That Constantia Uitsig is in the middle of copious natural beauty is unquestioned. That’s it’s also a working winery is equally unquestioned; we’ve passed many a beehive of activity since passing the heavily-guarded entrance gate. However, by the time we park our car we feel nearly alone, surrounded only by a few cars and thousands of vines, and staring at a rather lonely-looking building isolated from all other structures. But we can smell food. We’re starving. And we enter.
There are three restaurants at this wine estate. The most famous of the trio is probably the eponymous one, with its long history of high-quality dining, and there’s also the lighter-styled River Café, which still casually lavish, even though it presents itself with far less pretension. But the one at which we’re having lunch is the one and only universal recommendation we’ve received while planning this trip. “You must go,” ordered more than a few email correspondents. Food-oriented web site after web site agreed. There didn’t seem to be much choice in the matter, and so the very first reservation I’d made from the States had been La Colombe. And for lunch; I knew we wanted to tour the Cape at some point, so why not make a day of it?
In the end, I wish I’d booked for dinner. Not due to any failure on the restaurant’s part, but rather because the lack of a midday reservation would have freed up our day from what little structure it had. Also, there are only three other occupied tables, which makes us feel a little silly about the importance we’ve lent to our schedule.
But that’s an irrelevant personal regret. How’s the restaurant? It’s upscale, to be sure, but not “fancy” in the usual sense; in fact, it’s rather comforting, with a beautiful interior garden, an interior that manages to be garden-themed without being lurid about it, and a very simple feel. This simplicity extends to the menu, which – as at Caveau – is presented on a blackboard either brought to or visible from each table. And despite the persistent hype, I admit that at first glance, the menu causes a twinge of concern. Each dish, as described in chalk, seems extremely simple…the sort of food that will rely entirely on ingredient quality and perfection in execution. Have we visited the South African version of Chez Panisse?
Decidedly not. Because when the menu is described in words by the waitstaff, the dishes are anything but simple. They’re not modernistic – ingredients and classic techniques still reign – but each expresses a carefully-conceived central idea given just enough accent and decoration to rise to excellence, but not so many that confusion descends.
Service is politely friendly and without flaw. The wine list is of epic length, and while it includes the wines of the estate and many bottles from neighbors in Constantia, it’s a pan-South African document of not-inconsiderable depth. We sip a few glasses of surprisingly good sparkling wine while we dither over our options.
While we sip, tiny toasts with chicken liver mousse arrive, any acridity thoroughly absent, and each flawlessly executed. Our first actual course is a brilliant conflation of seasons: an autumnal cep (as they name boletus edulis in South Africa) tart with spring vegetables, the latter laid bare save for a delicate dusting of cheese that stands in for salt. It sounds so simple, but each element – the tart dough, the quality and cooking of the mushrooms, the soft-snap intensity of the vegetables, the accent of the cheese – is precisely what it needs to be. We move on to tandem sorbets (although they call them “smoothies,” and in truth the texture is more akin to granitas); one verjus and elderflower, the other strawberry and belle rose. Refreshment has been achieved.
Springbok, far superior to last night’s quite acceptable version, is cooked to the perfect moment between raw elasticity and overcooked chew, then served with foie gras and a sort of “gratin” of paper-thin potatoes; “gratin” is in quotes because the adhesion is achieved as much by the knife (or mandoline) work as by any dairy-based binder. Served separately are sides of even more vegetables: a true gratin of potatoes (this is more for Theresa than me) and simply-dressed carrots, again as perfect and flavorful as they could possibly be.
With this delicious food, we savor a wine older than any I’ve had from South Africa (though the final week of our trip will bring its elder), which is tucked away on the final page of the wine list, as if they’re protecting its existence. The sommelier expresses a certain measure of enthusiasm that we’re drinking this bottle, but at 550 rand and given current exchange rates, it seems ridiculous to do otherwise.
Theresa chooses a selection of South African cheeses for dessert, and while none are truly world-class, we find the most enjoyment in one that the restaurant calls emmental-style, but which actually tastes more like a gruyère. I choose dessert, and my tonka bean parfait is served with a heady concoction that I’d call caramel bread pudding ice cream; in a way, it reminds me of a caramel-enhanced version of the classic Alsatian kugelhopf glacé, but with emphasis more on the kügelhopf than the glacé. It, like everything else, is fabulous.
I ask our energized and newly-chatty sommelier for a recommendation from the list of dessert wines. Rather than answering, he disappears, then reappears with a small flight of them.
This is, especially with the extravagant wines we’ve consumed, an expensive meal by South African standards. But given the weakness of the rand, it – like so much else – ends up being an absolutely absurd bargain. Especially because it will be, and I say this without equivocation, the best meal of our entire trip. (11/08)
Copyright © Thor Iverson