Sooner or later, we have to take back what is ours

Sooner or later, we have to take back what is ours
Kudu tartare with makataan, and ‘souttert’ – smoked onion tartlets – to begin the meal at Eike. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

Restaurants have been open for sit-down dining under Level 3 since the end of June, 2020. Although they are vigorously applying all the required safety and hygiene protocols, physical distancing and other rules – like not serving alcohol – wary diners are taking their time to return in significant numbers.

Two weekends ago, at the end of July 2020, I ventured from the relative safety of my home, which has become an epicentre for online deliveries during the past four months, and went to Stellenbosch for a little staycation.

It was the first time I had, and enjoyed, not one, but three, sit-down meals at restaurants.

Their plight is close to my heart, but until now, I simply haven’t been ready to go out. I chose to support by ordering in and buying from small suppliers instead. But this simply cannot last indefinitely, being held hostage by the pandemic, living in constant fear of an invisible killer virus.

I thought about what Reuben Riffel said at the TGIF webinar in July: “The reality is, we can’t be in lockdown forever. Unless we get a vaccine we’re going to have to learn to live with this virus. I would like for us to refocus on how we do this, in all businesses. Entering a restaurant, you get your temperature checked, and a spray of sanitiser, and you wear a mask – I think that’s a good start, but I don’t think that’s the answer to how we can make people feel comfortable, to come support us. I’m sure we can work on better solutions.”

Full disclosure: when my partner rushed off to his favourite steakhouse the moment it was permitted, I freaked out. I have deep trust issues in general, and while these are not directed at restaurants, the greater unknown factor of the general public worried me. What would stop someone from signing an untruthful declaration that they haven’t had a cough or a sneeze since 2019? A feverish temperature is harder to hide from, but we all lie pretty much on a daily basis. Tell me you’ve read all the Ts&Cs in any document, and I’ll rethink my position.

Over time, however, I’ve adjusted, modified and modulated my concerns (okay, fears maybe) and made the decision to get back out there. I think we all get to that point, eventually, where we say “no more”. Personally, I am gatvol.

Visiting three places, it was interesting to note how each handled the rules and requirements, and how many guests there were. I eased into it slowly, with lunch at Vadas Smokehouse & Bakery at Spier. It has a large outdoor seating area so it was easy to choose a table 20 metres away from anyone else. You’ll also suddenly become aware of how short a distance 1.5 metres is and not actually much further from other tables than before. You’ll have more trouble managing the asshole behind you in the supermarket queue. Yes, this has happened to me. No, it did not end well.

The following day we were in Stellenbosch proper, at Spek & Bone in Dorp Street. You’ll find it down an alley next door to Oom Samie Se Winkel, which opens out into a shady courtyard. Tables are spaced with potted trees in between them, and there are a few more inside. It’s one of Bertus Basson’s four restaurants in the area, and he popped in to say hello as we sampled the new offering there.

Bertus Basson has four restaurants in Stellenbosch which have adapted to lockdown trading. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

Instead of individual dishes, there are snacks, and a set small plate menu of six dishes for R275 a person (which can quickly be tweaked for gluten intolerance), and two desserts. “We had to rethink the space completely, to limit contact with our guests and the amount of staff we need to keep the space viable,” explained Basson. “Doing sets of small plates has been very well received by our new and regular guests. They love the idea of not choosing. We also offer Spek & Bone takeout.” 

The restaurant opened as a wine shop with snacks as soon as it was able, but obviously under the current restrictions it is not able to operate the wine shop. Sit-down was introduced five weeks ago, and it’s been slower than normal, said Basson. “However, it has been a great opportunity to test drive our new business model.” 

Basson ordered focaccia with whipped makataan (wild melon) butter for us. The preserve is made by his Tannie Sanna Bezuidenhout in Riebeek Kasteel, and is used liberally here as well as at Eike (more about that in a bit). When manager-turned-waiter Shaun Furman brought our drinks, we were invited to take them from the tray ourselves. At the time, I understood and didn’t question it but later when I was overthinking things, I wondered why; the glasses, cups and cooldrink tins would all have already been touched several times by others before they got to us. Perhaps they do a final sanitisation before they serve. Food is treated in a similar way, and there are mini bottles of hand sanitiser on the tables.

The small plates arrive in two “courses”. The first is yuzu-dressed raw Abalobi Cape Bream with avocado, cucumber, coriander, sesame and radish; prettily pink house-made pastrami with pickled onions, potatoes and aioli, and nasturtium leaves adding pops of green; and smashed and fresh courgettes with Dalewood feta (a new addition to the range), soy seeds, olive oil, lemon and nutmeg. Warning: if you are too busy posting pics on Instagram, you will look up to find everything has been eaten by the others at the table.

Monkey gland-glazed BBQ pork belly with Jerusalem artichokes three ways, Spek & Bone. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

The second course is roasted Abalobi Silverfish with crispy squid, spicy coconut dressing, grilled tenderstem broccoli, macadamia and spring onion; monkey gland-glazed BBQ pork belly with pickled, roasted, and pureed Jerusalem artichokes (three individual ways, not all three techniques in one); and the most delicious potato gnocchi with mushrooms and a Huguenot cheese and mushroom emulsion. If the day comes when it’s offered as a full dish on its own, I’ll be having it.

Basson mentioned he had been to Hidden Valley where his third restaurant, Overture, is. “The gardens are looking fantastic. I popped up to the farm recently, on a sunny day, and immediately phoned Mareli [his wife] and said we need to get Overture open. For people who just want to get out and enjoy a beautiful space – it’s perfect,” he said. “We spent some time changing the tables in the restaurant, creating more space and outside seating. The menu will be small, fresh, seasonal and produce focused. We will only be open – Overture and The Deck – on weekends and public holidays for lunches. Simple, focused, charming cooking.”

This is as good a description of Basson’s food as you can get. Much of it is based in good old-fashioned tradition, with his maverick take on it, nostalgic and evocative, and modern and fancy all at the same time.

In addition to the sit-down operations, Overture At Home kept the business going and will still be available. “It has been so popular we have decided to keep it going,” said Basson. “We deliver to Cape Town twice a week but can also arrange a special delivery.”

Potato gnocchi with mushrooms, Huguenot cheese and mushroom emulsion, and chives at Spek & Bone. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

The current menu for At Home is mosbolletjie and ciabatta rolls with makataan butter (like you get at Eike); truffled gnocchi and cauliflower bake, Huguenot cheese for starters; a choice of main courses between slow cooked, five-spiced ham hock or baked sustainable fresh fish, prawn, fennel, spiced coconut and prawn sauce, served with Overture pumpkin pie, charred broccoli and yuzu dressing, Cocotte potatoes and sweet mustard; and for dessert, vanilla cheesecake and berries. For a midnight snack, there are coconut macarons. All this for the princely sum of R525 for two and very reasonable delivery fees for as far as the southern and northern suburbs and the CBD. It appears my days of ordering for delivery are far from over.

“What are your plans for dinner?” asked Basson. I admitted we hadn’t thought that far, so he immediately organised us a table at Eike, another of his restaurants a block away, down another alley. Here too the menu has been adapted for the times, and it’s open for lunch now too. You can still get a full-on five-course tasting menu, but you can have one, two or three courses if you prefer, and you’re clock-watching. At that time, curfew was still 9pm (now 10pm), and it stressed me out no end when a couple came in at 7pm, knowing the restaurant had to close by 7.30pm for cleaning and to get the staff home.

Kyle du Plooy and Charlton de Ruiter prepare dinner at Eike. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

“Eike trade has been slow and steady. The 9pm curfew was difficult. In South Africa we usually go to restaurants between 6.30pm and 8.30pm, and we visit restaurants not only for the food but also for a ‘kuier’. In my opinion, the curfew has had a negative effect on how our guests perceive their experience,” said Basson. 

We drove from our guesthouse to Eike twice, because you would think by now taking a mask wherever you go would be a habit but apparently it’s not. During both trips I was acutely aware of how quiet the previously vibrant bustling student town is now; it was surreal. I almost expected tumbleweeds. There were few cars on the roads, the popular bars all dark, chains on the doors (okay that might be a bit over dramatic but you get the idea), and some restaurants open and illuminated – but desolate. It goes to show that as hard as they are trying, there is still a long way to go before people are completely comfortable with dining out. It’s very much a two-way street.

“My heart breaks every time I hear of another restaurant that has closed. Every restaurant has its own ecosystem, staff, suppliers, landlords and owners who have over invested financially and emotionally,” said Basson. “A restaurant that closes leaves far reaching ripples in the hospitality pond. 

“We have managed to survive so far because we have luckily been around for some time and have managed to build structures and resources; many younger restaurants may not have been in the same position. 

“We have changed all of our business models, and we are constantly readjusting where needed. We have been nimble in the water and have made quick decisions, even starting new ventures like Overture At Home. We are not out of the woods yet – no one is. When lockdown started I made a very conscious decision to remain optimistic.” 

The staff complement has changed dramatically, said Basson. “Before lockdown we had 68 full time employees, we are down to 23. We are hoping to bring more team members back as business allows. Under current circumstances, there are no clear timelines. 

“We run the restaurants with smaller teams – mostly chefs. The guys who are back at work multitask, help with deliveries, serve guests etc. We have adjusted our operating hours to accommodate smaller teams.” 

Inside Eike, the welcome was warm. I think three other tables were occupied while we were there. We chose ours in front of the kitchen where we watched the team led by Kyle du Plooy and Charlton de Ruiter, calmly and quietly preparing our food. Them wearing masks barely registered but the muted atmosphere did. To be honest, I don’t know what it was like before; I visited Eike when it first opened and am pretty sure it was a lot noisier. In my limited lockdown experience, it looks like places with outside seating are doing better than some (Botanicum notwithstanding), and perhaps an open-plan kitchen will be reassuring too, as you watch them stop everything for regular hand-washing and so on. There’s literally nowhere to hide.

Twice-baked Huguenot cheese soufflé with Jerusalem artichokes, mushrooms and wild herbs to start at Eike. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

A course of souttert (smoked onion tartlet, see main photograph) and kudu tartare cigars with makataan, and warm mosbolletjies and coriander seed rolls with more of that pale whipped butter and more makataan began the meal. I had a starter of heavenly twice-baked Huguenot cheese soufflé with Jerusalem artichokes, mushrooms and wild herbs; my partner chose dessert instead: naartjie sorbet, orange, meringue and spekboom. 

In between, he had the oxtail with open-fire grilled sirloin, celeriac, turnips and carrots. I nearly passed on a main course because I was still quite full from lunch but Quintin Pretorius, also manager-turned-waiter, convinced me to accept a small tasting portion of the dish I wanted: Abalobi Cape Bream with waterblommetjie, broad bean tips (and mussels for those who are not allergic). I’m so very glad he did. It’s most likely the only waterblom I’ll have this winter. A side cast iron pan with cheesy gnocchi confirmed my new food obsession. Melktert macarons were served with coffee and as we left we were presented with a bag of beskuit (rusks) to have with our morning hot beverage.

The fourth restaurant in the Basson stable is De Vrije Burger, in Stellenbosch town. “Apart from people being cautious to go out, economically most South Africans have taken shots. De Vrije Burger is doing well – it is comfort food and great value. We have adjusted our menus. Flavour does not cost anything,” he said.

Each restaurant has its own head chef Micheal Fuller at Spek & Bone, Kyle Du Plooy at Eike, and Drikus Brink at Overture) and Basson himself is personally involved everywhere and works very closely with the chefs. 

And here’s the other thing with returning to eating out: you can have the best home delivery in the world, from the greatest chefs in our country (and this is something which happens and would never have been dreamed of before the plague), but there is nothing that can replace the experience of being in a restaurant. Having someone caring for you, and bringing you your food and drinks (even if it has to be non-alcoholic, and there’s a whole other creative realm to be explored), describing and explaining dishes, asking if everything is to your satisfaction, and yes, the plates being whisked away to be washed by someone else is priceless. It should most certainly be appreciated. You can express your gratitude with a decent tip. DM/TGIFood

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