Fighting for fine dining in the city is this Sea Point newcomer. Despite tough times city rents are still appreciably higher than they were a decade ago, deterring investment by the best chefs and their backers. While the top end restaurant scene has not declined, it has become stagnant. At the same time the number of quality restaurants in the Winelands has continued to rise.
Sweeter rental deals on wine estates, where many owners see an attached restaurant as an essential part of marketing, may be one of the attractions. For city restaurants, and some independent retailers, the regeneration of the city may have become a victim of its own success.
Central art galleries such as Michael Stevenson have seen the light, moving the creative scene further afield to cheaper Woodstock, but retaining the buzz generated by the nearby city. Anchoring this trend has been the inspirational Neighbourgoods food market at the Biscuit Mill. This market is the sharpest sign that the Cape Town food revolution is spreading beyond those that can regularly afford to eat out at the Aubergines and Savoy Cabbages, even if it remains exclusively white.
The Biscuit Mill may be an eye-popping style parade but nobody is complaining. It does the trick. Trendy lunch spots such as Superette* and Kitchen have followed. Closer to home the East City, where the Cape Town Partnership has an initiative to encourage a creative community, may also offer restaurateurs affordable rental deals.
On the other end of town in Sea Point, the most the established restaurant district, lies tonight’s meal. La Mouette, located in a Tudor influenced house on Regent Street, means business. A double storey building with a spacious courtyard, they have a lot of seats to fill for their French-inspired food. The interior is dominated by warming solid-wood Art Deco fireplaces and lead-pane windows.
The decoration in the front dining room, where we are seated, is of faddish charcoal-on-grey floral wallpaper that climbs up to the picture rail. Then stops abruptly. It looks unfinished. Uncertain whether to be fashionable or retain the building’s traditional style.
For many diners, aided and abetted by influential décor mags, style trumps substance. Not me. If the food is memorable I’m not too fussed by presentation on the plate, and even less so by where I am eating it. Of course when delicious dishes are savoured in a restaurant of with a lovely ambience you have the ultimate experience.
To start I am tempted by an unusual combination of tomato fondue with snails; and a chicken liver parfait (like chilled pâté) with chicken rillettes (also a forcemeat but rougher) and roasted fig.
Instead I go for truffle and cheese croquettes from the tapas menu. The waiter assures that they contain genuine truffle pieces (and not just the more common truffle oil, usually synthetic**). At R35 it seems a bargain. A dozen or so of the piping-hot deep-fried cheesy balls are placed in front of me. Some have an earthiness to them that suggests truffle flavour but there is no physical sign of the fungal shavings. Nevertheless they are moreish.
My companion, a books editor at a magazine, goes for prawn and ginger ravioli surrounded by a light sauce of mushrooms, cooked cucumber and tomato. One giant piece of ravioli dominates the plate like a fried egg cooked over-easy. Super sexy but a bit thin on flavour until the fresh herby finish.
Then it arrives. The saviour. Rare slices of fried duck breast. At first it appears to need salt but I decide to trust chef Henry Vigar’s judgment. The natural meatiness grows on me like a nervy chanteuse gradually finding her full voice. Then the penny drops. I am enjoying a marvelous dish. The tender bird oozes beefy juices, completed by a thin pork-like crust of fat, combining the best attributes of these animals. Oh, I forget there are also slices of crunchy red cabbage to brighten the taste and a couple of walnuts.
My companion’s bouillabaisse soup is elegantly poured over the fish and crustaceans by the waiter. It starts off with the rich taste of cooking shellfish, tomato and saffron together but the flavour stops short of the luxuriousness that this dish can offer.
Next it is the talking point of La Mouette, gin and tonic dessert (another is traditional French onion soup). Clever little jellied cubes of gin wobble next to a light ice cream. The gin is in the accompanying syrup but I am not convinced I can taste it. That may be a good thing. Gin has ruined many a great chef and I suspect too much of it could do the same to this pudding.
The second dessert is clever and delicious. For richness there’s milky chocolate mousse set in a beautifully constructed tart, accompanied by honey comb for crunch and mascarpone cheese for a bit of sour. Textures and tastes have a little battle for your attention without declaring ruinous all-out war.
The duck and tart dishes show the incredible potential of this new restaurant. The shortcomings are there but I have probably erred in coming to early. They have been open just under two weeks, not enough time to get into their stride. The attitude from waiter to manager is infectiously enthusiastic, suggesting an ambition to get things right. There is a lightness and efficiency to the service that tells you one thing. They want you to have a good time.
For the top end food they promise, prices are keen too. For dinner all mains R110. All starters and desserts R50. For lunch it is cheaper.
La Mouette have summer plans for a diners’ bar upstairs and one in the courtyard below, where presumably you won’t need to eat. This may bring in extra cash.
The venture also confirms a trend. Talented South African-born women working abroad in the restaurant industry are bringing their foreign chef husbands’ home. It sounds romantic but to leave highly-rated restaurants in the first world is a vote of confidence in you the diner and the potential of the Cape. The couple here is SA-born Mari Vermaak and her UK husband Vigar.
Now that’s a homecoming revolution (with a bonus).
3/5 starts on the night. Close to 4. Could go all the way.
* Superette is owned by the Neighbourgoods Market founders
** According to chef Daniel Patterson, writing in the New York Times, the truffle flavour is difficult to capture in oil. Read it here: Hocus-Pocus, And a Beaker of Truffles.
Posted May 20, 2010