Richard Carstens is looking very much as though he is on top of his game – on top of the world, in fact. The world’s view from his lair in the mountains above Stellenbosch stretches all the way to False Bay and Table Mountain, but his cuisine journeys far more widely than that, with influences that stretch as far afield as the eyries of culinary genuises like Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthal – who was so delightfully misnamed by a contestant in an episode of Come Dine With me as ‘Blumen Heseltine”.
As for that blumen molecular cuisine that the two espouse, I have long been sceptical of it, but a few months ago I found myself at Blumenthal’s London restaurant, Dinner, at Knightsbridge’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel, and ordered as a starter the man’s famous signature dish, simply and oddly called Meat Fruit. This looks like a mandarin, or perhaps, to the South African eye, a naartjie. Next to it, a chunk of toasted sourdough bread. But touch the skin of the fruit with your finger and it yields softly and coldly to the touch. It’s a little moist. And slice into the fruit and it reveals its true carnivorous heart – it’s a round of the most delicious, smoothest, subtlest paté I have eaten anywhere.
But when he serves up a meat course, that is to say a proper main course, there was no such trickery – sauces were luscious and real, meat tender, flavours gorgeous. And that is the thing: no matter how clever you are in a kitchen, no matter what kind of magic you are able to muster, the food must be delicious, the textures delightful, the flavours moreish.
So it was with this in mind that I ventured past the grape curtain and up, up into the mountains to find the prodigal Carstens in his current lair at Tokara, for a chef’s table lunch showing off his winter menu.
The first thing that sprang to mind halfway through the many-course meal was that these chefs, these days, watch each other – which is good for us, because it means they’re trying to outdo one another. At a dinner at the Roundhouse recently, for instance, I enjoyed a course – fallow deer if memory serves me correctly – that reminded me very much of a dfish I had has at The Ledbury in London last year. The essential difference: The Ledbury’s was perfectly tender, while the Roundhouse’s was inexcusably chewy for this level of dining, though it did score highly on other criteria.
It makes you realise that there is nothing really new in the world – if a chef comes up with an “innovation” you can never be sure who really got to the thought first. But that doesn’t matter really: what matters is the execution.
So how does Carstens do in the duck liver parfait department (bearing in mind Heseltine’s blumen naartjie)? First up, the dish is gobsmackingly gorgeous, a palette of textures and complementary tones of burgundy and contrasting perky greens. These were wine colours, the vineyard on a plate, little “soils” of beetroot streusel, rocket, crumbled pistachios. Little blobs of “hibiscus”.
This is a dish you could put on the menu of the finest restaurants of the world and know that the most discerning eyes and palates are going to take serious note of what’s going on on the plate. Exemplary.
Right. Now there’s “turnip, pear, ponzu, celery, spinach, mozzarella cream, pumpkin seeds, garlic and bonito”. Pretty, very white offset by green, and ultimately rather dull.
Now, togarashi spiced beef sashimi, tartar, sushi rice, wasabi mayo, cashews, sesame seeds, pancetta and spiced lemon emulsion. That’s a lot of oddness on a plate, but this is Richard Carstens. This was suchi reinvented as a main course, even though it was a starter, a little mattress of spiced sashimi with sushi rice and bits of crisp pancetta to confound you. Intriguing and entertaining.
For one main: teriyake beef fillet, lemon-glazed shimeji mushrooms, carrot ginger puree, confit potato and miso coffee sauce. Oh yes, now this was something you could have set before me anywherre to make me one happy puppy. It actually had been placed before somebody else, which was a painful thing to endure, while the waiter’s other hand set before me a chicken dish. I love my chicken, do not misunderstand me, but really, Richard, don’t do that again. The beef was sublime (thank you, table mate), the sauce exquisite. The chicken? Well: chicken, tomato, Parmesan velouté, gnocchi, capers and olives. It was okay but did not push the boat out, though the cubes of chicken were tender and flavours good.
I had scant time for dessert but had a brief nibble of the “fallen apple” – which was cooked in a way that made it look like an apple that has fallen from a tree and withered. It tasted like an apple, which was nice. There was also chocolate chiboust with cremeaux, hazelnut daquise, orange and coffee sabayon. This was a scrummy of creamyness and crunch, beautiful.
For gourmands, Tokara is a must, undoubtedly serving some of the most imaginative and delicious food in the Western Cape. It’s very good to see Carstens on top of his game.
Tokara, Helshoogte Road, Stellenbosch
021 808 5959
First published in the Sunday Independent April 2012