& Union Beer Salon/Charcuterie reviewed; and the new Cape Town restaurant

The cutting edge* new Cape Town restaurant will tantalize your taste buds with novel combinations you never dreamt of.  The most talented young chefs will forsake luxury ingredients for the freshest local produce.  The humble cauliflower will combined with anchovies; butternut will be smoked and you won’t find any foie gras or fillet on their menus. 

& Union Beer Salon/Charcuterie
+27 (0)21 422 2770
11o Bree St
St Stephen’s Church
Cape Town

The recession may be over but many traditional upmarket traditional restaurants are running on empty and struggling to pay suppliers.  It will be years before a return to the free spending days of the recent past.

Spurred on by the inspired decision of Kitchen and Superette to locate in low-rent Woodstock (where they pack them in), the city’s top food brains will offer more sophisticated night-time fare (and wine) in down-at-heel locations such as this. 

The move of top chef Luke Dale-Roberts from his day job at La Colombe** to focus his energy on his new  Biscuit Mill venture is likely to usher in a new confidence about going out at night in an area still considered dodgy after dark despite the plethora of day-time spots.  Improved security and safety in numbers will change perceptions.  Artisan food producers, wine makers and even vodka distillers will supply these bistros with products unavailable from mainstream retailers.

To avoid wasteful working capital being tied up in stock (and it perishing), menus will be limited.  To make sure you spend a bit extra, pricing will tempt you into two or three courses rather than one. 

Three starters will be offered, four mains and as little as two puds.  There will always be a vegetarian option and many of those containing meat will be animal-light, such as pasta sauces.  Meat dishes will be the tasty tough cuts pot-roasted til they fall off the bone.  They won’t take bookings.  The price you will pay at the best is that it will be hard to get in to the best spots unless you dine early.  Human nature has it that the lemmings will queue at busy hours.  Small tables will be packed into tiny spaces.  Chairs won’t be padded to encourage tables to turnover quickly.  You won’t go here for a big table birthday dinner that lingers until midnight.  If you want to carry on you will relocate to a nearby bar.

& Union in town is not quite such a place but it may be the closest thing we have to a gastropub in the Cape.  Gastropubs in the UK have been criticised by some for introducing expansive menus and fiddly food that they are unable to deliver on (and for abandoning reliable staples such as pies, bangers and mash and the ploughman’s platter).  But the best are no doubt delivering fine food. 

& Union have stuck to a simple and small menu, dominated by tapas options such as biltong, grilled haloumi cheese, cured meats and cheeses.  These ingredients mostly don’t require cooking and are sourced from producers who don’t over-process their products.  The cheeses are unpasteurised (the milk isn’t heated to kill off goggas).  If you have ever tasted unpasteurised milk you will never happily drink the stuff supplied by supermarkets again. 

Cooked items are equally unfussy, with the gas braai grilled prego (with a choice of sirloin, pork and mushroom) the most complicated.  Other options include a bokwurst hot dog and grilled weisswurst. 

All the dishes, particularly the thin charcuterie (preserved meats) are lovely paired with their beers, much in the same way wine can accompany food (more on the beers later).

I order the charcuterie board to start.  This includes a mound of felino sausage that is chewy in a good way and sour-garlicky in a way that only salamis can be.  The peppery sausage grows on me.  Flecked with enough specks of fat in it to make the skinny girls that frequent this place put on a few welcoming pounds.  After all “Skinny Girls are Trouble,” as the brilliant South African crooner Jim Neversink sings.

Other meats include a salty “Parma-style” ham (cured leg of pork) and a sweeter Coppa ham (pork neck).  All have tastes that stay with you long after nibbling.  None are too dried out from being sliced ages ago.  I look forward to Jason Lucas’ delicious Spanish-style jamon (cured ham) but it isn’t on the menu  (I have incorrectly previously reported that it is).  In fact they only sell the whole leg of jamon to take home as do Dijon in Stellenbosch. 

The fresh and clean Brewers & Union unfiltered lager is a fantastic partner to slivers of meat on a sunny day.  Also thrown in is a sharp salad of micro-greens: rocket, spinach and blood sausage, a roll and good mild mustard.

For mains the prego roll with pork is lovely with a vinegary peri-peri.  It doesn’t need the rich luxury of the accompanying Parma Ham.  Pork, still considered a poor cousin to beef in South Africa, is no doubt more popular in Portugal than beef.  Are our beef pregos another case of ‘Mozambicified’ Portuguese cuisine?  While beef can be good the pork here is a revelation.  At least Fred Khumalo’s doing his bit to proselytise the pig  after pigspotter unfairly denigrated the hog’s reputation (I am not sure we are exactly on the same trotter gastronomically speaking but it is a spirited defence.) 

With the prego I enjoy the dark Berne a sweeter dark lager (disclosure: I have a bias towards amber and nectar-like beers). 

But what leaves a bitter taste in the mouth at & Union is the cost of the Brewers & Union beers – an astronomical R40 each for half a litre when they are not accompanied by food.  I am happy to pay a premium price for ‘real’ beer but this is just too much.  None of it is twice as good (as implied by the R40 price) as the R18 for a pint of Mitchell’s Bosun’s Bitter at The Perseverance Tavern. 

Wouldn’t it have been lovely if this team, who have such dedication for getting things right and the best brand building skills in the country had partnered with a local micro-brewer. 

At the Craft Beer Festival organized by & Union their beers were as good as but no better than many of the others on offer, all of which are sold at a substantially lower price.  It may be that their mark-up is not that exorbitant and that they are paying a hefty price to producers in Europe.  When accompanied by food the beer is discounted.  You pay around R25 a pint.  The charcuterie is R90 with a beer (R65 without) and the prego R95 with a beer and a coffee (R60 – R65 without). 

For those skinny girls there is wine (a short list of good wines but cheapest by the glass R35).  These are Haut Espoir Sauvignon Blanc 2008 and Sterhuis Pinot Noir 2008. 

Evidence of attention to detail is take care to put shade cloth up on fence to shield pot plants when the harsh afternoon sun falls on them.  Proof of this team’s marketing skills is that they started the vida e caffé chain, one of the most powerful brands to come out of the country in the last decade. 

By way of contrast their excellent takeout coffee is only R9.50.  The almond croissant (R15, made by Knead) is turning me into a giant cupcake.  A bottle of the peri-peri sauce for your fridge at home is steeper at R60 but will last a lot longer.  It is so good you could even serve it in Durban without losing face. 

Apparently the venue is called & Union because the church in which it is housed is wouldn’t allow the Brewers to be included in the name.  The beers are called Brewers & Union and are available in several bars and restaurants around the country.

The outdoor area is lovely but I find the interior too dark and cellar-like.  It also isn’t that convivial for more than two to chat.

4/5 stars over lunch

* Of course I could be smoking my socks about the new Cape Town restaurant trend but wouldn’t it be grand were this to happen.

** Under Dale-Roberts La Colombe moved from 38th place on the global San Pellegrino 50 best restaurants list to 12th.  Dale-Roberts has been retained as a consultant to La Colombe.  His new venture The Test Kitchen is due to open in November. 

Tom Robbins
Posted October 6, 2010

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2 Responses to “& Union Beer Salon/Charcuterie reviewed; and the new Cape Town restaurant”

  1. Rachael says:

    lovely reading. good to see natural trends returning.

  2. Laura says:

    Not awesome. Very disappointing night at and union. Simon, who I and the bouncer at the gate understood to be in control was clearly not! Won’t be returning any time soon, if you don’t’ want to deal with staff with attitude don’t go here.

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