A week or so before we left for Cape Town, my husband, Matt, and I received an email message from our Italian-South African friend, Gianfranco, whose 50th birthday celebration was the cause for our trip. He instructed us, in no uncertain terms, that we were not to bring gifts. Instead, he said:
“I want you all to have a good time. That means eat too much. Drink too much. Laugh too much and get home safely.”
Our vacation now over and back home in San Francisco, I can confirm that we complied so fully with Gianfranco’s commands that I didn’t manage to write a single blog post during our nine days in South Africa, and now need to go on a diet and detox for the rest of the month. All well-worth the extra pounds and mushy brain, of course!
The decadence began in the Stellenbosch winelands, located about an hour east of Cape Town and considered by some to be the Napa Valley of South Africa. There, on the very first, jet-lagged night of our trip, we dined with Gianfranco, his wife Tania and sister Ines at Rust En Vrede, a winery / restaurant in a beautiful old Cape Dutch style farmhouse surrounded by vineyards. Rust En Vrede, meaning “rest and peace” in Dutch, is regarded not only as one of South Africa’s best, but as one of the top 100 restaurants in the world, and also produces some of the country’s most acclaimed red wines.
While very good, we all agreed that the food did not quite live up to the hype — an overly fishy tuna tartare being my main complaint. We nevertheless had a lovely and memorable evening, enjoying the restaurant’s elegant but unpretentious atmosphere, excellent service, a yummy upside down pineapple cake and our first South African wines of the trip: a Hamilton Russell chardonnay and Rust En Vrede cabernet.
Completely unrelated to food and wine, but a culturally interesting aspect of our evening, was Wade, the friendly parking attendant who escorted us to the restaurant and looked after our cars. Like a seven-year old child, he was missing the four teeth between his upper canines and spoke with a lisp.
While I assumed he’d been in a fight or suffered from bad dental hygiene, Tania later explained that it is fashionable among certain Capetonians, like Wade, to have their teeth removed. Perfectly healthy teeth. On purpose! Wade was the first but not the last person sporting this look that we saw while in the area, and a clear indication that we were not in Napa anymore.
Clouds Estate, a stylish Stellenbosch winery / restaurant / boutique hotel encircled by the Hotentot Mountains, was our home for the first three nights and the venue for Gianfranco’s 50th birthday lunch the next day. Seated under a wooden pergola looking out on the vineyards, about twenty of us, mostly South African friends and family of Tania and Gianfranco’s, wined and dined until sunset.
I chose the Kingklip for my main course, a firm, white South African fish that I liked enough to order twice more during our visit. Among other wines, Tania and Gianfranco treated us to Fusion V, a blend of Bordeaux varietals from De Toren, a winery recognized as one of the best in the region and a new favorite of mine.
The night ended with some pints and dancing (okay, I’ll admit, I was the only one dancing) at the Happy Oak, a smokey college dive bar in the town of Stellenbosch that Tania’s beautiful niece, a student at Stellenbosch University and surfer-girl, took us old folks to upon our request for such a place. Not everyone loved it, but our friend Victor, the only other American in attendance, and I had fun and Matt, the designated driver, was a good sport.
After leaving the winelands for the Capetown suburb of Camps Bay a couple of days, several meals, and many bottles of wine later, we had our first, and quite excellent, dinner in Cape Town at HQ. Recommended by a Capetonian friend and her Swedish husband, HQ offers a choice of two mains: steak and steak (one from South Africa and one Australian), accompanied by a simple but delicious green salad and fries. The vibe was hip, the crowd cool, diverse and local, and the roving lounge singer a fun, retro touch. Once again we ordered Rust En Vrede cabernet, because, as our Swedish friend pointed out, life is too short for bad wine.
The next day was Gianfranco’s actual birthday, so of course we were due for another good meal. The Foodbarn was in Noordhoek, a small village graced by mountains and sea and located on the southern end of the vertiginous Chapman’s Peak Drive, about half-way between Cape Town and the Cape of Good Hope. Housed in an airy, rustic/chic barn, this restaurant serves fresh, organic / sustainable South African / French food.
The local oysters I ordered were fabulous, and once again, the Kingklip did not disappoint. Wines included Cartology by Alheit, a chenin blanc blend made from so called “bush-vines,” which are allowed to grow, untrellised, on the ground, and a Mullineux syrah. It was a mellow Wednesday night, and our party of seven had the dining room mostly to ourselves, polishing off one last bottle of wine as we each told our favorite Gianfranco stories to commemorate his 50 years on the planet.
When Matt and I asked for a recommendation for our date-night dinner the following night in Camps Bay, Tania sent us to the Hussar Grill, located on a side street a short drive uphill from the beachfront main drag. Her characterization of this place as a South African Ruth’s Chris was apt, the Hussar being an old-school steakhouse chain with dimmed lighting, dark wood, nostalgic black and white framed photos and leather banquet seats.
Cape Town’s infamous south-easterly wind, the “Cape Doctor,” was howling as we shared an enormous 1,000 gram t-bone steak and a bottle of economical, yet quite good, Beyerskloof pinotage. It sounded like the roof might blow off at any minute, which somehow added to the cozy romance of the evening.
Just when I thought I couldn’t eat or drink any more, we’d reached our final night in Cape Town. For this, our last hurrah with Gianfranco, Tania and Victor, Tania booked a table at Kloof Street House, a trendy brasserie in an old Victorian mansion on, you guessed it, Kloof Street, in Cape Town’s Gardens neighborhood. Featuring a lush, fairy-light-lit garden in the front, eclectic furnishings and a good many of Capetown’s gorgeous young things, it was an enchanting spot for the five of us to spend our last evening together, albeit a little distracting for our single friend, Victor. I had a Caprese salad and seared, locally-caught tuna, and we all drank yet more De Toren Fusion V for good measure.
The next evening, after a morning speed-hike up Table Mountain, Matt and I rolled ourselves onto the plane for the first leg of our journey back to San Francisco, the economy seats feeling a bit smaller than usual. Without a doubt, we’d had a good time, ate too much, drank too much and laughed too much. We were going home filled with good memories and lots of delicious South African food and wine, just as the birthday boy had ordered.