Arriving at Chefs Warehouse, on the Beau Constantia wine estate, one can’t help wondering if the food will be good enough to take centre-stage. The views from up here, over vineyards at the top of Constantia valley, are jaw-dropping. The restaurant itself makes a serious design statement with all its glass and boxy modernity.
Ivor Jones’s food delivers. Boy, does it deliver. This was the first thing I ate: Saldanha Bay oysters with “Flavours from the Garden”. The oysters were topped with chilli threads, chopped jalapeno, vegetable shoots and paprika oil. The sweetness Jones draws out from the oyster meat is astonishing.
Along with the oysters: some bread, butter and olives. The potato bread from Woodstock Bakery was lightly grilled. It tasted of smoke and very good olive oil, sparingly daubed. The green and black olives were picked on the grounds and marinated using herbs from the kitchen garden. Two fat roasted garlic cloves nestled among the olives. A ribbon of handmade butter was stood on end in a dish of rosemary oil.
That was just for starters. Jones serves a set menu of nine tapas plates for two. These are served as three courses. Overall, the flavours were punchy: chunks of blood orange with springbok; black garlic emulsion with steak tartare; silver fish with a Thai sour curry of fermented lime and paneer.
But is it tapas?
I think it’s better. Ivor Jones is capable of magic. His beef tartare, with its horseradish and butter-roasted chestnut, evokes the comfort of steak and kidney pie – the rich, sweet meatiness and the buttery depth – while adding the sophistication of soft, raw meat.
The emerald-green apple and stracciatella salad served alongside his ham hock “pie” plays on the pork-apple marriage. Here, though, the apple salad is extra tangy; the pie filling is extra rich.
Eating the parmesan risotto, with its topping of walnut cream and its drizzle of raisin and salted lemon beurre noisette, is like eating warm, savoury chocolate.
His smoked cassia bark ice cream concentrates the spicy, sugary creaminess of fete day pancakes.
Although Jones references tapas with a corn mayo here, a paratha there and an aged goats cheese somewhere else, this needs to be firmly stated: the former head chef of The Test Kitchen is not serving up little plates of strong cheese, cured meat and potato croquetas.
In Cape Town, do we even know what tapas means? Tapas plates are essentially real food equivalents of biltong and crisps. Traditionally, tapas plates feature strong-tasting tidbits like chorizo and anchovies. Tapas plates can be roughly salty, cringingly sour or sweaty-hot. Tapas are served when the sun’s still out, alongside a cold beer. In Spain, tapas plates do not constitute lunch or dinner.
Yet there are tapas restaurants all over town here, and many of them are serving highly refined, expensive meals. Chef’s Warehouse, Beau Constantia and Luke Dale-Roberts and Frederico Dias’s Pot Luck Club are two of Cape Town’s top tapas restaurants.
Sharing plates are a good fit for Capetonians and holidaymakers. We like the informality and we like the opportunity to have multiple parties in our mouths. A tapas menu can be fun for chefs too. It means they can change the menu according to season and mood. Tapas, as a kind of culinary montage, creates the opportunity to experiment, and to be expressive.
The confusing thing is, Jones is too good. His food eats like five-star food. His dishes are not only balanced; they’re not only technically faultless; words like “symphony” and “art” spring to mind. There’s nothing casual about the ten chefs in the kitchen alongside him either. Indeed, Chef’s Warehouse at Beau Constantia is currently rated by Eat Out as South Africa’s fourth best fine dining restaurant.
So if Jones’s food is “fine” must he drop the tapas vibe? Does that mean the service here should be less friendly? Should meals no longer be served at the high table, the communal one with the glorified bar stools? Does it mean Pot Luck Club shouldn’t reference street food?
I’m not sure. If our most creative and accomplished chefs favour the freedom of “tapas” – as they themselves have styled it – why change? And if the unstuffiness works for local and visiting restaurant-goers, why not?
Personally, I felt that the small-plate format was holding Jones back. Individually, the dishes went beyond expectations, but the sequencing of the dishes, and the sheer number of them, resulted in some palate fatigue.
A chef like Jones might hone his vision if he limited himself to three or five courses. This would not only mark out his seniority in the industry, it might – ironically – give him greater freedom to tell his own culinary stories.
The wine list here is dominated by Beau Constantia blends, all of which are available by the glass. Pairing advice is offered by the waiting staff, who are also happy to supply tasters.
The cost of “Tapas for 2”, served at lunchtime and dinnertime, is R800 for eight plates. Starters and mains are separately priced, and also average R100 a plate.
Chefs Warehouse, Beau Constantia: 1043 Constantia Main Road, Glen Alpine, Constantia; (021) 794-8632; email@example.com; www.beauconstantia.com
- 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. She is currently completing a novel.