La Colombe

After a disappointing 15 months, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay has closed Maze. Schadenfreude is rife among Cape Town foodie circles right now, but then Ramsay, who often behaves like a belligerent on the Jerry Springer Show, provokes such reactions.

Ramsay Holdings blame the poor performance on the One & Only Hotel; locals tend to put the failure squarely on the service and food at Maze.

I was not alone in having a near-perfect experience in the first week they opened. However, just days later, it was a disaster, to such an extent that they gave our table a raft of desserts free of charge as an apology. I never returned.

It illustrates that despite a supervising Michelin chef and a super-star television name to draw the crowds, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. To survive you need to understand and persuade the local market.

Gourmet restaurant La Colombe, seems to be getting it right. Local ambition is far more likely to succeed than international swagger.

While he was still executive chef, Luke Dale-Roberts took La Colombe to global acclaim, gaining 12th place in the San Pellegrino 50 Best Restaurants of the World Awards. In May, even three-star Michelin chef Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck (number 3 on the list) paid a visit.

Every winter, many of Cape Town’s very best restaurants run unbeatable specials. La Colombe offers a five-course winter special menu for R310 (R380 if partnered with wine). This might be one of the most elaborate loss-leaders in the world, in the sense of a product sold at an unprofitably low price to stimulate other purchases. It worked, my aperitif, a modest flute of High Constantia sparkling wine was R80 (over 200% mark-up).

The main interior is comfortable enough, but it doesn’t quite convince; elegant, but with a number of details, inadequacies and compromises that add up to an odd makeshift feel, like those front rooms converted from patios in some homes. Nor were things helped when we were shown to our table in an echoey corner surrounded by ugly, framed diploma-like prizes, certificates and awards, things that recall a high school foyer.

Except one goes to La Colombe for the food, to gape at it, talk about it, taste it and talk some more about it. Forget about any other conversation.

The a la carte menu is in classic style on a blackboard, now written mostly in English, which is a relief for most of their diners, though the chalkmanship could have been better. ‘Fricasse (sic) of quail and langoustine’ (R175) was a tempting starter, and assiette of suckling pig (R195) for a main, but nothing was nearly as exciting as their set menus.

While you decide, the waiters bring a choice of breads, including a pleasingly fluffy sun-dried tomato focaccia. They go all out with the amuse-gueules, no less than four different items, one on a ceramic tile, another on a wooden stick like a tongue depressor. I didn’t enjoy taking in what felt like an applicator, nevertheless the savoury salad on the end of the stick was worth risking the gag reflex. There was also a delicious square of foie gras pâté, and sheets of wafer-thin, dry pork crackling.

The first course is an assortment of cold comestibles (I will attempt to translate as we do along): two discs of ballotine (in this case a gelatinous roll of rabbit, with mild chorizo, lardo, date and slivers of pistachio), a short cigar of rabbit liver Royale (think pâté); cep dust, fig puree, cep and sage
brioche (like a tiny sort of toast round). This was paired with a spirited, lightly-wooded Remhoogte Chenin blanc 2008.

The presentation is delicate with small portions, yet they accumulate to just the right quantity, leaving you satiated, yet not brimful. Nouvelle cuisine is now a byword for satire on food, although we should be thankful for its lasting effects, having demolished the over the top, hiatus hernia conclusion to gourmet cooking of the 1970s.

Second course: a golden pastry discus of beetroot tart, with apple and beet relish, capped by goats cheese fondant (an airy paste, resembling a creamy topping), olive and palm sugar tapenade drizzled in a circle around it, with whole roasted individual garlic cloves (still in their skins) and cherry tomato halves. This was matched with a young, wooded Anura Chardonnay 2009.

The timing throughout the evening was good, though sometimes the wine service lagged.

Next, a tataki of springbok (think thick cut, faintly seared carpaccio, marinated and seasoned with pounded ginger), black pickled celeriac, pine nut gremolata (sprinkled over) and a single green baby asparagus (not mentioned on the menu), accompanied by yet another youthful, wooded white, a grassy Nitida Semillon 2009.

Dale-Roberts succeeds in bringing presentation, texture and flavour in gratifying harmony.

The slightly more substantial portion of pan-fried kingklip came just in time as a relief from all the titbits. Served with a temperate curry velouté, a ridge of ‘Thai style’ quinoa (a fine grain native to South America, I first encountered in the Andes, where it is used to make anything from risotto to cake) and topped with a baby watercress salad and cucumber salsa. The Signal Hill Grenache Blanc 2007 had matured nicely, had the right fruitiness as a companion, yet I began to wish for at least one unwooded white in this flight.

Only once in five courses, did a waiter not know which choice went to which of our four diners. This briefly ownerless dish was the alternative fourth course, a sous-vide (vacuum cooked at low temperature for an extended period)rib-eye, with fondant potato, and a black pepper bordelaise sauce, complemented by a rich berry Hartenberg Cabernet sauvignon / shiraz 2007.

For dessert, I chose the frozen beetroot parfait, beetroot and apple sorbet with a glass of Joostenberg Noble Late harvest 2009.

There is no need to wait for a special occasion; eating here is a special occasion. You have until the end of September for the winter menu.

La Colombe, Constantia Uitsig, Spaanschemat River Road, Constantia. Tel: 021-794 2390.

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