Contemporary Nostalgia

RICHARD HOLMES goes behind the scenes of the latest, and most inspired, fine dining venue in town.

Matt van den Berg and Marais Kirsten-Uys combine world-class experience with ambition to create a landmark dining destination in Stellenbosch.

IN THE LAST months of 2023, while most of us were winding down towards the summer holidays, chef Matt van den Berg and restaurateur Marais Kirsten-Uys were about to take the biggest step of their professional careers.

In opening Mertia – perhaps the most exciting new dining destination in Stellenbosch – the pair obviously hoped for a steady stream of summer customers. Plaudits from the critics would be nice, and a few five-star Tripadvisor ratings wouldn’t hurt either. But mostly they were out to impress just two people: their dads.

“My father is a farmer and his perception of fine dining is a restaurant where you have to go to McDonald’s afterwards!” says Marais with a laugh. “Mertia is definitely not like that.”

“When Marais and I first sat down to chat about working together, we spoke about our vision for the restaurant. Marais from a service point of view and me in the kitchen,” adds Matt, taking a break from morning prep. “We wanted a restaurant where people feel comfortable. A place with elevated cuisine, but a space where our dads would feel comfortable and would enjoy the food. It’s fine dining but it’s not too overwhelming. It’s less about the bells and whistles and more about delicious, elevated dishes.”

The Kingklip Brandade, served with a velvety velouté sauce, stands out as one of the gastronomic wonders on Mertia’s ten-course tasting menu.

Changing perceptions of fine dining was high on the list for the ambitious duo, who bring a wealth of local and global experience to the restaurant.

Matt left acclaimed Cape Town restaurant La Colombe to helm the kitchens at Mertia; a bold move, stepping away from a senior role in arguably the best restaurant in Africa.

“I was looking for a new challenge and this opportunity with Marais came at just the right time,” he says. “And Mertia being in Stellenbosch helped a lot. I grew up here. I studied here. My family’s here.”

Marais also has roots in the Winelands, having grown up on a farm outside Paarl and completed a degree at Stellenbosch University. Although his studies were in finance, his heart was always in hospitality. Over the past decade he has clocked up experience worldwide, from acclaimed steakhouses in Stellenbosch and hotels in New York to the trend-setting Klein JAN culinary destination in the Kalahari.

With window tables overlooking the historic square at Die Braak, Mertia’s understated yet elegant décor is balanced by polished service with a touch of Winelands hospitality.

But it’s his time working at San Francisco’s Atelier Crenn – in 2018 Dominique Crenn became the first female chef in the United States to receive three Michelin stars – that most informs the hospitality ethos at Mertia.

There’s a sense of relaxed refinement here, from the subdued colour palette and contemporary decor to views across Die Braak softened by shimmering curtains. That Mertia is not at street level adds to the sense of escape; a location that’s in the heart of Stellenbosch, gazing across a historic square, and yet removed from the streetside bustle.


One of Matt’s standout creations, the ‘Hen’s Egg’, skillfully combines layers of texture and flavour with a sous vide egg.

“We worked to create a space that’s elegant, but where everyone’s made to feel comfortable,” says Marais. “We want people to feel they can come here straight from the wine farm. Come in your shorts and sneakers … it’s fine!”

It’s an atmosphere that’s mirrored in Matt’s seasonally driven menus too, where you’ll find a carefully balanced interplay of sophistication and familiarity. Here he taps into a sense of playful nostalgia, infusing South African flavours into a tasting journey that draws on both his and Marais’s culinary memories.

Like the ‘Jam & Cheese on Toast’, a creative take on the plate that powered Matt through his studies in Stellenbosch, or perhaps ‘Venison, Pampoen, Sage’ that taps into the memories Marais has of his ouma Mertia, for whom the restaurant is named.

“There are elements of traditional South African cuisine on the menu, but it’s all through a modern lens,” says Marais. “There’s definitely that mix of old and new, nostalgia and contemporary.”

Menus at Mertia range from a three-course executive lunch to the full 10-course tasting menu for dinner, so depending on the time you have to spare, and the depth of your pockets, the choice of indulgence is yours.

“It was so important for us to make fine dining accessible,” adds Marais. “Mertia is not just for celebrations or anniversaries. We want people to feel they can drop in for a quick lunch or a midweek date night.” And with menus constantly evolving and developing, it’s an experience that rewards repeating. Matt clearly relishes the freedom of being in charge of his own kitchen.

But there is one exception.

Inspired by a dish in Miami, encountered on his first trip abroad, the ‘Hen’s Egg’ has already become such a hit that there’s little chance it can be taken off the menu any time soon. It’s the perfect snapshot of Matt’s deft touch in the kitchen, crafting contemporary experiences from the familiar.

Here layers of texture and flavour – truffle-flavoured chicken jus, puffed rice and potato foam – combine with a sous vide hen’s egg from Mason Farming into a remarkable creation served in bespoke ceramics by local studio Ceramiclab.
“It’s luxurious, it’s rich, it’s textured. That’s one dish that will probably stay on the menu for a while,” says Matt with a smile.

Tasting menus of inspired small plates range from three to 10 courses, catering for everything from focused corporate lunches to extended evenings of gastronomic adventure.

Set menus are available with paired wines, or guests can delve into a wine list that champions the varied terroir of the Cape Winelands rather than focusing purely on the vineyards of Stellenbosch. Driven by region, with rarities and second labels that take diners on a vinous adventure through the Cape, it’s a concise collection that is accessible yet adventurous, with wine stewards on hand to explain pairings that range from the boutique to the big hitters.

“Like the menu itself, it’s a bit of a play on emotions; it’s a play on familiarity,” adds Marais. It’s not hard to imagine that Mertia herself would have been proud.

Mertia is located at 20 Bird Street, Stellenbosh Central. Tel: 076 644 8448