“Appetite comes with eating,” wrote François Rabelais in his Gargantua, which is precisely why nouvelle cuisine failed after many meals. What we understand by the term today (‘nouvelle cuisine’ was actually a recurring appellation in French cuisine from the 18th century onwards) had its peak around the time of Henri Gault’s 1973 ‘manifesto’. It has however left an indelible impression on today’s fine dining restaurants.
Among Gault’s ten points were: an emphasis on leaner, cleaner fare; the freshest produce; light meals and salads without bowing to “men in a hurry and women on a diet”; to banish many traditional sauces for having “assassinated so many livers”; and for the nouveaux cuisiniers to embrace new technology and not “let out cries like violated virgins” at the sight of the modern batterie de cuisine.
Unfortunately, nouvelle cuisine, which started as an attempt to be more natural, honest and pure, became synonymous with miniscule portions of raw food, preposterous descriptions, dishonest menus, and obsessive-compulsive plating.
Aubergine Restaurant opened in 1996. It extended this new (to South Africa), distinctly modern European culinary approach to Cape Town’s restaurant scene, and did it in an 1830 home, once the residence of the first Cape Chief Justice, Sir John Wylde. When others had long abandoned nouvelle cuisine Aubergine was still committed, fortunately to the best aspects of the original philosophy.
However, I remember eating there soon after it opened and feeling deflated. The food was good, the presentation impeccable, but my Rabelaisian appetite had me scurrying home to cook.
There is no virtue in starving. You can’t treat a la carte items as if they were part of a degustation menu. It felt parsimonious and inhospitable. I wanted to shout, “If you can make food taste this good why not give your diner a respectable size helping?” Several other restaurants at the time were delivering precisely that: same quality, decent size.
I returned after the millennium choosing Aubergine as the setting for a romantic liaison. We ended up at McDonalds (their choice).
But the fact that the restaurant has not only endured but prospered and won numerous awards must be a testament to something. Last week, I returned with dining partner Munchkin, to try and figure out why.
Recent renovations have enhanced the dining experience. The setting is immaculate; the service old first-world standard. The yellowwood tables, Knysna Blackwood floors and soaring volume of the space certainly impresses locals and foreigners alike. Much of the clientele remains the older tourist.
Chopin was playing; later it was the Cuban Buena Vista Social Club CD.
A tome of a wine list includes an extensive inventory of German Riesling and foreign wines. We took the liberty of bringing our own Méthode Cap Classique. Not an eyelid was batted. In fact the sommelier swapped it for a colder bottle in the fridge (they had it on the list) and the waitress gave us an opportunity to taste if their bottle was okay. Corkage was R80.
A neatly packaged amuse bouche arrived on a triangular plate and rather appropriately contained aubergine with mayonnaise, Julienne celeriac, a basil leaf and a coin of kudu meat.
For starters, Munchkin had two spicy Indian dhal (lentil) vaddes (R78), which are small, ring-shaped, deep fried and accompanied by pineapple relish and crispy lettuce with yoghurt dressing.
I ordered the slices of duck breast (R95), wrapped oriental style in a thin “Mandarin pancake”, set upon rectangles of firm mango, delicately sauced, and garnished with cilantro leaves.
The starters demonstrated Chef Harald Bresselschmidt penchant for East meets West. His approach is conservative. What he does particularly well is not to adulterate a Western dish with serendipitous or as is so often the case opportunistic Asian influences. Instead he creates what is an almost completely Western version of an Asian idea, in this instance Peking duck. His conceptions thus stand on a firm footing.
Next a complimentary palette cleansing sorbet arrived in an elegant glass.
For mains, Munchkin had pasture-reared lamb (R198) from the Spier Biodynamic Farm. Portions remain modest, but are far bigger than I recall. Still, Munchkin declined to share.
I had the seared Ostrich fillet (R192) – two perfectly cooked medium-rare slices, with three sweet peas and three halves of cherry tomato.
Perhaps being a food critic that eats out far too much has quenched my gluttony. But the opulence of these dishes was such that one felt quite satisfied.
Munchkin however had an elaborate plate of grape strudel purse (R84) with caramelised ginger, orange sauce, and prematurely melted elderflower sorbet. Clearly, the kitchen displays a certain passion for desserts.
Finally, a complimentary plate of dainty petites fours arrived with the bill.
Aubergine’s success, like the German economy, arises from sound management, a methodical approach, conservative policies and reliability. This time I was won over and saw the wisdom of Bresselschmidt’s way.
Aubergine, 39 Barnett Street, Cape Town. Tel: 021 465 4909.
This article first appeared on 2 March 2012 in the Mail & Guardian.