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Bringing the bling to Constantia

The Rose Bar at Alphen in Constantia, Cape Town

Bringing the Camps Bay Strip to Constantia would not be everybody’s idea of … well, a good idea. But that’s what the Atlantic Seaboard’s Mr Bling, Paul Kovensky, decided to do.

The aforementioned ‘strip’ is a jangle of bars and restaurants which have turned the once quiet Camps Bay seafront into coolth personified. While Kovensky cannot, and does not, lay claim to this entire string of pearls, he does own a good deal of it, most recently his latest acquisition, the former La Med, which has now been given the Kovensky touch.

Constantia, meanwhile, could not be more different. If Camps Bay is diamante and faux fur, Constantia is engraved antique silver and the mink stole gran left you.

How to hybridise this odd couple? When you’re as rich and ambitious as Paul Kovensky, you take a 30-year lease on one of the oldest properties in that lush stretch of vineyard and manure, you send in Stefan Antoni interiors to add some faux glitz to the old gilt-framed grandeur, and you sit back to see what the well-heeled Mr and Mrs Constantia make of it all.

Paté as a phallus

So Kovensky, scion of the Aroma liquor group founded by his father Mike, took that lease on Alphen, the archetypal old-money spread where generations of Cloetes have reigned, from the incumbents Nicky Cloete and Dudley Hopkins-Cloete, with permission to renovate pretty much everything that wasn’t protected by heritage rules.

What we have ended up with is an Alphen that is half old-money tradition and half  nouveau riche. The bourgeoisie have made it good and taken over the palace, and it would be intriguing to be a fly on the wall in the boudoirs of Constantia.

Kovensky and his dashing cavalier of a general manager, Robert van Gent – whose name in English translation becomes the amusingly Shakespearian Robert of Gent – readily acknowledge that while some locals have flocked to the place and keep coming back, some of the traditionalists have tottered orff (MISSPELLING INTENTIONAL), dismissing the upstarts from Camps Bay with a snooty raised eyebrow.

I too went in with a cynical eyebrow, not just expecting not to like it, but pretty sure I’d be horrified. 

One thing that is clear is that it is a fait accompli. This is not about to be undone, so frankly those Constantia folk who are looking down on the new-look Alphen might want to reconsider. I know I did, and quite quickly.

Fine dining at the 5Rooms at Alphen

A key factor here is that the place was just not working any more as a hospitality venture. It had become tired and out of date, and needed a lot of work. Whether that work of necessity had to involve bringing Camps Bay over the mountains is moot. It’s done, so what have we now?

Key point: On the Thursday night that I was there the place was humming. The restaurant was full, the huge bar terrace, now named the Rose Bar, was packed with people enjoying sundowners, a huge wedding was being rehearsed on the lawn below, and there was a general, undeniable feeling of success about the place.

The reformulated Alphen is at once mildly appalling and inspiring, a visual illustration of what happens when a visionary blingster gets hold of someone’s old family jewels. I can only guess what the Cloete-Hopkinses must think of it. This is the old Cloete pile going back to early colonial days, and there is history in every nook and cranny. Napoleon tarried here. So did Dr James Barrie – her portrait hangs on one of the walls.

I was honestly torn. Part of me wanted to scream neau neau neau, what have you done, but the other half of me is grudgingly impressed, because it has been done with such aplomb that it would seem miserly to do a knee-jerk hatchet job. 

Trilogy of lamb

And also hovering somewhere in my befuddled mind as I took it all in was the knowledge that all this has been done with the Cloetes’ sanction … because they still own it, and there on the many walls of the restaurant, which is now called the 5 Rooms, hang all their magnificent old paintings, punctuated now by the sleek modernity that you might find in one of Kovensky’s Atlantic Seaboard places-to-be-seen-at.

The old Boer and Brit was the closest Cape Town had to a proper English country pub, where locals would bring in the labradors to lie in front of the fire while the old boys had a few snifters at the bar and talked cricket while the bejewelled ladies compared their horse-riding or tennis calendars.

Oh dear. I’d love to have seen their faces the first time they came in after Kovensky’s team had moved in. It’s a swish little deli-cum-bistro-cum-bar now called La Belle Cafe and Bakery. There are tables on the verandah too, and you can come in for breakfast, lunch, even an early supper. It’s open 7am to 7pm and they make their own breads and pastries. I did not try any of them, but freshly made sounds like a good idea. I did try a three-cheese breakfast omelette though, which was excellent.

The place looks great, but I just wish they’d accommodated some aspect of the old-stye Boer and Brit, which is there now only in memory. It’s a quandarry really: the new venue is highly attractive – but the lovely old place has gone. It’s a pity there could not have been both. Constantia lost this round.

The 5 Rooms is what used to be the old Alphen restaurant, run for may years by Nicky and Dudley, and which was very highly regarded in its heyday. It has been substantially changed, structurally, but happily has not lost its antique character despite the modern touches the revamp has broguht in. Key t this is that the the old family paintings still adorn the walls. These are said to be worth in the region of R38 million and are still owned by the family. So they’re on loan, on display, and I think they are the best reason why Constantia should keep an open mind on this one… the five rooms that make up this part of the historic spread look fabulous, much of the old furniture is still there, and it would be churlish not to acknowledge that it just works. It’s one of the best restaurant ineriors at the Cape, no less. Great place to send an evening.

Which brings us to the food. As with all of Kovensky’s restaurants, the menu is the work of much plannning and matching flavours, textures and ingredients according to what the clientele is likely to buy. It’s a business, and the dishes are chosen to sell. Make no mistake – Kovensky calls his restaurants his “shops” and I have challenged him not to do that. He seemd a little perplexed, but the point has been made that the best restaurants in Cape Town are those where a chef has been appointed and given his or her lead to make food so fabulous that the place will become highly sought-after by the foodie brigade.

Well, that’s one way of seeing things, but another is to not to chase potential awards or Top 10 status but to cater purely for your audience with a mission to put bums on seats and have them coming back. It cannot be denied that this is a truer business approach. Awards aren’t everything.

So it would be surprising if the 5 Rooms were to achieve that kind of status in the Mother City, and this approach is valid. There are some nice innovations on the menu. The “Fish Tank” is a bouillabaisse with fish stock poured over, served in a glass bowl. It looks like a million dollars. I think, though, that the stock needs to have a little more fishy flavour, and I suppose the key would be to reduce a stock down so that you get more flavour while still having the clarity required for the visual effect. It’s about halfway there.

Starters include a cylindrical tower of duck liver pate with pistachios, blood orange kelly and potato crisps, and tian of salmon with smashed avocado, creme fraiche and micro greens. The pate had good flavour but was too firm, perhaps because of the desire to have it in a tower that stands so narrow and tall. A bit of a triumph of presentation over quality. I’d have preferred a less ostentatious pate that had subtler texture.

Their lamb trilogy was a cutlet on mustardy mash, lamb shank tortellini with a delectable filling though the pasta a little undercooked and chewy, and loin with a biltong crust. The last was beautifully tender.

My meal ended with a trio of creme brulees – with fresh berries, spun sugar, and mint – that was gorgeously presented and made a satisfying end to the meal. Best of all was to dine in the portrait room of the 5 Rooms, with the wildly imaginative Cloete family portrait taking pride of place on one wall, as if to say: Don’t worry – we’re still here.

Who knows. Maybe a little bit of Constantia will rub some of the edge of the Kovensky bling.

Alphen Boutique Hotel, Alphen Drive, Constantia

021 795 6300

First published in The Sunday Independent, May 2012

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