It is 6pm on a Saturday. Laurent Deslandes, a chef, and his wife Cyrillia, a restaurateur, look frazzled but cheerful. Clearly they’re old troopers.
It has been just three weeks since they moved into their new premises in Cape Town’s Heritage Square. Moving a restaurant is almost the same as setting up a new business. And, if that wasn’t stressful enough, things with the previous landlord ended on a sour note and lawyers were involved.
For five years, Bizerca Bistro (spelt Bistrot since the move) was in Jetty Street on the Foreshore, an area turned into a wind tunnel by unfriendly architecture and skyscrapers. Cyrillia once put three tables outside on the pavement, but they were swept away by the southeaster and damaged beyond repair.
The interior was stark white with bare cement floors and plastic chairs, evoking a car showroom. It used to be the Bible Centre and it was a testament to Deslandes’s kitchen that people came at all. In fact, they flocked there in search of bouillabaisse, cassoulet, beef bourguignon and braised pigs’ trotters with seared scallops.
Bizerca won many awards, including the Eat Out award in 2011 for best bistro.
Deslandes worked for 17 years in Paris, but he found “fine dining socially difficult … the competition between the chefs not as friendly…” His voice trails off. “It’s not really me. [I am] more into rustic, not spending too much time on the plate. Why must I add something for colour — decoration that has nothing to do with the dish?”
Deslandes hails from Anjou in the Loire Valley and his attitude fits with observations made by Waverley Root in his classic book The Food of France (1958).
Root wrote that the cuisine of Anjou has “remained closer to the home cooks who originally produced it”, with “less aristocracy and more amiability” and “a decided peasant touch”.
Speaking of the regional cuisine, Deslandes says it is “quite a lot about vegetables, the garden of France, artichokes, asparagus … [It is] too far from the sea for fish, so it is freshwater fish such as salmon, bream, perch.”
Serving fish in beurre blanc first developed in Anjou.
“You do the charcuterie yourself. People [would] keep chicken, rabbits — not so much any more — [and] slaughter a pig once a year.”
The heartland of French cuisine is the Touraine, including Anjou. Root noted that “the court was continually in motion, moving from the banks of the Seine to the banks of the Loire and back again, taking its cooks with it”. From Paris it then spread to the world.
Deslandes first left for Alsace, which is sausage country because of its strong German influence — sauerkraut and spätzle. I’ve seen them on Bizerca’s menus.
In Paris, Deslandes met Cyrillia. Originally from Pretoria, she had finished au pair work and was waitering in a restaurant. “I met Laurent while I was opening a bottle of wine for him and his girlfriend,” she giggles.
“I wanted to stay in Paris and I couldn’t speak French yet. I learned quickly because in the 1990s nobody spoke English.”
“Did you speak English?” I ask Deslandes. “No.” He laughs.
“I felt a little stuck in Paris … Very difficult to open your own place.”
Deslandes went to Australia and opened a restaurant in Sydney. Cyrillia joined him. They later set up a bed and breakfast in the Blue Mountains “in the middle of nowhere with no water and a heritage building from 1823”. Cyrillia says they “started off with a sign ‘Restaurant Open’ in the middle of nowhere”.
There were “enormous challenges”, but they made a success of it and scooped many awards. After five years and a second child, the challenges mounted.
They decided not to renew the lease and to end the adventure on a high note.
Cyrillia’s father pointed out to the couple that it was perhaps irresponsible to have a family and not be legally married.
“We’d forgot!” laughs Deslandes.
After the wedding in Pretoria they considered staying on in South Africa. On a visit to Cape Town they fell in love with the city and the decision was clinched at a trendy café on Kloof Street over a cup of coffee. Cyrillia recalls saying: “Oh my word! They can make coffee!”
Deslandes found the food in Cape Town “very interesting … very different [from the rest of South Africa]”.
“French cuisine is still my favourite. It is maybe a point of view. It is easy to twist — why not impala with a French sauce?” Indeed, I have savoured Bizerca’s medallions of impala and kudu carpaccio.
At their historic new premises, previously Caveau Restaurant, they have gone from 55 covers to 100. They’re open longer hours and still have to be up at 4am for the market.
The food remains of a high standard. I have eaten everything from pork hock pies to rabbit three ways and have never been let down.
Here are a few recommendations based on the current menu. Start with oysters and gooseberry relish and the raw Norwegian salmon, which has a rich mouth feel. It is marinated in soy, ginger and échalote dressing and is topped with goat cheese and a delicate salad. “I’m not a fusion food person,” says Deslandes, “but it works and it’s consistent.”
The chicken liver pâté is light and creamy, served with pork rillettes (an Anjou speciality) and a tart pear.
For mains, braised veal shoulder with mash, asparagus and baby onion is a good-sized portion. The veal almost peels itself off the bone.
The lamb stew à la Provençal is beautifully caramelised outside and has a herbaceous Karoo flavour.
For dessert, the apple tart with crème fraîche ice cream and honey syrup is a favourite. Finally, before you leave, check out the homemade jams. You might find apricot, rhubarb or even banana-chocolate.
Bistrot Bizerca, Heritage Square, 98 Shortmarket, Cape Town. Tel: 021 418 0001.
This article was first published in the Mail & Guardian on 7 December 2012.