TGIFOOD

STELLAR GAINS

The Stellenbosch food and wine scene is booming with new restaurants and wine bars

The Stellenbosch food and wine scene is booming with new restaurants and wine bars
Potato roosterkoek with whipped butters at Post & Pepper. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

It’s been a successful summer for Stellenbosch. Restaurants are opening on almost every corner, interspersed with wine bars which serve as extensions to their estates. Hot sunny days blend into balmy evenings as pavement tables filled with happy patrons, and if you can find a parking spot – take it.

It’s almost surreal, like the past two years didn’t happen – and it’s been almost exactly two years since we first went into hard lockdown and the world collapsed around us. Walking around the streets of Stellenbosch, it appeared masks were purely optional, long before this week’s announcement that they are no longer required outdoors. There’s a high season vibe with busy restaurants and bars, some even with queues waiting for a seat, and in some places you have to walk in the road because the pavement is crammed with tables. Social distancing is a vague concept which once existed. It all feels so… normal. Good too, as in how quickly we all seem to have bounced back from adversity, with a restaurant industry which was in ruins rising from the ashes stronger than ever.

There’s traffic congestion and a parking nightmare too, so if you see an open spot, take it immediately, even if it means walking a few blocks. It will be quicker.

But we’re not here to complain today. We’re here to talk about some of the newest restaurants in Stellenbosch, which have opened in the past three months at the most, some more recently.

On the corner of Plein and Bird streets, housed in what was once the post office, is Post & Pepper. It was my first stop and after circling the blocks at a snail’s pace I took my own advice and parked in the first place I saw. I was at an advantage, knowing where I was going, though chef-patron Jess van Dyk, previously at La Colombe and head chef at Protégé in Franschhoek, had initially thought the location was somewhere else, and hesitated to view the premises.

Chef Jessica van Dyk of Post & Pepper. (Photo: Claire Gunn Photography)

“There was not a lot on the market and I had no Stellenbosch contacts,” she said. “I thought this corner was somewhere else, and didn’t realise how central it is. It’s also much bigger and the rent was more than anticipated, so in my head the location wasn’t ideal. 

“But there was nothing else. My dad said ‘go look, you never know’. I didn’t think much of the outside but when I walked in, the windows, the light, the original little red bricks, I quite liked it, and straight away knew there could be a feature bar and open kitchen.”

Van Dyk thought it was too big and too expensive, but two weeks later she came back to look at it again, and it “kinda stuck”. A whirlwind of landlords, contracts and negotiations followed and 10 days after that, she signed the lease.

Post & Pepper is located in what was once the post office in Stellenbosch. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

Everything inside was built from scratch in the empty space, and Post & Pepper opened mid-mid-February 2022. With all the interior design and construction, the menu was almost an afterthought. Van Dyk was accustomed to regularly changing menus and coming up with new dishes.

“I wrote down some ideas of what I felt like eating at the time, but I kept leaving the book at home,” she said. In December 2021 she got serious, but didn’t tweak her original recipes much; those she did were only changed once. “They are dishes I really enjoy cooking and eating,” she said. “There are mushrooms because they were in the fridge that day. I want to serve food people could probably make themselves at home but it’s a bit too much effort.”

For example, the absolute decadence of deep fried mac ’n cheese (smoked Stanford and Cheddar) topped with pulled smoked short rib and finished with pickled mustard seeds and Parmesan velouté.

The tiny menu represents a family style sharing approach to dining, said manager Dimitri Hadzigrigoriou, who joined Van Dyk from their previous place of employment. “Jess and myself grew up that way, me being half Greek with everything in the middle of the table and Jess too – whenever they went to a restaurant they’d order two or three dishes and share, before it was trendy.”

There are 12 dishes including dessert, mine being a choux bun the size of a cricket ball when I was expecting a pool ball at the most (not a swimming pool, the other kind) with caramelised white chocolate and strawberries, and yet it had to be considered at the beginning of the meal. Van Dyk is always generous with her food and even though I didn’t order it, she sent out the potato roosterkoek with whipped butters – chicken curry flavoured, and beurre noisette. Look, I can tell you how freaking awesome that brown butter was, but you really should taste it for yourself. 

One of chef Jess van Dyk’s favourite dishes is the smoked springbok with duck liver parfait. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

The smoked springbok with duck liver parfait, onion marmalade, beetroot and hazelnuts is one of Van Dyk’s favourite dishes, and vegetarians will love the chipotle roasted mushrooms with white bean hummus, broccoli and almonds. Five to seven dishes to share between two normal people is going to be more than ample.

“I like food to be food – hearty, that kind of thing. That’s what food is to me; a sense of family and a sense of home. I just want to make people happy by giving them good, beautiful, delicious food,” said Van Dyk.

For more information on Post & Pepper, click here.

My next stop was Rykaart’s on the corner of Bird and Dorp streets, which opened in November 2021. It’s owned and run by Alex and Ella Rykaart; he’s the chef, she is front of house in the evenings (holding down a day job at Postcard Café at Stark-Condé wines in Jonkershoek).

The small 40-seater restaurant has a glass front which lets in all the light, and Alex can see every table from the pass. “The best thing that’s happening is the local support. It’s incredible,” he said. “Last night out of 34 diners, 32 were local.”

Chef patron Alex Rykaart of Rykaart’s. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

That local support comes too from Stellenbosch chefs like Bertus Basson, George Jardine and Jess van Dyk. We’re always told to choose Chinese restaurants where Chinese people eat, for example, so why not apply this to a Stellenbosch restaurant? Eat where chefs eat.

From Pretoria and a false start in medicine, Alex got into cheffing when he was 24. He’s worked at Bread & Wine with Neil Jewell, Le Quartier Francais with Margot Janse, Burrata and Open Door with Neil Grant, and Glenelly’s The Vine Bistro with Christophe Dehosse. Along with a stint at three-Michelin starred Manresa, in Los Gatos, California, it’s safe to say the man knows his way around a kitchen. Then Alex reached a ceiling. “When I’m 50 do I still want to be working for a boss? Absolutely not,” he said. At this point, the other option is start your own business. He hemmed and hawed, until Ella said “stop it. You’re going to start your own place and I’m going to do it with you”. She keeps me sane, said Alex. 

“We did the place on a tight budget, the whole point being we wanted to make it feel like a home away from home.” All the art is from Ella’s mom, Arabella Caccia; there is furniture from their home, and they painted all their chairs themselves.

It was scary and exciting and the right thing to do. “Being a team is great,” said Alex. “We put our minds together; we’re quite clever people and we decided what we want to do with this place and put everything into it.”

At Rykaart’s you’ll find an extensive and carefully considered wine list, something which is very important to Alex. You can tell when you see that the wine list has a heading which says “Interesting Whites Varietals”. Food goes from snacks to small plates to main courses to dessert, and the menu changes often. Five times in three months, admitted Alex. The website won’t always be updated but that’s part of the fun. It’s like the old days, when you didn’t know what to expect until you sat down at your table, instead of Googling before you go. “I generally cook what I’m in the mood for,” said Alex. It will always be held up by what he calls his strong French backbone, and techniques.

Simple and delicious ‘snacks’ at Rykaart’s. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

I had pan con tomate – bread with tomato. It’s a piece of bread, rubbed with garlic, fried in olive oil with tomato grated on top, and anchovies. Love it. “It sounds simple but the sourdough must be perfect, you don’t need to put too much garlic on it, and my tomatoes are aged for at least a week,” said Alex. 

I also had gougères – savoury profiteroles – filled with 12 month matured Klein River Gruberg. I’d go back just for these two snacks and a glass of wine. I also had the beef cheek roll, a version of the Vietnamese bánh mì, with pickles and jalapeño mayo, and nuoc cham on the side for dipping – fish sauce, lemon juice, garlic, lemon grass, little bit of chilli, a little bit of sugar. The whole thing is a play on a French dip sandwich, a combination Alex drew inspiration from in Vietnam and America.

For more information on Rykaart’s, click here.

On the corner of Church and Ryneveld is the new Meraki, open for about a month or so now. It’s owned by Corlandi Bezuidenhout who opened her first café 10 years ago. It was tiny, seating only 14 people inside. Later, she bought the adjoining building and expanded to seat 60. There was also a successful bakery, Blos. And then came the C-word. “We had to close overnight,” said Corlandi sadly. But then her husband André found the new premises. Corlandi was not impressed. How on earth did André think they could turn this long narrow space into a functional restaurant? But as much as she resisted, André persisted and the result is a restaurant that can seat 90, and in a serendipitous twist, only 14 of those can sit at an inside table.

Caesar salad and a glass of Bertha rosé for a light lunch at Meraki. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

“It’s a miracle to say the least, and we’re so grateful for the response,” said Corlandi.

The name Meraki comes from the Greek, one of those words that has no direct translation into English, but is used to describe doing something with soul, creativity, or love – when you put “something of yourself” into what you’re doing, whatever it may be. 

“And give of yourself, to put a bit of you in this,” said Corlandi. “Starting out at 23-24 years old, I found it very apt. I am Afrikaans speaking and I adore my language and I wanted an Afrikaans name for my cafe being in Stellenbosch and so on but I just couldn’t find one that sat well with me.” 

One of Meraki’s most famous and most popular cakes – coconut cake. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

She researched synonyms, and found these untranslatable words, and added her slogan “with love and passion” but in Afrikaans, “liefde en passie”.

Blos bakery long ago outgrew its space and relocated to the family farm, Weltevreden. There too is Corlandi’s other business, Marnella Art du Macaron, and five hectares where André is growing grapes to make wine. The Bertha range is available at the wine bar which is part of Meraki, along with other exclusive small allocation wines and a small evening menu. During the day, from early morning to 4pm – breakfasts, bagels and croissants, burgers and salads, and of course the cakes for which Blos is so famous. I recommend the coconut cake. “There is nothing as beautiful as a cup of Earl Grey tea, or coffee, and a slice of moist delicious cake,” said Corlandi.

For more information on Meraki’s, click here and here.

My final destination was Hygge Hygge in Church Street and not on a corner. It’s also not the newest, having opened in April 2021. Hygge is also directly untranslatable, a “Danish and Norwegian word for a mood of cosiness and comfortable conviviality with feelings of wellness and contentment”. Apparently the correct pronunciation is like those old fashioned car horns but us South Africans are too self conscious for that, so English and Afrikaans variations on how we think it should be said are quite acceptable said co-owner Melissa Crous.

Hygge Hygge – you can pronounce it any way you like. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

So not new, but often recommended so I had to see it for myself. On Sundays, they only do breakfasts, from opening to closing at 2pm. And boy, do they turn tables. The food flies out of the tiny kitchen, the coffee is fast and there are bottomless Mimosas between 10am and 2pm (on Fridays and Saturdays too).

Crous is in partnership with her sister Carmen Möller, who opened Eten Health Bar in the De Wet Centre across the road in 2020. These women are clearly fearless. “I lived in Cape Town for 10 years, and was in PR,” said Crous. “Carmen came to me and said she wanted to open a café and she couldn’t do it on her own, she needed someone to help her. I have the business sense and she has the dream and the passion for the food and does the menus. She designed the shop too. I do the daily running operations.”

With Eten being all healthy with bowls and smoothies, Hygge Hygge is light on the meat. The small kitchen plays a part in this, with space practicalities and cooking smells. “Smoked salmon is the only fish we do,” said Crous. “There are not that many fully vegan restaurants in Stellenbosch and we didn’t want to be the vegan place, but social media made us that,” she laughed. “All the vegans were posting about us, so it wasn’t a conscious decision. “We want everyone to feel at home, regardless of your race or culture or background or your eating habits. If you want your bacon, have your bacon!” (It’s available as an extra side.)

The Brekkie In A Bun at Hygge Hygge, which serves all-day breakfast on Sundays. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

Breakfast options include an Avo Rose Toastie, bright beetroot hummus against the cool green of avo; eggs Benedict; omelettes; a smoothie bowl, and the good old fashioned bacon, eggs and toast. I had Brekkie In A Bun – eggs my way (soft poached), roasted tomatoes, mushrooms and sweet potato fries with harissa mayo. In my opinion, breakfast fries are the mark of true ambition. I could have had bacon but I didn’t. It was just right without. DM/TGIFood

For more information on Hygge Hygge, click here.

Follow Bianca Coleman 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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