Zevenwacht is one of the most beautiful of Cape Winelands restaurants, even if its lake is manmade and the route to the farm from Cape Town (via the R300) is not the most scenic in the region. But once you’re there, you find yourself in a beautiful oasis where there are all sorts of things to do, from picnics, wine-tastings and a cheesery to a respected chefs’ school.
The restaurant has had its ups and downs, but the management has lately decided to give the eatery a significant shove in the right direction. Various candidates were interviewed – you might even say auditioned in the way of a challenge on Australian Masterchef – and ultimately the post was given to Justin Pillay, who for as much as a decade has been sous chef at Buitenverwachting, working at the right hand of Austrian Edgar Osojnik, who took over that kitchen in the late 1990s and who has now become a veteran of that belaurelled restaurant.
Having earlier than that worked with Mike Bassett in the restaurant at the Radisson at the V&A Waterfront, it has taken Pillay a long time to come into his own, but it seems he has found the right sort of niche to show off the enormous amount he has learnt, not only about cooking for a fine dining restaurant, but the nuts-and-bolts aspects of running what is essentially a business.
He’s already been there for some months but the management (very sensibly) elected to let him, and the new edition of the restaurant, find their feet before signalling to the foodie media that it’s time to have a look at what Pillay is doing.
The menu he has put in place has much to recommend it, and what I particularly liked is that there is plenty of good, stylish and well-made food in the best tradition while managing to avoid that stuffy, muted mood that fine dining restaurants sometimes have.
It’s like a bistro with damn good food, in a winelands setting which could either become very popular with a loyal clientele for its great food, or slip up a notch and become a contender for the award systems. Pillay has that ability, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best route to choose. Sometimes it’s best just to make, and serve, brilliant fare and leave the awards systems to themselves. There’s more to life than pandering to somebody else’s idea of what’s just right.
Zevenwacht is a glorious place for lunch or for sundowners followed by a slow-paced dinner, and there’s accommodation too at their adjacent small hotel. You enter into a beautiful lounge with a fireplace, off which are ante rooms for functions. Beyond is the restaurant, which fills three rooms overlooking a verandah which in turn overlooks lawns leading to the lake. The interior was refurbished a few months ago and is looking superb. Of course, this is a wine estate so it makes sense to pair your food with their own excellent wines by winemaker Jacques Viljoen.
Pillay took us through a tasting menu of a selection of dishes from his new menu, matched with Viljoen’s wines. There was little that I would not happily have ordered a full course of. I love chicken livers and it was refreshing to see them treated differently here instead of the ubiquitous peri-peri or other spicy sauce. They were subtly-flavoured, lusciously soft, the tiniest bit pink (as they should be) and had a pleasantly nutty finish. Also served as a starter was a miniature version of the menu’s honey-nut crusted cream cheese, a neat little peak with a delicately crunchy coating. We enjoyed Zevenwacht’s clean 2010 chenin blanc with this.
Kingklip appeared, simply panfried to give a golden surface, while the centre was cooked just-so, just a little bit underdone in the middle and no hint of dryness. With this was a delectable foam, though there could have been more of it as it was all mopped up by half of the fish portion, and a side serving of al dente linguine with basil and bacon pesto. This came with the farm’s Tin Man white 2010, a wonderful blend of chardonnay, viognier and chenin which combines spiciness and nuttiness to create a distinctive wine perfect for fish.
There’s lamb and there’s lamb, but when I cut into and tasted the roasted lamb ‘saddle cuts’ I knew this chef knew his stuff. The meat was as perfect as could be, in the way that rack of lamb can be, in the hands of a master. Simply the best lamb I’ve eaten in Cape Town in ages – and lamb is my thing. With this was a very good tartlet of Mediterranean vegetables with Parmesan. The sauce with the meat was its own jus, which was excellent but, again, not nearly enough. Moistening the dish was Zevenwacht’s Z 2008, an intriguing blend of syrah, mourvedre, viognier and grenache.
To end, an Amarula panna cotta garnished with shavings of white chocolate, and mocha cheesecake with a strawberry compôte and vanilla oranges. The panna cotta was perfect and subtly flavoured, while the cheesecake was almost a misnomer; it was more like a soft, creamy mousse served in a cup, but delicious and moreish.
It’s good to see Zevenwacht back at the top of its game. It’s eminently worthy of a visit, and Justin Pillay is undoubtedly a chef to keep an eye on.
Zevenwacht, Langverwacht Road, Kuils River 021 903 5123/4