No Beef About This Beef

When KERNEELS BREYTENBACH visited Michael Broughton’s Ember restaurant in Stellenbosch, he discovered the true meaning of beef – and nothing but the unadulterated flavour of locally reared, indigenous beef. CHRIS OTTO shares his wine list befitting this upmarket establishment.

THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC and associated lockdowns have cast such a long shadow over South African life and industry over the past two years that it is a real pleasure to sing the praises of someone whose life was actually galvanised by the situation. Michael Broughton is that man.

Terroir Restaurant, his pride and joy, was one of the restaurants that took a body blow as a result of the lockdowns. Michael deserved all the accolades that came his way after he launched Terroir in 2004 and it was as a pleasant surprise when word started circulating earlier this year that he was on the verge of making a very bold move.

That move, in fact, is nothing short of spectacular: the opening of three new establishments in the space that once held Doppio Zero on Bird Street, Stellenbosch. With all three of them – Stud, Cucina and Ember – now fully operational, it is clear that Michael has really upped the ante in the competition between local restaurants. As managing chef of the trio he faces a daunting task, but it’s one he shoulders with gusto and impressive results.

Chef Michael Broughton in Ember, his new restaurant that celebrates beef.

Before describing the unforgettable Ember experience, let me briefly explain the concept behind these three establishments. Entrepreneurs Tom and Hayley Breytenbach are champions of the use of indigenous breeds in sustainable cattle farming in Africa. On their farm near Hartbeesfontein in North West province, they focused on a specific breed, the Boran, which is not normally used for beef production. The couple then bought a wine farm near Stellenbosch, named it Brenaissance and set about finding a way to introduce the Western Cape to the joys of eating beef of exceptionally high quality.

Their Boran cattle are 100% grass fed, grazing in the veld on a farm where GM corn, soy and grain have never been introduced. When Doppio Zero closed its doors, the Breytenbachs began talking to Michael Broughton. Such is the stuff of which dreams are made.

Entering Ember seems at first like walking into some kind of night spot: the passageway leading into it is dim, but then the restaurant opens up before you. Dark, monotone colours still make it feel nocturnal though. The decor features mostly verte- brae and animal bones, together with farming implements and utensils painted the same colour as the walls. This has the rather curious effect of focusing the eye on the table and its immediate surrounds, much as the embers of a campfire mesmerise those sitting around it.

I immediately became a fan of Retha Erichsen, the designer. The focused, spare lighting strengthens the overall effect of seclusion at your table and heightens your awareness of the company of your fellow diners.

Ember’s menu is small and focused, what you’d expect from a sensible chef in a time when every change of season threatens the existence of restaurants: three starters, four mains, three side dishes and four desserts. The meal starts with a variety of breads, biltong and home-made butter. The biltong sets the tone: delicious Boran beef, evenly textured and with a sliver of fat on one side.

My companions and I shared the starters. The (seared) pumpkin and pear salad formed an exotic combination that was keenly devoured. The prawn risotto was more robust and the beef tartare blew me away. I hogged the plate, smitten by the way the beef presented itself to my taste buds: full-bodied and so flavoursome that it was immediately apparent why the chef turned his back on the usual additives of mustard, Worcestershire sauce, chopped on- ions and anchovies, garnishing it instead simply with radish and micro-herbs. There could be no mistaking the message: this is beef as it should taste, the few adornments, apart from the egg yolk, there to complement it and not to enhance the flavour.

We ordered all the main courses among us and I had the good fortune to sample the yellowfin tuna as well as the three-cheese ravioli. The tuna was done so exquisitely that for a fleeting moment I wondered if I had made a mistake in ordering beef. Evidently the chef gave it his undivided attention in the preparation! The ravioli also had an enticing kicker: the taste of truffle embedded in the sauce comes from nowhere and blows your taste buds away. I’ll have to come back just to get stuck into a full plate.

But the beef, the beef … There is a choice between fillet, sirloin and rib-eye cuts of Boran beef and to go with it, you can opt for creamy mushroom and brandy sauce, beef jus, chimichurri or peppercorn sauce. As was the case with the beef tartare, the sauce complements the beef but is not the overwhelming taste feature.

The beef is cooked by the sous vide method – vacuum sealed and dropped into warm water – and when it is lift- ed from the water it is seared over the embers of a wood fire. (Searing in this way is the key to Ember’s approach; most of the vegetables go through the same process.)

I had sirloin and without a doubt it is the best beef sirloin I have ever tasted. It was almost as if the searing process had added a thin, clearly visible skin to the cut while the rest was even-textured and done exactly as I wanted: this side of rare. Seared onions, potato mash and seared fennel were served to accompany the sir- loin, but I felt little need to indulge in side dishes – the beef’s impact was lasting. The other guests enthused about the creamed spinach and the green side salad.

For the record, the desserts were Litchi & Gin Sorbet, Le KitKat, Tarte Tatin and a highly individualised crème brûlée. All of them were pleasing to the eye and mouth, but the tarte tatin was really next-level bliss. The Tatin sisters smile down from above. At moments like this, I wish I could copy Oliver Twist and ask for more.

Stud and Cucina both use cuts of Boran beef, but it is at Ember that Michael Broughton really delivers the goods. The restaurant will no doubt receive attention, and honours, for reimagining the way in which good beef is brought to the public. Be sure to book in advance.

Wine Column

I’ve been a keen follower of Michael Broughton from his Parkview, Johannesburg, days through Terroir at De Zalze and to his current venture, Ember, right in the middle of Stellenbosch. Now that most, if not all, restaurant-goers have been vaccinated (sensible people), I recently had the pleasure of dining at the new Ember with friends.

This is an upmarket establishment with everything of the best, including some
beautiful glassware. The wine cellar itself is a joy to behold, almost like an interesting library where one would like to browse and perhaps even sip!

There are two distinct features to the well-curated wine list: all the wines are
from the Stellenbosch district and older vintages are available. Our sommelier for the evening, René, was very friendly and knowledgeable and provided attentive service. We enjoyed a wonderfully well-matured Longridge Ou Steen 2017, which was slightly sweeter than normal (R690/bottle) and a Waterford Cabernet Sauvignon from the classic 2015 vintage (R590). Our host spoilt us with a 2009 Kanonkop Paul Sauer from his private cellar (byo at R120); what an experience with our perfectly grilled steaks! We also tested the Brenaissance red blend from the estate of part owner Tom Breytenbach.

Our fine dining experience was concluded with a few glasses of the Ken Forrester T 2018 (R490), washed down with an obligatory double espresso. – CHRIS OTTO

Ember Meat Room, Bird Street, Stellenbosch. 021 203 6255