At La Colombe, at Silvermist in Constantia, there are indications that you are seated in one of the top restaurants in Africa, South Africa, and the world. During a full lunch-time service, an air of calm, quiet efficiency and professionalism reigns. If you even so much as look at the window, thinking about opening it (because it’s such a beautiful day and the view is gorgeous), one of the gentlemen waiters will arrive at your elbow asking if he can assist, madame.
This continues smoothly throughout the meal as wants and needs are anticipated and pre-empted – over and above the delivery of each course with highly detailed explanations and descriptions, and the appearance of ever-charming sommelier Tongai Joseph Dhafana with each of his carefully selected wines to accompany each dish.
It was around about course eight of 11 of the Chef’s Menu that I realised there was no salt and pepper on the table. It went unnoticed because it was not required; no improvement was necessary. To call this a “meal” or “dining out” is a vast understatement. It is an experience that begins the moment you walk through the door and ends as you exit (other than the memories, which can last a lot longer).
As you’re greeted, you’re invited to pop a tiny egg in your mouth, plucked from the living garden display in the reception area. The fragile white chocolate shell explodes with refreshing citrus, priming your palate for what is to come: a long afternoon (please, set aside at least three or four hours for this, day or night) of an ever-increasing sense of wonder and amazement that titillates the senses. Yes, cheesy, but true. By the time you stagger to the car, your knees will be weak and your head will be spinning – in the most delightful way, like being in adolescent love.
Executive chef James Gaag has been with what has become a restaurant group – including La Petite Colombe in Franschhoek, Foxcroft in Constantia, and Protégé, also in Franschhoek – since Scot Kirton took over the head chef position at La Colombe at the end of 2010, when it was still at Constantia Uitsig. “James did his third-year block as a Silwood student with us and stayed on with us after that,” says Kirton.
“It has been a pleasure watching James grow over the years. He has been instrumental in helping me build La Colombe into what it is today, and I could not be prouder of James taking over the running of the kitchen. He is one of the most talented chefs I have ever had the pleasure of working with. He has a massive energy to keep improving and taking the restaurant forward.”
Kirton’s position has adjusted to more of a management and inspirational role now, driving the restaurants as a group.
“And pushing the chefs to be the best they can be,” he adds. “Every year in winter I take the head chefs on food trips to different countries to keep inspirations flowing.”
It’s an investment which has more than paid off.
The creativity can come simply by removing themselves from their daily way of cooking and by looking at food from a different perspective, says Gaag.
“The signature La Colombe tuna can was inspired by a trip to Spain years ago and since then has undergone multiple reincarnations. Most recently the current version reflects flavours from Mexico, where we’ve just been.”
The tuna comes in as course number four. Before that, there is a Kitchen Cocktail, comprising marlin tataki on burnt lime, lamb roti, and a springbok, mushroom and liver parfait; irresistible sweet potato bread to pull apart and dunk in the dukkah-spiced Wagyu drippings and bone marrow prepared at the table side; and a light mussel curry served in a charred passion fruit with tiny bird scissors to pierce the blackened skin and cut it open.
After the tuna (which includes a blind tasting to test your wine knowledge) is the quail stuffed with langoustine, and a shiny naartjie sorbet which comes to the table in spectacular smoky fashion. Part of me wants to say enough already with the dry ice, but a bigger part says “ooooooh yes, look at that!”. The moral, if I had one, would be don’t ever lose that excitement.
A pause for breath after the Thai coconut line fish and our designated waiter Gavin presented to us a wooden case filled with exquisite custom handmade knives, all with different wooden hilts.
“Chef would like you to choose your own knife for the next course,” he said. Never in my life. What makes Gaag come up with these things?
“It is something we’re always looking out for, that adds something to the eating experience and provides a topic of conversation,” he says. “Our presentations have always been fun and playful and interactive. Nothing per se makes me think of them. Something tiny, completely non-food related can spark an idea that turns into something cool. It can be the most random thing that we pick up in a shop that turns into the most awesome presentation.”
So I picked the multicoloured one for my Karoo lamb with Jerusalem artichoke, and observed the absence of salt and pepper. There were still three more courses, and we were sadly pressed for time, so Gavin got the kitchen to bring them all out at the same time: The Cheese Chest included our choice of wax-wrapped cheese (Gavin said we could have more than one each because we’re so awesome); the banana, hazelnut and tonka dessert which was wildly intense in flavour; and almost last was a tree with chocolate salted caramel acorns dangling from its branches, and speckled eggs and rooibos macarons hiding in the foliage.
With all this theatre, I wondered how Gaag knows when to stop.
“Enough is enough when I taste the food and am fully satisfied with the balance of flavours, textures, acidity – and finally the look,” he says.
“Often a dish is created around a particular garnish that I like or have seen and I feel strongly about. Or it could be created around a serving style that we would like to use or by a story we would like to tell our guests… but always around flavour!
“The dish, whatever it is, needs to be deliciously tasty first and foremost, otherwise the dish is dead. From there we build on the look, feel and presentation, serving method and all the bells and whistles that go with it, but flavour comes first with every dish.”
Finally, there were mint-glazed chocolate discs in the same bird’s nest in the reception area, to see us on our way. I’ve seen that Monty Python film so I passed, choosing instead to maintain the perfection of my mood, stomach and palate.
There are various options available at La Colombe, from à la carte to a spring lunch special (from September 1 till November 30, R545 a person for seven courses without wine). The top shelf Chef’s Menu is R1,495 a person (vegetarian available); for the beverage flight, add R995. Maybe that’s a bit frightening for the average (local) diner, but hey, it’s a special occasion of note, and once you realise what you get for your money, and what goes into creating it, you will understand. Our afternoon was one filled with glorious food, as well as drama, flair, surprises, pampering, and luxury. Oh, and the menu and wine list are handwritten – handwritten! DM
For more information, see La Colombe
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