Most people get to know about Babel Restaurant through magazines that have words such as house, home, garden, country and sometimes maison and casa in their titles. It is not surprising, given the dazzling aesthetics of the place.
Situated on the historic wine estate of Babylonstoren with its gabled, thatched Cape Dutch manor house dating back to 1777, the estate encompasses a hotel, two restaurants (Babel and a tearoom in a magnificent iron and glass greenhouse), vineyards and wine cellar. Also open to the public are a bakery, charcuterie and cheese dairy.
But the star attraction is the 3.25-hectare edible garden with more than 300 varieties of fruit and vegetables from tropical pineapples and vanilla to a labyrinth of desert prickly pears. Its keepers are fond of variety — so you’ll find many of most things — such as five types of aubergine, 19 cultivars of peach and 11 kinds of fig.
The garden boasts an apple tree stemming from Sir Isaac Newton’s family home, and an olive tree from the Garden of Gethsemane, Jerusalem. There is also a roman chamomile lawn on which my dining partner, Munchkin, took a barefoot walk.
All the produce is consumed by the residents on the farm or by visitors to the restaurants.
Autumn-ripening quince is now in season. Quince trees were first planted in the Cape by Jan van Riebeeck. As with all garden pantries, there are gluts of things, so quince featured prominently on the menu.
An aesthetic eye
Babel is a modern space, though sympathetically designed to keep in with the old Cape architecture. Glass sidings abut original limewashed pillars; transparent Philippe Starck and white Luxembourg chairs pull up to wooden tables, and white lacquer Kartell tables stand over farm benches. From garden to plate, an aesthetic eye is always governing.
Even the menu is beautiful. It is divided into four sections: for starters there are salads, each based on a colour — red, green and yellow; then the day’s specials, written up on a white tiled wall with a drawing of an enormous bull’s head; mains under the heading “from our good farmers”; and desserts divided into bitter, sour, savoury and sweet.
The yellow salad is a riot of orange and yellow: a twig skewer with baby carrots, cubes of pineapple, honey and thyme roasted pumpkin and quince; fresh persimmon, granadilla, gooseberries and satsuma (a Japanese variety of tangerine); a sprinkle of toasted coconut, mint and chilli.
The granadilla was a little too dominant and together with the citrus dressing the dish finally overwhelmed me. Portions are large, and one salad is big enough for two.
Munchkin shared the red salad: pink turnip, scarlet radish and lightly pickled beetroot sliced carpaccio style; halved baby tomatoes, red onion, grapefruit segments and num-num confit; a generous sprinkling of cerise pomegranate seeds and macadamia nuts toasted in five spices. The dressing was light soy, lemongrass and ginger, and crème fraîche on the side. In all of this, a rose of smoked trout was somewhat lost. Although a great visual concept, both salads taste as intense as their colour and are in need of balance.
For mains, Munchkin ordered a “pizza” with a base of sliced roasted aubergine (instead of baked dough), topped with creamy gorgonzola, buffalo mozzarella and grated parmesan, a tomato, leek and fresh oregano passata, olive pesto, fresh basil leaves, and heirloom tomatoes from the greenhouse. This not only looked stunning, but the aubergine had caramelised just right, hadn’t sponged up too much oil, and was a welcome counterbalance to the acidity of the starters.
I had grilled, lightly smoked Franschhoek trout coated in quince and fresh coriander paste, drizzled with sage crisped in butter, sprinkled with halved num-nums, and served with a deliciously novel roll of red spinach filled with num-num confit.
We accompanied the trout with hand-cut potato wedge chips served with a lemon cut in boats. This is a side dish Babel prides itself on; the raw potatoes are first infused with rosemary, thyme and bay leaves and then cut and deep-fried.
All we could still manage was to share a small dessert special — olive tart with olive ice cream. It sounds bizarre, but it was delicious and sweet. I’ve had olive ice cream before, but it wasn’t half as successful as this.
You come away from Babel having feasted much more than your eyes. It also leaves one determined to eat far more freshly plucked, healthy food.
Babel at Babylonstoren Wine Farm, Simondium Road, Klapmuts. Tel: 021 863 3852.
This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian on 14 June 2013.