The experience of perfection at a Delaire Graff Estate lunch brings home the restorative effect of excellence achieved to KERNEELS BREYTENBACH.
In 2020, we faced death and took shelter in solitude, unable to find comfort in our search for hope. Hope, and the feeling that life itself is still absolutely wonderful.
I am as guilty as the next man for succumbing to Covid-related depression. I stopped watching the news on television, I binge-watched endless series and endured the drivel, all while the fear of Covid permeated everything. Until a balmy summer Saturday towards the end of 2020, when I was invited to have lunch at Delaire Graff Estate. I accepted, mindful that it would not be a big social gathering. Three memorable hours later, after experiencing gastronomic perfection – the best meal I’ve had in many years – I was sitting on the restaurant’s terrace enjoying the warmth of the sun while under the shady cover of pin oaks. I realised that a healing process had begun.
Perfection. Easy to envisage but difficult to attain, it’s such a blissful relief when achieved by an estate such as Delaire. Upon arrival, you notice details that during lockdown have become distant memories: the aesthetic symmetry of manicured vineyards and bordering gardens; the approach to the restaurant along a lane of plane trees; an abundance of flowers and shrubs flanking the path from the parking area above the restaurants, so impressive that my wife had to linger every few yards; a Dylan Lewis statue just before reaching the restaurant. To our minds, all were a portent of wondrous things to come.
A brief interjection: the strikingly placed Dylan Lewis statue made such an impression, I visited the Delaire website later in the afternoon and discovered that works by Anton and Lionel Smit as well as several other pieces by Dylan are placed at various points on the estate. Also, that the renowned horticulturalist Keith Kirsten is in charge of landscaping and garden planning. This is good to know but to experience the garden without this foreknowledge is to marvel at the natural beauty and the abundance of plant species: truly a living testimony to Keith’s genius.
Back to lunch. After completing the necessary cleansing steps at the entrance, you walk out onto the terrace of Delaire. Your reaction is immediate: perfection! To the left you see the Stellenbosch peaks, then the neck of Helshoogte, with the magnificent mountain range flanking the Franschhoek valley off in the distance. A most magnificent view. You move to the furthest vantage point on the terrace, the muffled sounds of the restaurant and patrons behind you, and you’re enveloped by a feeling of happiness, pure bliss. Never before in 2020 had I felt so inspired.
On the terrace the tables are far apart and exquisitely private. The waiters and serving staff have mastered the art of communicating clearly through their face masks. While we pondered the menu, I couldn’t help wondering how the lockdown’s stifling grip on the South African way of doing things had affected the performance of the Delaire kitchen. It soon became abundantly clear: Delaire has not missed a beat.
There is still a choice between a set and an à la carte menu, the former being ideal if you want to stay within specific budgetary constraints. It offers some enticing choices. The main course, I saw, consisted of either crisp-skinned marlin caponata, with a sauce américaine, new potatoes and sugar snap peas, or Josper-fired beef fillet with pomme gratin, king oyster mushrooms, leek and bone marrow jus, while for the vegetarian-minded there was Kokstad porcini with roasted cauliflower, zucchini, macadamia granola and crisp Parmesan cheese.
Unfortunately, or fortunately, I have a roving eye as far as à la carte menus are concerned; I just can’t resist delving into a list of gems, knowing that even the most familiar food can be elevated to unrivalled levels by an adventurous chef. For instance, whole-milk buffalo mozzarella with tomato, olive and basil pesto. It sounds mundane, but the uniqueness lies in the pre-sentation. At Delaire, presentation and plating are of the utmost importance, which is why I looked achingly at the mozzarella starter across from me, almost ignoring my choice of Saldanha Bay mussels in a coconut, ginger, chilli and coriander soup. I must confess, though, the moment I tasted the soup, my universe centred on the wondrous sensations in my mouth.
At first a blissful silence enveloped us. And then enthusiastic chatter broke out. The pink prawns (with avocado, pawpaw, radish, spring onion and passionfruit vinaigrette) vied with the smoked Stanford gnudi (gnocchi made with ricotta cheese instead of potato and served with peas, broad beans, broccoli and lemon). Two of my companions, having persuaded the waiter to serve them off-menu oysters, were aglow.
By now we knew chef Kayla-Ann Osborn had hit the ground running after the easing of lockdown regulations. We salivated in anticipation of the taste sensation promised by the main course, which offered a selection of five dishes. Two of the guests had marlin, prepared with crisp skin and accompanied by Saldanha mussels, heirloom carrots and a smoked mussel velouté.
I have always thought a top-rated chef can turn even a sirloin steak into a delight and did this one ever! The Josper-fired Bonsmara sirloin was presented in three separate pieces of thickly cut meat, prepared exactly as I wanted (rare but a touch medium on the outer extremities) and served with mushrooms, pomme gratin, leeks and beef jus. I rejoiced in my decision to order a side dish of truffle and Parmesan chips: the stuff legends are made of.
My neighbour sang the praises of the roasted pork belly (soft and layered, served with pistachio, smoked apple and cabbage, with broad beans and tonka bean jus). The chef deserves applause for the way in which the pork belly was plated; verily a work of art. This was also true of the wild mushroom gnocchi and the dukkah-spiced lamb rack, where the spiced meat is balanced by roasted sweet potato, sesame, plum, ginger and kumquat. A joy to behold and an adventure for the taste buds.
One of the side dishes ordered for the table was aesthetically less pleasing, as cauliflower with gratinated cheese tends to be, but this proved to be an absolute winner, on a par with the legendary chips.
I hesitate to admit it, but for once my sweet tooth did not kick in. I shared a selection of artisanal local cheese, served with nuts, red-wine pear, melba and onion chutney. Somehow one has to come down from the high of gastronomic euphoria. The others were more adventurous and ordered a selection from the dessert menu: ruby panna cotta with basil, cashew and strawberry; Madagascan vanilla gelato with white chocolate and pineapple (I had a taste – sheer bliss); and chocolate and malt, with hazelnut and Amarula.
Delaire endeavours to challenge all senses. Sight and smell complement the taste of their magnificent fare to perfection. The visual backdrop of the Western Cape mountains and the tranquillity of the setting combine with the gastronomic experience to ensure deep satisfaction of a never-to-be-forgotten lunch. Perfection attained.
The British philosopher AC Grayling wrote “a society which resents excellence is a society in trouble”. After lunch at Delaire, we know without a doubt: we are not in trouble.