Five Rooms / La Belle at the Alphen

At the root of all the great contrasts between Johannesburg and Cape Town have always been their respective attitudes to money. Long before the first miners dug earth on the Rand, Cape Town was old and established with institutions and traditions. The Mother City bided its time, waiting for ships to arrive and grapes to ripen on the vines; the home of old money and the certainty of compound interest.

Jo’burg however is impatient and impetuous with ambitions fuelled by risk and adventure. It is a town of schemes and failures, of boom and bust. Jo’burgers put their faith in the redemptive powers of bankruptcy and starting anew.

The steady influx of Jo’burgites to Cape Town over the last two decades has shaken up the old town to some extent as they realize the full potential of mouldy assets.

A new breed of Capetonian, smart, fast and innovative, soon emerged. Rael Levitt with his gold Mercedes, who is now caught up in the auction kickback scandals, personified much of this, liberating old properties for development with his hammer.

Another operator is epicurean entrepreneur and restaurateur Paul Kovensky of the Aroma Liquors family. He started off in the nightclub business. Hard work, vision and doubtless boundless energy had seen Kovensky launch five restaurants in ten years along the lucrative Camps Bay-Clifton stretch: Paranga, Pepenero, The Kove, Zenzero and La Med. These are trendy establishments where people go to be seen; places, which when busy, are described as “pumping”.

It was therefore with some trepidation that the dyed in the wool Constantia set learned last year that the beloved three centuries old Alphen Estate had been turned over to city-slickers Kovensky and his long-time collaborators at Stefan Antoni interiors.

Originally a part of Groot Constantia, this was the first estate to grow grapes, make, bottle, and sell its wines to the public. It boasts the oldest surviving mill on the Peninsula. Guests have apparently included Captain James Cook, Mark Twain, Cecil Rhodes, George Bernard Shaw, and Jannie Smuts. For 150 years it has been in the Cloete family and for the last few decades in the capable hands of Nicky and Dudley Cloete-Hopkins.

The Alphen reopened late last year after its extensive facelift. Certainly, the boutique hotel looks a lot younger and more vital. In the Manor house the extensive private collection of antiques, gold-framed oil paintings, original Irma Sternes, and heavy fabrics are still very present, but are now interspersed with modern surreal fantasies, oversized chandeliers, various designer provocations, Nguni cow skins and hedonistic furniture. My one complaint is the annoyingly inappropriate and very repetitive “ambient” music.

The old green and white Cape Dutch buildings with their oak trees and autumn leaf litter stand unperturbed. It is a very beautiful property.

The Boer and Brit pub of the landed gentry is now the La Belle café, deli, bakery and bistro for breakfasts and lunch, specializing in salads, sandwiches, light meals, and patisserie.

For starters I tried their grilled, green asparagus spliced and served on a salad of rocket and tangy mustard greens with some capers, topped with a poached egg and a light, sweetish béchamel sauce.

The mustard and herb roast chicken – a drumstick and attached thigh – was a bit over sauced and a little anemic.

The beer battered kingklip, neatly presented on a wooden board with the chips in a tin bucket, had perfect texture.

Evening dining takes place in the 5 Rooms restaurant, and is exactly that: five rooms, all with fireplaces. I spied Dudley Hopkins and other Cloetes having a relaxed dinner in one room. The rooms are pleasingly well lit, when so many restaurants these days seem to be run by Eskom.

As a guest of the establishment I was assigned to the “portrait room” with its historical paintings of among others Dr James Barry and Lady Anne Barnard.

Despite its opulence, this is not a fine dining venue in the way other Constantia wine farm restaurants like Buitenverwachting, La Colombe and the Greenhouse are. Kovensky has taken a more profit-making approach. Chef Fernando Roman gives the South African middle class what they like and understand.

For starters, the cold fresh and smoked salmon tian with “smashed avocado”, caviar, and crème fraiche, was fat on the palette. The spiced artichokes with asparagus, cucumber, watercress, poached egg and lemon dressing was far more successful.

Our waiter recommended Haute Cabriere Pinot Noir 2007 for the starters. It is of course nearly impossible to find a wine to go with artichokes; the cynarin phenolic in them turns wine sweet.

For mains a Waterford Kevin Arnold 2009 Cabernet Shiraz was suggested.

I opted for one of the signature dishes, the lamb trilogy of biltong dusted lamb loin, grilled lamb cutlet with whole grain mustard, and lamb tortellini with truffle sauce.
This dish would be better off as a duo; the combination with creamy sauced pasta simply isn’t kosher. The tortellini themselves were rather good, but it is an ill-conceived match.

The braised duck with Asian greens, roti, sweet chili, lime and soya reduction was superb. One of the best duck dishes I’ve had in a long time.

For desserts: chocolate fondant, chocolate ice-cream and a Nachtmusik cappuccino; and a trio of crèmes brûlées with fresh berries, a pink ball of spun sugar, and mint.

Like the mythical salamander which is the Alphen’s emblem, this Cape Town establishment has shown the power to once again reinvent itself.

5 Rooms, Alphen Hotel, Alphen Drive, Constantia. Tel: 021 795 6313.
La Belle, Alphen Hotel, Alphen Drive, Constantia. Tel: 021 795 6336.

Published in the Mail & Guardian July 2012.

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