye trevalla) is topped with slices of fresh garlic, steamed and served with a sauce of sautéed onion, tomato and parsley, the slightly oily richness of the sauce, a perfect balance to the light, fresh fish. Yellowtail (another popular Cape fish) is served in a rich bouillabaisse sauce, with a drizzle of spicy rouille. Veal is tender white meat, beaten thin and served in crisp crumbs. The accompanying potato fondant is meltingly creamy and moresish and the selection of cauliflower, beans, carrots, squash, zucchini and grape tomatoes are much more than an afterthought on the side. The considerate practice of offering half serves makes it easier to save room for desserts such as a crisp, buttery pastry basket full of warmed raspberries in a sea of crème Anglais. And to finish it all, excellent coffee and petits fours (sadly still not a given in the Cape).
While a drive through Constantia wine region is a must for any visitor to Cape Town, a meal at La Colombe is a must for any visitor to South Africa (fly down from Jo’berg if you must).
For more information or bookings:
Tel.: +27 21 794 2390
Open for lunch and dinner - bookings essential.