If there’s one phrase that I abhor, it is: “Well, what did you expect?” It turns the focus back to your preconceptions. It forces you to admit to being wrong about something. In this case, I had assumed that all the really great eateries in the Stellenbosch region are scattered on farms and wine estates. I was so wrong.
Slap-bang in the centre of town, at the exact same address where springbok rugby centre Tjol Lategan grew up and across the road from the infamous Kleinhuisie commune in Andringa Street, stands the Stellenbosch Hotel, home of an unsung gem: Stellenbosch Kitchen. It’s like finding a new, captivating friend in the flesh, not on Facebook. An interesting, like-minded soul with an imaginative bent. One with the ability to thrill and gratify. And this particular friend will do so with everything from vegetarian cuisine to carnivore’s delight.
Stellenbosch Kitchen’s dining area is decorated with South African stamps. It’s a philatelist’s dream: huge blow-ups of rare and beautiful stamps that are now becoming things of the past. Checking social media on an hourly basis means that we very rarely need to mail letters.
As our party of six settled down and pondered the age of digital communication, we noticed something else. The tables in Stellenbosch Kitchen are well spaced, giving all patrons a feeling of privacy even though the room was packed. Letting our gazes wander, we saw that lively conversations were flourishing at all the tables except one, where a single soul was briefly catching up with his e-mails before he killed the device and started reading a book he had brought along. This is a place where people connect with each other, one of our party remarked. We immediately set out to prove how valid her observation was.
We decided at the outset that there would be no duplication of orders. Tonight we would be adventurous. This was exactly the right place to be bold. Besides, we couldn’t exhaust the menu’s possibilities for starters: prawn tempura with courgette, celery, citrus ponzu and basil emulsion; apple and walnut salad with baby leaves, candied walnuts, celery and quail’s egg; risotto with exotic mushrooms and truffle oil; oven-grilled calamari, chorizo, red peppers, chickpeas and smoked paprika; Caesar salad with pancetta, Grana Padano and an egg; and fresh West Coast mussels with fennel, white wine, cream and saffron.
It was immediately obvious that we had found flair and finesse at Stellenbosch Kitchen. No grumbles at our table, but some of us did sample our neighbour’s fare. On the basis of the starters alone, all agreed that a second and a third visit would be imperative.
On to the main course, and we decided to steer well clear of our choices for starters. So the tempura prawns were followed by the Chalmar sirloin steak with exotic mushrooms, broccolini and Café de Paris butter; and after the apple and walnut salad came prawn risotto with, among other things, lemon preserve, grilled courgettes and sweetcorn.
I had the calamari as a starter and it seemed to me that pork belly would make a perfectly illogical combination. Spot on! Next to me, the mushroom risotto was followed by ale-battered hake and chips. On visuals alone, the hake will be mine next time, but I sampled it now anyway; fresh from the sea, with a killer batter.
On my other side, our hostess chose pan-seared kingklip with fennel velouté and a prawn barley risotto as a sequel to her quite sizeable Caesar salad. The mussels eater studied the mains menu thoroughly and decided it would be a sin to pass over the roasted rack of Karoo lamb. It comes with carrot purée, spiced pear chutney, polenta and fine beans.
We had absolutely no trouble in cleaning our plates. But truth be told, Stellenbosch Kitchen doesn’t skimp on the portions and you never get the feeling that the chef has an art-for-art’s-sake attitude when he plates. Healthy portions, attractively presented.
Four of the possible main courses had to be left out of our order, but they await our second visit: spinach and basil gnocchi; a monster burger with onion marmalade and Healey’s cheddar; shepherd’s pie made from braised lamb shoulder; and kudu loin with biltong dust, baby aubergine, Grana Padano beignets, salted caramel parsnips and spiced kale.
By this stage any ideas we might have had about a life of abstinence and frugality were long forgotten. Desserts were ordered: the artisanal cheese plate, coconut panna cotta, a glühwein sorbet and crème brûlée. Two abstainers chose coffee instead.
So, what had I expected? Typical hotel fare? A small menu full of dull, predictable choices? That’s exactly what we did not encounter. Everything we ate at Stellenbosch Kitchen will be fondly remembered and not because the dishes echo new cooking trends, but because the plates served reflected the delight the kitchen staff had in preparing them. You don’t have to be a glutton to appreciate the abundance and joy in this kitchen. It’s the real deal, that’s for certain. V