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Restaurant review: Upper Bloem

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Upper Bloem Restaurant is genuinely special. The food is elegant and delicious; the food story is intelligently told. This is a restaurant that enriches the diner’s experience of being in Cape Town – whether resident or tourist.

Try this mouthful: pickled aubergine and caramelized onion served in a baby onion shell. The dish smokes at the table. It smells like the coals used for braaiing kebabs on the Bo-Kaap streets. The edges of the onion are charred. The spices are reminiscent of bobotie; the aubergine is velvety-smooth; the caramelized onion is chutney-sweet. A single pomegranate jewel pops on the tongue; a dab of goats’ milk yoghurt calms the whole.

Upper Bloem is inspired by head chef Andre Hill’s childhood in the Bo-Kaap; specifically Upper Bloem Street, where he lived. But Upper Bloem Restaurant goes beyond biryanis and bredies: Hill and chef patron Henry Vigar have developed a menu that embraces the British Sunday roast, Dutch street food and Persian feast dishes. The menu also links the Bo-Kaap to the coast, with seaweed butter and smoked snoek pâté. Eating at Upper Bloem takes you back a hundred years, to the formative years of Cape Town cuisine.

Chef patron Henry Vigar told me Upper Bloem wanted to do something different with the concept of terroir. “Wine farms can offer a terroir experience with ingredients grown right there on the farm,” he said. “We want to offer a terroir experience in an urban environment.”

Upper Bloem serves six sharing plates for lunch and nine for dinner. The dishes arrive in three “waves”. Wine pairing is optional, as are the bread board and desserts.

On the bread board, the garlic roti is buttery and flaky like the Cape Town flatbread you’d use for a salomie, not like a chewy Indian roti. The garlic is an evocative addition; it recreates the taste of garlic bread off the braai. The teriyaki glaze, piped around the exquisitely balanced snoek pâté, adds an Asian edge while referencing South Africa’s favourite sweet-and-sour peach chutney. The samoosa crisp is flour-dusted. The whole fennel seeds in the crisp bring to mind Indian after-dinner sweets.

Boerenkaas croquettes
Boerenkaas croquettes with apple puree, teriyaki glaze and shaved radish.

The Boerenkaas croquettes are masterfully cooked. This is one of the dishes that gives the small plates menu here a global feel. The croquettes reference not only tapas, but also Dutch cheese and apples.

Upper Bloem Restaurant’s is seasonally inspired. One of the dishes in the second “wave” utterly transformed one of our humblest winter staples. The roasted butternut with coconut “soup” and roasted seeds tasted like beef fillet and gravy. This magic was likely achieved by very low, very slow roasting of the butternut. The crunchy, oily seeds worked like roasted meat fat and the coconut was seasoned so as to enhance the richness of the “soup” while pushing back the sweetness.

The beef carpaccio, served alongside the butternut, tasted like a cross between an Italian starter and a roast beef dinner. The pickled mushrooms lent a Mediterranean lemony-ness to the dish. They pickles also tricked me into tasting horseradish in the roasted beef mayonnaise.

Vigar is an extremely accomplished, British-born chef. He has been chef patron at La Mouette in Sea Point for eight years. He chuckled when I told him I could taste English roast dinners in the Upper Bloem menu.

Vigar is inspired by his collaboration with Hill, who joined him at La Mouette as a sous chef in 2013. Hill was “a young, exceptional Cape Town local”. Last year, Vigar invited Hill to co-create and co-own Upper Bloem.

On the Upper Bloem menu, Hill is quoted as saying that what he’s cooking now “feels like coming home”. He hopes that “what we’re doing will make other chefs from Cape Town proud of their food and their abilities”.

Hill and Vigar agree it’s their “vastly different backgrounds” that makes “their culinary co-creations so interesting”.

The lamb neck biryani is a masterclass in how to honour heritage. The Persian origin of the dish is evident in the jeweled appearance of the dish: the ruby pomegranate seeds; the emerald-hued curry leaves; the golden, deep-fried onion petals and soil of candied black rice. At first glance, this is a feasting dish; a dish fit for royalty. But hidden beneath the rice and spice mix is a surprise: lamb neck. This is a humble cut. The way the meat is cooked makes it tender, glossy and deep with flavour.
This is how Upper Bloem brings history and comfort together. Each of the sharing plates here is confident, intelligent and authentic. This establishment is bound to become a standard-setter for heritage food and regional cuisine.

For dessert, there’s a choice of frozen naartjie curd with curry leaves – a charming, looky-likey dish – “koe-sisters” with coffee cream and caramelia apple and nut clusters.

Hill and Vigar admit to evoking “nostalgia”, but there is nothing old-fashioned about Upper Bloem Restaurant.

The décor is modern and colourful: the chairs and benches are upholstered in shades of turmeric and nutmeg. The pastel blue in the colour scheme pops like Bo-Kaap house paint. The tiled walls resemble the patterned hallway floors of Victorian homes. The crockery is handmade – the jade glaze on brown clay makes the plates look like river stones.

The diners here were anything but fuddy-duddy. Our fellow patrons were food enthusiasts. They’d have to be. It was raining out, on a cold Wednesday at noon.

One woman strode in alone. “I’ve seen so much about this place on Instragram,” she gushed. “I had to try it.” Later, her eating companion entered in a pair of voluminous African print trousers and a bubblegum pink beanie.

Another pair consisted of a photo-taking lady with an “it” fringe and a man with a egg-beater tattooed on his forearm.

Two older ladies sat quietly in the strip of seating opposite the open-plan kitchen that reminded me of New York restaurants. They reminded me of New Yorkers too, in their woollen coats, with their good handbags.

The table alongside us were restaurant industry types. They gushed to chef Vigar about the triple-cooked potatoes served in curry sauce. This dish, served alongside the biryani, is another example of a successful culinary mash-up: this time, roast potatoes and homely potato curry are the inspiration. The curry is elevated by the addition of Muizenberg sour figs and burnt chard.

The service staff were warm and friendly: homely, in a word. The manager set the tone with her efficient, motherly air. The staff’s lack of pretension was refreshing. Everyone who served us was knowledgable but unobtrusive. It’s important, when there are six dishes, to let the food do the talking. No-one wants to be robbed of their dinner conversation time by an over-wordy waiter.

Having chef Henry Vigar visit the tables after lunch firmly established the homely atmosphere. All the patrons seemed to welcome the opportunity to chat. I can imagine that for tourists having their meal bookended by a welcome from the manager and a chat from the chef would remind them of the human stories behind their food.

Vegetarians are accommodated here. My companion’s snoek pâté was replaced by a pumpkin pâté that was flavoured like a samosa filling. Instead of the beef carpaccio, she had a pickled mushroom dish served on Asian crackers. Roasted cauliflower was substituted for lamb neck in her biryani.

The wine list is confidently short. The nine-plate dinner may be paired with a trio of wines and a dessert wine. Wine is sold by the glass. The portion is generous, served in a carafe. A request for a jug of tap water with lemon was not refused. Nonetheless, the wine-per-glass is relatively expensive at an average of R100. That’s not steep in fine dining terms, but it looks it when the winter lunch special offers five exceptional plates for R195.

Upper Bloem Restaurant: 65 Main Road, Green Point; (021) 433-1442; reservations@ubrestaurant.co.za: www.ubrestaurant.co.za

  • 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.

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