La Mouette

Last year, the culinary rehabilitation of Sea Point gained new elevation with the opening of La Mouette (the “seagull’). Co-owner and chef, young Henry Vigar, has an excellent pedigree having worked alongside the likes of Paul Bocuse and Alain Ducasse, and in several Michelin-starred establishments, including Auberge du Lac, La Noisette (now closed), and fairly recently as head chef at Kensington Place.

The restaurant is situated in a Tudor Revival style house on Regent Street, once home to that Sea Point institution, the Europa; I remember it being popular for paella on Sunday nights in the late 1980s.

According to the Lonely Planet guide the double-story home was built in 1919 and was once official residence to the mayor. The characterful interior with grand wooden fireplaces and lead paned windows has several elegant dining rooms. The cobbled entrance courtyard sports a large, bubbling fountain with Koi in its basin.

I’ve dined inside and alfresco and both spaces are pleasant, except some of the metal chairs outside are very uncomfortable, and if you’re like me, phobic about music blaring from speakers in restaurants, you might want to avoid the patio and sit away from the house. There are woofers and tweeters hidden in the perimeter foliage, but the din blends in with the general city hum after a while.

The service can vary starkly. The very first time I went it was spot on. However, on my last reconnoitre the personnel behaved as if they’d hardly been trained. Dishes and wines were plonked down in front of one without the waiter identifying them, nor could they always answer questions. Apart from restaurant reviewers, most people do not try and memorise the chef’s descriptions of six-courses and their wine pairings before returning the menu to the staff.

Vigar’s good taste favours classically French-bent, modern fine-dining, keeping it unassuming and unfussy. There are slight Asian twists (rice noodles, nam jim dressing, dim sum) and strong Occitan influences –ratatouille, bouillabaisse, risotto, chorizo and sauce vierge (though no cassoulet).

The opening special of R150 for the tasting menu has expired, but the current R210 for six courses, R400 if paired with wines, is still good value.

A glass of non-vintage Graham Beck Brut arrives first.

Then there is a choice of two for each of the regular courses, except the premier. There used to be the option of a potato and shallot bhaji with spiced yogurt and tomato chutney, which I think was the better dish, but the hot, deep-friend croquette truffle balls filled with cheese are decidedly moreish. The latter is served in a snazzy spherical dish cut away like one of those pod chairs from the 1960s.

Soup follows. The chilled tomato gazpacho is a consommé so it’s clear and frankly a little bit like salad dressing, primarily because it is too oily. There is watermelon and tiny, translucent cubes of tomato jelly (the waiter said they contained apricot, but I could not detect it). An unwooded Tokara Zondernaam Chardonnay was an appropriate match.

The other choice, a warm coconut broth, is far more successful, but also suffers from too many floating globules of oil, probably rising from the tasty vegetable dumpling immersed in it. Its partner, a Thelema Muscat de Frontignan, was persuasive.

To follow: the artichoke ravioli, garnished with a strongly scented basil leaf, was pleasing, if shy, but that helped preserve the wine – a Glen Carlou Tortoise Shell white blend. The calamari they used to serve has been scrapped in favour of a more novel Cape salmon ceviche with fine green chilli, served in a glass, topped by an unusual amount of espuma. The slightly oaked Allee Bleue chenin blanc 2010 was suitable. As you may be gathering, the wine pairings were good, but nothing exciting.

For entrées: angel fish, delicately roasted, with diced red bell pepper, a sweet corn salsa and smoked paprika dressing; and a herb-crusted beef sirloin. This was the tenderest sirloin I’ve ever had, accompanied by coriander carrots, smoked aubergine puree, and dainty potato gnocchi. The Waterford Pebble Hill 2008 I found a disappointing choice given the nature of the establishment and that this was essentially the star course.

A deconstructed ‘gin and tonic’ – tonic jelly, gin syrup and bracing lime ice cream – has replaced the apricot sorbet palate cleanser. It’s a delightful deconstruction, a really refreshing pick-me-up.

To end, a thin triangle of “Kimberley cheddar” with peppercorns, a smidgen of quince jelly and a square of crisp lavoche bread. The De Krans Cape Ruby Port was fortifying. 

La Mouette already appears to have a healthy tourist following from the nearby hotels; each time I’ve been, more than half the tables are not speaking South African. For locals, it is a welcome addition to the fine dining scene, especially now that Jardine has folded and others are tottering.

La Mouette, 78 Regent Road, Sea Point. Tel: 021 433-0856.

This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian March 14, 2011.

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