Winter in Cape Town. Grey. Dank. Soggy ground under your boots. Endless ceiling of thunderous clouds overhead. Stack of umbrellas in a basket at the front door, half of them broken from over-use. Temperatures constantly around 10degrees. On a good day.
Right? Have another look at the main picture. I took it in mid-June. In Cape Town.
This is Azure restaurant at the Twelve Apostles Hotel on the Atlantic coastline just a few kilometres past Camps Bay on the winding coastal road to Llandudno and Hout Bay. There wasn’t a cloud in 100km, the temperature was a very friendly 22degrees and the lack of even the slightest breeze made it a cinch for dining out of doors.
I can’t deny that I enjoy being able to make the point that Cape Town always throws up days like these in winter, especially in June. People from up north – you know who you are – love to whinge about Cape Town’s winter weather and jump to the knee-jerk conclusion that the weather, for months on end, is always as described in the first paragraph above. But it just isn’t. In three recent Junes, there have been more days like these (see the picture, Exhibit 1) than overcast gloom. We do get those, and plenty of them – and we love those too, as you get a chance to light the fire indoors and bring out the red wine. But anyone who was in Cape Town for the World Cup two years ago will remember what the weather was like almost for the entire duration. (See the picture, Exhibit 1.)
Having said all that, the restaurant in Exhibit 1 has just introduced its winter menu, and it is a winner. Like all of the Red Carnation hotels, this one’s restaurant features its own chef’s dishes as well as a selection by the group’s founder and matriarch, Bea Tollman. They have restaurants all over the world these days, and it’s a hotel group that South Africans can be proud of. There are four in London, including the magnificent Milestone, and those in this country include the Twelve Apostles and the Oyster Box at Umhlanga in KwaZulu-Natal.
At Azure, Mrs Tollman’s menu is an entity in its own right, and if you want to choose her range of old-fashioned dishes they’re there for the asking. There’s a perfect prawn cocktail with Marie-Rose sauce, ‘prawn stroganoff’ which is to-die-for, and beaufully cured bresaola, just salty enough without being overdone, and much more.
Then there’s chef Henrico Grobbelaar’s menu of beautifully flavoured and textured dishes, all of which suggest that here is a chef that gourmets and the judges of restaurant awards should be watching with interest. When I first dined here about a year-and-a-half ago I found the food excellent but perhaps predictable. There were the things on a menu that you would expect on a good classy hotel menu, but there wasn’t a lot of originality going on. This has changed immensely now that he has had time to settle in and put his own stamp on things. Grobbelaar had only been there a few weeks at the time, as I recall, so the new menu is really the first chance for me to see what he can really do.
The first highlight was that ‘prawn stroganoff’ which I found extraordinary. It really did have that sour-cream-and-onions stroganoff quality to it, soft and creamy and the flavour just so, yet there were little prawns instead of beef. That was one of a selection of small tastes passed around with pre-prandial bubbly before lunch.
At the table, the first dish to come out was Chef Henrico’s chicken terrine which had a lovely fresh, light quality to it, with a hint of foie gras (some might say too subtle), smoked ham hock, endive, and a white port and verjuice syrup that gave it just the hint of tart sweetness it needed.
Then came his steak tartare. If all steak tartare was like this it would be a staple on every carnivorous menu. He has reinterpreted the dish, so that your minced beef fillet has dressings that include wafers of crisp sliced baby tomatoes, capers, dots of exquisite Béarnaise and slivers of pickle. Just so good.
The next course of Norwegian salmon was a delicate confit and supremely soft and moist. It was so light that you felt that you could put some on your fork and blow it away like a feather, and came with horseradish gel, smoked potato and fennel and beetroot salad.
The meat course was springbok fillet, and while the meat was perfect, the triumph of the plate was the celeriac cream that accompanied it. It was the wow factor of a top-drawer meal, and with the roasted radish, orange vinaigrette and “gold sultana caper paste’ that were also on the plate, you’re talking one great dish.
The denouement was a ‘chocolate biscuit’, essentially cake, dressed with strawberry slices, praline feuilletine, milk chocolate slivers and a beurre noisette cream. Good stuff but nothing was going to beat some of those earlier dishes.
You may not be blessed with the weather in Exhibit 1 when you go, but this is a winter menu and the interior, very white and luxurious, includes two fireplaces and is supremely cosy.
Azure, 12 Apostles Hotel, Victoria Road, Camps Bay 021 437 9029
First Published in The Sunday Independent, July 2012