The Bistro @ Klein Constantia
By Daisy Jones, 2 February 2021
As we drove into a dip at Klein Constantia, not far from the farm buildings, a large Steppe Buzzard rose from a fence post. It glided briefly in the air, giving us a view of its rusty brown markings and creamy wing feathers.
The buzzard settled again not far from the road. This was a bird as big as a cat, a mighty raptor. It stared at us as we passed, all-black eyes and sharp-tipped beak.
Of course, it’s powerful. It flies across the world from Europe every year. Why it was so confident I don’t know. Maybe no-one told the bird it was in a city. It might have thought it was in the countryside. Klein Constantia does occupy 146 hectares.
It was fitting to see a Steppe Buzzard here. There is a very strong European connection at Klein Constantia. Europe has loved Vin de Constance, Klein Constantia’s world-famous sweet wine, for centuries.
In turn, The Bistro @ Klein Constantia is heavily influenced by food of the French and Italian countryside. Apparently Chef Graham Davies “has traveled extensively throughout Europe, where he loves the attention to detail, the strong artisanal culture and the incredible fresh produce of the local markets”. Davies interned for Luke Dale-Roberts at La Colombe; he spent years private-cheffing in Europe and at home. Having said that, Davies’ food is like drinking the Klein Constantia Sauvignon Blanc. You don’t need to know a thing about anything to know it’s delicious. I had two teenage girls with me and they were in raptures.
The three of us had different favourites. My daughter adored the tomato risotto with parmesan and pepper. Her friend was mad for the crumbed mozzarella balls with roasted chilli jam. I was blown away by the beetroot and goats’ cheese terrine.
Terrine. There’s a word you don’t see every day. Traditional French terrines are made with “forcemeat” – chopped-up fat and flesh – and aspic: that’s meat jelly. Layers of ingredients are pressed together and set, then turned out to be sliced.
Terrines make good use of the leftover bits of the animal. Terrines can be exquisite – dense, meaty, impossibly rich – and they can be as frumpy, lumpy and disappointing as a badly-chosen picnic spot on a grey day. Last month, Davies added a vegetarian terrine to his lunch. A vegetarian terrine? It is a thing of wonder.
First, the colour of the dish: shocking red; bright white and emerald. The tastes were just as punchy. The chèvre frais was impossibly creamy, with a hint of tartness. The beetroot was heaven: It had all the deep sweetness of cooked beetroot, while retaining the texture and tastes of freshness. The dressing for the leaves was vinegar-y, accenting the goatiness of the cheese. The honeyed pumpkin seeds emphasized the sweetness of the beetroot. Consider this dish a master class in creating a substantial, exciting and nourishing dish for a very hot day.
I was impressed to discover that the salad served with the bocconcini was very boldly dressed. The mesclun salad leaves tasted strongly of aged balsamic vinegar, olive oil and seasoning. The roasted chilli jam on the plate was intensely concentrated in flavour too. At first the oozy mozzarella tasted bland in comparison to the stronger tastes. The genius turned out to be the volume of mozzarella. The bocconcini were so generous with cheese, and the cheese was of such good quality, it balanced the jam and dressing.
The tomato risotto just tasted like a farm. It was incredible. Davies uses tomatoes from Big Green Egg and smokes them for this dish. The parmesan is Parmigiano-Reggiano. The black pepper crisps and feta crumble season the dish in a delicious way.
I ordered the frozen banana parfait because I was curious. It’s unusual these days to make a banana the hero of a sophisticated dessert. I associate bananas with banana splits, French toast and banana fritters. Maybe pancakes. Bananas are for the children’s menu.
Davies’ banana dessert was miles from cloying. The frozen parfait itself – its colour and texture reminiscent of halva – drew out the light creaminess and and natural sweetness of the banana. The oaty base kept the taste mellow. The lime cream added both depth and acidity. The lightly roasted banana slices with a thin layer of toffee on top were my favourite part. They tasted like the most luxurious toffee apples. There was the fairground crackle – except paper-thin, handmade – and it was smooth and creamy within. The toffee sauce was buttery and not over-sweet. Because it was homemade it tasted ever-so slightly smokey. And the Frenchest thing of all? The plate was a composition of greys and stone-browns. The only “pop of colour” was the cream. You’d expect a dessert comprising tastes of toffee, biscuit, banana and cream to take you back to your childhood. It was surprising how this dish managed to stay firmly in the sophisticated present.
It was the sorbets that made me feel like a child. The flavours were litchi, watermelon and pineapple. I didn’t expect to like them. I don’t love white sugar as a taste and I don’t like chewing ice. I’m not mad about litchi or pineapple. But these sorbets – especially when they had melted a little – found the perfect spot between fresh fruits and frozen lollies. They had none of the processed taste of lollies and all the natural balance of perfectly ripe fruit. They were cold and watery but with natural depth. I enjoyed them like an overheated child enjoys an Orange Maid on sports day or a cool slice of watermelon at a river.
My only criticism of the meal was that the bread for the bread course was dry. It worked, in a way. It gave centre stage to the delicious snoek pâté. The baby cucumbers tasted extra-fresh in contrast. The tomato and basil butter didn’t have to compete with strong tastes. I found it a little disappointing though. I adore bread. So does everyone in Europe. I see the logic of serving airy, slightly tasteless bread as a base. I see the logic but I don’t like it.
Service at The Bistro is smart, no-nonsense. The girls thought it verged on slightly aloof, which they loved. It was very Continental – very movie-like – they felt, to be endured by the waiter. The truth is he wasn’t disparaging in the least. He just wasn’t gushy in the least.
The prices at The Bistro do not reflect the quality. The two-course vegetarian lunch is R265 and the three-course, meat-lovers lunch is R445.
From today, it will be possible to enjoy Davies’ beautiful lunch with wine (your choice from the estate’s wine list, or a pairing, but no bring-your-own). Klein Constantia’s famous Sauvignon Blanc would be the obvious bottle for the table, but the farm’s rosé or bubbly might work equally well. A pairing would be interesting. The wine list features some “library” wines for buffs. The curated cheese platter is available until 4pm to pair with different vintages of Klein Constantia’s most famous, exceptional and historic wine: its sweet Vin de Constance.
The atmosphere under the jacarandas on the terrace at The Bistro is quietly sophisticated. The women at the long table with the gifts spoke softly. Ditto the men in the pastel-coloured linen shirts. There is no music at The Bistro. Children under 12 are not allowed. It’s lunch only. The Restaurant may be called The Bistro, but there’s nothing rough-and-tumble or family-friendly about it. The food is elegant and so is the ambience. C’est simple.
The Bistro @ Klein Constantia: 021 794 5188; 37 Klein Constantia Rd, Nova Constantia; Kleinconstantia.com/the-bistro/
- Daisy Jones has been writing reviews of Cape Town restaurants for ten years. She won The Sunday Times Cookbook of the Year for Starfish in 2014. She was shortlisted for the same prize in 2015 for Real Food, Healthy, Happy Children. Daisy has been a professional writer since 1995, when she started work at The Star newspaper as a court reporter.
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