Tim James: Fine dining and wining out, or, saving restaurants one meal at a time

By , 5 October 2020

The pandemic has its obscure upside for diners-out. While sorely regretting the permanent loss of some restaurants (and hoping more will hold on), there is, happily, the duty to support those that are surviving. And drinking wine too – the more the better – is a material gesture of solidarity to wine-producers. For the luxurious classes, the greatest luxury is, of course, to feel moral; that’s a little part of the iniquitous economic theory that tax breaks for the rich will trickle down to everyone else. So what could be better for the greedy than to be self-indulgent and feel virtuous about it?

I’ve been giving it a reasonable go, ever since the rules were sufficiently loosened for me to grab a book or a friend (and a mask, of course) and head out to do my bit in helping to save a few Cape Town and winelands restaurants. (I did once, during hard lockdown, order an absurdly expensive meal for two, from La Colombe, and very fine it was – and see Daisy Jones’s enthusiastic account of her experience) – but it mostly made me realise that a vitally important part of a good restaurant meal is … a restaurant, and being properly served the fine food, properly arranged on something other than polystyrene or cardboard.)

So, lunch called, at least for as long as evening restaurant meals had to start about 6pm and end a few hours later. But there was no wine allowed to be served for my early venturings out – and, naïve as I am, I hadn’t realised that I should have decanted proper stuff into a BYO bottle proudly labelled “dealcoholized wine”. My first such lunch was at The Foodbarn at Noordhoek, one of my favourite restaurants and for now transformed into a Café-style eatery during the day, with not too many options, and a tapas diner in the evening. I had a truly splendid half-Wagyu beef hamburger with, as they say, all the trimmings – and Franck Dangereux’s trimmings are marvellous. I should have had the same thing when I went back some weeks later, but the calamari salad was pretty nice, and at least I could have a beer with it by then.

Fast forward to the last days in Level 2, when I spent a few days in Franschhoek. And realised fully just how dependent the town is on tourists – preferably rich foreign ones. Many restaurants were closed completely (I hope not permanently), a few offering only lunch during the week, but many others opening for lunch in the latter part of the week and for dinner only on the weekend. On a cold rainy day I went for lunch to Café BonBon on the Petite Dauphine estate (which looked really beautiful and French in the rain), found a table near the fire and, once I’d got an extra chair-cushion to enable me to reach the table, felt pretty happy. Till I looked at the winelist. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a pathetic thing in my dining-out life. I remember noting one unappealing wine by the glass, three dealcoholized things and a dozen or so wines that I had no real wish to bring to my lips. I’m not even sure if there was anything at all from Franschhoek. How can this lack of vinous imagination, knowledge and sophistication be, I wonder, at a charming venue, with rather good food? I drank water.

I’d particularly wanted to eat at one of my favourite Cape restaurants, Foliage (a name which the person who answered the phone insisted on pronouncing as though it were a French word, which it’s not), and managed on my last day, a Thursday. We were the only lunchers, so possibly the restaurant regretted opening at all that day. It was fascinating and/or delicious food (a rather weird carroty starter fell into the first category). I was with Gottfried Mocke from Boekenhoutskloof and his assistant, Eben Meiring, so we brought our own wine – leftovers from the morning’s tasting of forthcoming releases (released when, exactly, is not yet clear, perhaps as far off as ProWein next year) – and had a great time with those.

Actually, bringing-my-own is generally something I’m avoiding at present, to up the moral quotient: I don’t like restaurants relying too much on hefty mark-ups for current releases and prefer paying corkage for my own when possible, but, well, they need all the help they can get right now, so I’m adding more to my sense of virtue in eating their food by also drinking their expensive wine. Except at Café BonBon, of course.

The kitchen counter at Fyn.

When I first ate at Fyn, in central Cape Town, just over a year ago, I reported grumpily on this website about their hefty wine mark-ups (while exulting over the food), though I’d been willing to pay the R150 corkage charge on each of my two bottles for dinner. When I went there last Friday – for undoubtedly my food highlight of the Covid period – we were happy to pay R400 for a bottle of Saurwein Chi Riesling 2018 (so in fact the restaurant was probably making as much money as if I’d paid the same corkage of a year ago). The wine was a perfect choice, in fact (it’s not on the list, but I’d seen it there before and, lo and behold, it appeared when I asked). Arguably the Cape’s best dry riesling, it went brilliantly with most of the brilliant food.

An extremely pricey affair all round, of course, but how gratifying to justify the extravagance by ascribing it to my noble generosity in supporting the needy Cape Town restaurant scene. I’ll see you somewhere soon.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013

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