La Colombe aplomb: And then there were seven…
The opening of PIER and The Waterside at the V&A Waterfront brings the number of restaurants in the La Colombe group to lucky seven. With five success stories from Constantia to Franschhoek, what drives the decision to open two more?
In the beginning there was Scot Kirton and La Colombe, first at Uitsig and then at Silvermist in Constantia. When Uitsig was sold, Kirton had about six months to find a new location. In hindsight, it was the best thing that could have happened, and although it was stressful, the whole point was to keep a group of people together, and move together.
This has become the ethos for all the restaurants that have followed, creating opportunities for driven, creative chefs. “Everyone has worked for us for such a long time,” said Kirton, who with each addition to the group has placed chefs at the head of their own exciting new ventures when it’s time for them to move up and take the next step in their careers.
“It makes growing the business so much easier, having people that have worked for us and know what we expect and know what the brand is all about,” he said. “I could never open a restaurant and hire somebody from the outside. This way gives them the opportunity to grow and spread their wings and take it in their own direction… but it will still be in a La Colombe style, and what they know.”
The next restaurant to open was Foxcroft, also in Constantia, with Glen Williams, former pastry chef at La Colombe who made the transition from sweet to savoury with aplomb. “For me he’s probably one of the most talented chefs, in the way he thinks. The staff love him, and he’s a foodie through and through,” said Kirton.
When Margot Janse resigned from Le Quartier Francais in Franschhoek, Kirton was approached by the Leeu Collection and La Petite Colombe came into being. It has since moved to Leeu Estates where it continues to wow diners. Protégé and Epice followed in the winelands town, all with chefs of long standing in the group.
On December 24, 2021, PIER and The Waterside opened at the V&A Waterfront, bringing with them the continuity of fine dining experiences, with a harbour view. Roxy Mudie, whom Kirton describes as a “bubble of energy, her positivity is something special; she always has a smile on her face no matter what”, heads The Waterside, and John Norris-Rogers, previously of La Petite Colombe, brings his flair to PIER. To put all the chefs in a row, Charné Sampson is at Epice, Peter Duncan at La Petite Colombe, Zane Soutar is at Protégé, and James Gaag, Kirton’s business partner, at La Colombe, arguably the flagship of the group. Glen Williams is still at Foxcroft, good for him.
For some people, five wildly successful restaurants would perhaps be enough. Why more, Scot? “Honestly, I get a little bit bored at times, whenever everything’s running too smoothly,” he said. “Now I’ve stepped back, I don’t have that thrill of running service every day and I miss that. I found that opening restaurants, and looking at that finished product, gives me so much pride and joy. Then watching the guys do so well… It gives me what I’m missing in life. Opening two at once, I think did take its toll on me,” he admitted. “This is it now!”
Yes, sure, whatever you say. We’ll check in again in a year or so.
Kirton and Gaag had been in talks with the Waterfront for about four years, and viewed various sites. None was quite right though, to do the brand justice. “If you’re going to the Waterfront there’s only one view and that’s on the water,” said Kirton. “This is in a quieter spot – although the Waterfront is never really quiet. For me there is nothing better than sitting there and watching the boats, people getting on and off…it’s calming.”
The site was a bit too big, which led to the idea of splitting it in two. A new kitchen was installed upstairs, and the downstairs one redone. This made it more controlled. “We’re not very good at doing big 120-seater restaurants. PIER is our smallest, it seats about 40 max. Waterside seats 40 but we can squeeze a few more on the deck,” said Kirton.
All of this would have happened much sooner; the lease was in hand but unsigned at the beginning of lockdown. It all worked out in the end, however. Building began in September 2021 and the restaurants opened in time for the peak season.
PIER is a multi-course theatrical fine dining experience, said Kirton, a special occasion restaurant where you’ll blow the budget, no expense spared. “Waterside is equally flavoursome food, still fine dining but a smaller menu and there’s a choice of dishes,” he explained, “where you don’t need to set aside three and a half hours.”
Um, I think we took five for our magnificent lunch at PIER but in our defence we are friends who haven’t seen each other for years and there was so much to talk about between oohing and aahing at every beautiful course, presentation, and engagement with John who came out to do our tableside dishes, as well as other staff members who filled our wine glasses, described the food, and precisely placed our utensils on the pristine white cloth of our window table.
There has been some debate between Gaag, Kirton and Norris-Rogers about whether this is a meal to be taken leisurely, or at a faster clip. Gaag is of the opinion that if you eat slowly, you begin digesting before you finish your meal and therefore feel fuller sooner. It makes sense: you’re always told to eat more slowly to feel full and therefore promote weight loss. That’s the theory anyway. Personally, I prefer to take my time at these restaurants, to appreciate the effort, the flavours, the whole package.
Plus one needs to photograph one’s food (we’ve used the professional pics here but I’ll post some of mine on Instagram, and perhaps a video or two). So yes, five hours. And I didn’t need dinner.
The full menu is 11 courses, which sounds daunting. Interestingly enough, taken at my sedate pace, it did not leave me flagging by the time the red meat came out. This is not a coincidence. The menu leans towards seafood, and avoids dairy and starch (bread course notwithstanding).
“From an ingredients point of view, being so close to the harbour and the ocean, we felt quite naturally drawn to having quite a seafood-heavy menu,” said Norris-Rogers. “We’re taking full advantage of where we are and the space itself.”
The meal begins with teeny tiny cones of salmon with horseradish and dill, and teeny tiny chicken liver tarts with springbok and truffle with even teenier tinier garnishes.
Due to a pesky allergy I could not partake of the oyster course or the later mussels with Black Forest ham, but was served two dishes from the vegetarian menu instead, one being the smoked onion risotto with olives and goat’s cheese which indicated non meat eaters are going to have just as good a time as anyone else.
In terms of flavours, the menu gets off to a classical start, said Norris-Rogers. “We ramp that up as the meal progresses, introducing Asian and Thai flavours. There’s a little bit of Japanese influence there as well. I think we’ve got a lot of punchy flavours from that in the middle of the menu.” These include tuna with tiger’s milk and furikake, a wonderfully heady seasoning filled with crunchiness and umami; and pork jowl with crayfish and coconut.
After a dramatic palate cleanser, comes the red meat course; we had Karoo lamb with aubergine, harissa and pomegranate, which is now on the reduced lunch special menu – fewer courses, less money, and probably less of a chunk out your day.
It can be around this time that the belly begins to take strain and you feel the onset of a food coma. This didn’t happen at PIER. “I think the seafood makes it lighter,” said Norris-Rogers. “We’re making a point of not making it too heavy too early, so you’re waiting for it to end rather than enjoying it. The cheese and dessert must also be showcased.”
And quite rightly so. I normally ask for my sweet course to come before the cheese but so caught up in conversation were we that we forgot. The cheese trolley has to be ordered at the beginning of the meal so they can prepare it for you. Here, there is but one note scribbled on the menu I took away with me: Karoo Sunset. “What the heck was that?” I asked myself, because apparently even making a note does little to improve my memory. Fortunately, before I had to Google, I remembered it was one of the cheeses I chose, and clearly a jolly fine one. The course includes breads and lavash, pickles and preserves. Oh! That reminds me (memory) – the bread course near the beginning features smokey bone marrow butter… that looks like a bone. How cunning.
The penultimate course is a medley of stone fruit and tea flavours like chamomile and bergamot, offset with a salted honey biscuit for balance and texture. Of course, there’s always something more at the very end, the intriguingly named “sea salt”. I’ll leave that for you to discover.
“We want this to be something special, a unique experience so people look forward to the next booking,” said Norris-Rogers. “We want to push the limits to create something you can’t get anywhere else, and we have an incredible team to work with and that’s a bonus.”
And that’s another thing about all these La Colombe people – they’re all so darn nice to each other, and about each other. Call me crazy, but I do think that attitude filters down through every level and becomes part of the ultimate prize for us diners. DM/TGIFood
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Follow Bianca on Instagram @biancaleecoleman
The writer supports The Gift of the Givers Foundation, the largest disaster response, non-governmental organisation of African origin on the African continent.
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