“Wine enters through the mouth, Love, the eyes. I raise the glass to my mouth, I look at you, I sigh.” ― W.B. Yeats
My bride and I had many wonderful meals whilst we were on our honeymoon, but we were looking for something extra special. We asked the concierge at our hotel, the Cape Grace, for some suggestions. She mentioned several restaurants that sounded amazing, but one stood out above the rest. Unfortunately, she said that we probably would not be able to get a reservation, because it had been named one of the best restaurants in the world and there was a three to six-month wait for a table. However, she said she would try. Just in case, we made reservations at several other restaurants, just to cover our bets.
As we were leaving the bar one evening and the concierge stopped us and told us that we were in luck; we had reservations. We immediately told the concierge to cancel all the others, for we were going to have dinner at one of the 24 tables serving only 40 guests per night at the Test Kitchen (no affiliation with the television show, America’s Test Kitchen)!
The Test Kitchen is the brainchild of Chef Luke Dale-Roberts. Chef Luke is British-born and Swiss-trained. He débuted several restaurants in Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, and the Philippines for five years, before moving to Cape Town in 2006. Chef Luke won the title Chef of the Year at the 2011 Eat Out DStv Food Network Restaurant Awards, and The Test Kitchen won “Restaurant of the Year” at the Eat Out Mercedes-Benz Restaurant Awards in 2017. The Test Kitchen placed 22nd at The World’s Best Restaurant Awards, and it has been repeatedly named the best restaurant in Africa. We were clearly in for a treat!
Cape Town is presently in the midst of a severe three-year drought, in fact, it has been called the worst drought in over a century. Capetonians were living under the threat of “Day Zero”: The day when taps would stop working and everyone would have to undergo daily water rationing. Restaurants are still limiting guests to a single glass of water, using water from ice buckets to mop floors, and some have even added aerators to water taps that induce air and limit water flow. Fortunately, there has been a respite, as some rains have arrived recently, and the threat of rationing has been avoided.
The Test Kitchen has gone one step further. They re-branded the restaurant as The Drought Kitchen pop-up to show that fine dining can still be enjoyed when water use is minimized. Guests eat from custom plates made of disposable cards set into recyclable picture frames, so each dish is framed like a work of art.
The Drought Kitchen is located in Woodstock, a suburb not far from our hotel. The hotel’s cars were unavailable, so the concierge ordered us a taxi leaving in plenty of time for our 6:00 P.M. dinner reservation.
It was still rush hour, and the traffic was as horrific as you can imagine in any city of four million people. As the traffic crawled along, the taxi driver became more exasperated. He switched from lane to lane, and he turned on any street that appeared to open up. The more he became ensnarled in traffic, the more disconcerted he became. At one point I asked if we were close, and I suggested that we could get out and walk, as we were told that the restaurant was not far from our hotel. The driver did not answer and continued to drive, grumbling to no one in particular. I am very good with directions, but I had no clue where we were, and it was completely dark by this time. I did not want to disclose to Laurel that I had become very concerned that we were literally going to be taken for a ride… or worse.
Finally, more than 90 minutes after we began, and more than an hour past our reservation time, we pulled into the dark, non-descript parking lot of a retail shopping plaza. The driver ordered us out. Asking where we were, the driver said we had arrived, and he sped off, not even charging us for the fare.
The storefronts were closed, and no one was in the parking lot. Laurel and I took a lift to the only place we saw any lights. It was a restaurant, but it was not The Drought Kitchen. It turned out to be the sister restaurant, The Pot Luck Club, which is more like a pub, but they assured us that we were at least at the right shopping plaza. They directed us to the opposite end of the center. We looked at The Pot Luck Club’s menu, just in case, because by now we were ravenous.
At last, we had arrived at The Drought Kitchen, fully expecting to be turned away since we were now almost an hour and a half past our reservation time. However, the hostess greeted us very warmly, saying that they have been looking for us. Apparently, the hotel and the restaurant had been calling everyone they could think of looking for us, including local hospitals.
Walking through the Dark Room, so-called due to the reduced lighting in the comfortable bar area serving cocktails and canapés, the hostess seated us at the chef’s table overlooking the open-air kitchen stage of the artistically named Light Room, where we would soon observe the kitchen staff performing amazing feats of culinary magic. The hostess said that we looked like we could use a drink. Actually, we could have used several drinks. We began by quaffing a refreshing South African sparkling wine, and the tension began to melt away.
The Drought Kitchen’s menu is a fusion of all of Chef Luke’s influences, South African, Singaporean, Malay, South Korean, and English. The sommelier, Tinashe Nyamudoka, has put together an enviable wine list. We decided that we would have the multi-course, wine-paired dinner.
Chef Luke himself presented the first course of an amuse-bouche of South Africa Blesbok Tartare. Blesbok is a South African antelope. Chef Luke teased that he was happy we had finally arrived, and he hoped that dinner would be worth the wait. The Blesbok Tartare was paired with a 2015 Boekenhoutkloof Syrah (Platter’s ★★★★★, 16.5 – Jancis Robinson, and 92 points – Robert Parker, 14.00% alcohol) from South Africa’s Swartland in the Western Cape. The 2015 Boekenhoutkloof Syrah is fermented with the stems in concrete vats, then aged in concrete eggs and large wooden foudres, using techniques similar to those used in the Rhône Valley. Made from 100.00% Syrah grapes, it is a deep red-purple in color. Its nose is a floral bouquet, together with blackberry and raspberry fruit. This is a supremely elegant medium- to full-bodied wine. The palate is tannic, with crisp acidity balanced with spice, licorice, and dark plum. The wine is sophisticated with a sustained finish. This was the singularly the best Syrah we enjoyed whilst in South Africa!
Still savoring the first course, a server appeared with South African Bo-Kaap Slangetjies (a light cracker flavored with curry leaf and dotted crème fraîche), biltong of Wagyu beef cured with licorice and dried for a month. We used licorice sticks to pick up the slices of biltong. Korean Ssamjang vegetables (Ssamjang is a thick, spicy paste, and the vegetables are wrapped in a leaf) with marmite, and lamb XO dressing (commonly used in southern Chinese regional cuisine), with goat’s cheese and baba ghanoush (an eggplant dish common throughout the Middle East) rounded out this course.
Next up, a hot smoked trout, buckwheat blini, and watercress snow paired with a 2016 Iona One Man Band Sauvignon Blanc (Platter’s Guide ★★★★, 13.50% alcohol), 52.00% Sauvignon Blanc and 48.00% Sémillon grapes. This Sauvignon Blanc is aged 11 months in French oak. Its nose has distinct floral and white peach notes. The Iona farm is located in Elgin 1,378 feet (420 meters) above sea level, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, and you can feel the ocean’s power in the glass. The palate has a long finish with minerality, fresh herbs, and tangerine. This wine curved around the smoked trout as if it was made just for such a pairing.
Chef Luke chose an interesting course to follow the smoked trout. The magic continued with beef sweetbreads, asparagus, peas, morel, and porcini hollandaise. I was curious what wine the sommelier would choose to pair with this course. My bride does not eat sweetbreads, and I do not like asparagus. Chef Luke and sommelier, Tinashe Nyamudoka were up to the challenge! Tanashe selected a 2015 Bouchard Finlayson Galpin Peak Pinot Noir (Platter’s Guide ★★★★★, 14.50% alcohol) for me. This Pinot Noir is widely considered one of South Africa’s finest, and with good reason.
The Galpin Peak is a 100.00% Pinot Noir estate bottled wine aged in French oak from South Africa’s Walker Bay, Hemel-en-Aarde (meaning Heaven and Earth) Valley, on the south coast of the Western Cape, 60 miles (95 kilometers) from Cape Town. This Pinot Noir is dark red-to- purple in color and has a nose of kirsch, cranberries, and earthy aromas. Medium-to-full bodied, the wine’s tannins dance across the gums. The acidity is balanced with depth and is crisp and fruity on the palate with a long, luscious finish. This wine is very Burgundian.
Laurel had a very different Pinot Noir, 2015 from Hamilton Russell Vineyards (Platter’s Guide ★★★★☆, 14.11% alcohol), also located in Walker Bay, Hemel-en-Aarde. This Pinot is aged for 10 months in French oak. It is intensely red in color with a nose of kirsch, strawberries, white pepper, roasted nuts, and mushrooms, with a hint of petrol and floral. On the palate, it is well-structured, medium-plus bodied, rich in texture with a tangy acidity and polished tannins. There are also added notes of crisp red fruits, particularly, strawberries and raspberries, with complex elements of earth and cedar. I had to join my bride in a glass, and it opened up even more as we lingered it.
What an incredible gastronomic evening! And we were not through yet. The next course was Springbok, beetroot, bone marrow, hazelnut, and curd, paired with a 2006 Bordeaux-style red blend from Stellenbosch’s Warwick Estates Trilogy Platter’s Guide ★★★★★, 14.50% alcohol). As you can guess from the name, the Trilogy is a blend of three grapes: 57.00% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27.00% Cabernet Franc, and rounded out with 16.00% Merlot. The editors of Wine Enthusiast Magazine, the annual “Best of Year” – The Top 100 Wines of 2006 selections named Warwick Estates Trilogy at number five, drawn from the nearly 10,000 wines tasted over the course of 2006. The wines that received the three highest scores from the Wine Enthusiast 100-point rating scale that year were all Cabernet blends from the 2002 vintage in California: Sloan Cabernet Blend, from Rutherford, Rubicon Estate Cabernet Blend, and Harlan Estate, Cabernet Blend, both from Napa Valley. The Warwick was in rarified company, indeed!
The Trilogy is aged in French oak for 24 months and is an intense ruby red in color. The powerful nose is licorice, prunes, and blackberries, with softer tones of mocha and dark chocolate. Later, I smelled the empty glass, and there were the complex undertones of leather and cigar box. The Trilogy is a teeth staining, full-bodied, long finishing, tannic explosion on the palate. There is a sublimely soft taste of roasted almonds and coffee flavors. I drained the wine and found a thick sediment coating the glass. I resisted the urge to take a finger and crudely scrape up the sediment. The Trilogy is a seductress at work!
My bride and I looked at each other, and all we could do was smile, for our server appeared with the pièce de résistance of tea toasted quince, baked chestnut, rum, and raisins, paired with a 2011 Klein Constantia Vin de Constance.
The powerful nose is licorice, prunes, and blackberries, with softer tones of mocha and dark chocolate. Later, I smelled the empty glass, and there were the complex undertones of leather and cigar box.
Klein Constantia is one of the oldest and most storied farms in South Africa, dating back to 1685. According to Klein Constantia’s website, King Louis XIV and Marie-Antoinette had 2,634 bottles of “Vin du cap de Constance” in their wine cellar. George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson were said to have had dozens of bottles of Constantia wines. Alexandre Dumas (père) and Jane Austen enjoyed Constantia, and Charles Dickens wrote about it. It was said that no less than Napoleon Bonaparte, “… while in exile on the island of St Helena, enjoys up to a bottle of ‘vin de Constance’ daily. He even reportedly requests a glass on his deathbed, refusing all other food and drink offered to him.”
And now my beloved and I were about to partake!
The 2011 Klein Constantia Vin de Constance (Platter’s Guide ★★★★★, 13.27% alcohol) is an unfortified dessert wine, made from late-harvested 100% Muscat de Frontignan grapes, aged in a combination of 60.00% new French oak, Hungarian oak and French Acacia for three years, and then another six months in the tank before bottling.
The Vin de Constance is a deep, rich honey color, with thick, treacly, viscous legs that cling to the glass. The nose is multifaceted: The first note is floral, and you are instantly transported to a field of purple lavender in Provence. You are then torn from le rêve by the next perfumed wave of apricots, orange marmalade, and spice. The fruit notes continue on the palate followed by an elegant acidity and a long complex finish. The Vin de Constance is an incredible wine. It is no wonder the 2015 vintage was South Africa’s first wine to break into Wine Spectators’ Top 100 wines at number 10.
Thoroughly satiated and treasuring the last of our Vin de Constance, my bride and I were handed a silver trinket box containing two squares of chocolate dusted with gold. The hostess called us a taxi, and we were suddenly filled with dread at the thought of the long taxi ride back to our hotel. At least we were full from one of the best meals we had ever had.
The taxi ride took about 15 minutes. Oh, and Chef Luke, the dinner was definitely worth the wait!
(Part Seven – Lions, tigers, bears, and great wines. Oh, my!)
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