Since the new restaurant opened at Ernie Els Wines, KERNEELS BREYTENBACH has been keen to compare it to the much-loved Big Easy in Dorp Street. All the star signs recently fell into place.
Indulge me for a moment while I reminisce. I was born under the sign of Aries and as Mercury was finally moving out of Aquarius, everything pointed to a time of affirmation of my choice of friends. I should therefore not have been surprised when our host had arranged for Melvyn Minnaar to join us for lunch. I have known both gentlemen since 1971. Our meeting at Ernie Els Restaurant transported me even further back to another old friend, Marius Els, Ernie’s uncle. I have known Marius, the owner of Els Transport and a captain of industry since the mid-1950s.
Karma was bound to play a pivotal role in the day but, knowing Mercury as I do, things could easily have gone either way. However, our longstanding acquaintance ensured a wonderful lunch and an afternoon of companionable leisure. The Ernie Els Restaurant is spectacularly situated, affording all tables on the terrace a magnificent view of the mountains and valleys around Stellenbosch, with the town and its bustle hidden from view. Table Mountain is a breathtaking presence to the west, with the vista stretching to the ridges towards Kuils River and Durbanville, the formidable Drakenstein mountains in the distance and the Stellenbosch peaks, with Jonkershoek Mountain closer by to the north-east.
On this perfect day, a startling spectrum of green hues contrasted with the clear blue canopy of a still-summery Cape sky. One of the most appealing aspects of living in the Western Cape is the subtle changing of the seasons. We visited the restaurant when they were finely balanced, the days virtually as long as the nights. While the rest of the country is securely in the grip of autumn, this is not the case in the hidden valleys and atop the hills surrounding Stellenbosch. Out there on the terrace, summer was not yet ready to take its bow and the only reason it dawned on us that autumn was imminent was that we needn’t have bothered with sunblock.
Cape foodies are always on the lookout for something new and I’ve long been curious about this restaurant. Ernie Els gave Stellenbosch one of its greatest culinary gifts with his Big Easy establishment on Dorp Street. Perhaps it was a bit ahead of its time; its demise was certainly offset by the many hours of unrestrained gastronomic pleasure we enjoyed there.
We eagerly waited to see what approach the restaurant at Ernie Els Wines would take after two years of renovation and how the new German senior partner in the winery would influence matters. The approach turned out to be much simpler than anticipated. Chef Saskia Nel is of the firm conviction that fresh, homemade food is always best. She makes her own pasta and ice cream, for instance, and uses fresh, locally sourced seasonal ingredients. Her farm-to-table focus places the restaurant on a par with some of the best establishments in Franschhoek and Helshoogte.
The menu does justice to Mies van der Rohe’s dictum of less is more. A Summer Green Salad, consisting of olives, creamy feta, peppers, onion, tomato, greens and a mustard dressing, is the only starter. Chicken can be added. The main course features a few gems, with pasta pesto the only vegan option on the menu. Note that this is not your everyday pesto; it’s made with spinach and is complemented by Mediterranean vegetables, cream and Parmesan cheese.
It fell to each diner to decide which side dishes would best enhance the baked Supreme Chicken (breast, to be precise) and the line fish, which was kingklip. Choosing between a jus made from Ernie Els red wine, a sumptuous mushroom sauce or a lemon butter sauce was hard enough; choosing between hand-cut potato chips and Mediterranean vegetables was positively unfair. I was rather alarmed when our waiter announced the chef’s suggestion that the kingklip be served medium to well done, knowing how unappetising dried-out, well-done fish could be. My fears turned out to be groundless; a generous forkful of Melvyn’s kingklip proved to be perfectly cooked and stunning. The same can be said of the Supreme Chicken. Saskia may sometimes take the words ‘well done’ on her lips, but she definitely knows exactly how to maintain the juiciness and ideal texture of the various meats she prepares.
I feared the dry-aged steaks on the menu might be problematic, as I have set the bar at Alan Pick’s standard of juicy dry-aged perfection at the famous Butcher Shop & Grill in Johannesburg. For this reason I cowardly chose the Camembert Beef Burger and I was not remotely disappointed. I adhere to a eating ritual when faced with a hamburger. First I dispose of all sides (salad and hand-cut potato chips in this case) and then I have to decide whether I’ll attempt to take the burger in my hands or cut it up and use a knife and fork. I longed to use my hands but better judgement prevailed. Saskia serves them big.
But back to the dry-aged steak. I convinced our host to have a T-bone steak and had to beg his forgiveness afterwards. I was strategically thinking he would let me have a morsel of both the fillet and the sirloin halves. He would have been willing, but there was virtually no fillet and the sirloin side was rare but devoid of any vestiges of the juiciness even dry-aged beef should retain. We decided this could be attributed to the fact that the restaurant had only recently sprung back into business. Saskia will no doubt fine-tune the kitchen’s performance in the months to come. The menu also sports a Sweet Ending, comprising Saskia’s homemade ice cream and sorbet. I absolutely loved the melktert ice cream.
Would I recommend the restaurant at Ernie Els Wines? Certainly! As time passes and chef Nel expands her menu, it is bound to become a popular summer tourist destination. The simplicity of the menu will undoubtedly grow into something more adventurous (and vegan friendly). It is early days yet, and Mercury is still moving…
Good to know: Ernie Els Wines Restaurant is situated on Annandale Road, Stellenbosch. Call +27 (0)21 881 3588 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Confining a restaurant’s wine list to the proprietor’s vineyard and cellar is a restriction on guests that needs to make the fare the catch-up: in other words, if you have to drink only what’s offered, it’d better be the perfect match for whatever you order from the menu. At the Ernie Els outfit, the limited menu (never a bad idea) brags mostly beef, so full-bodied red wine comes forcefully into play. And why not?
Longtime winemaker Louis Strydom has proved his skills with Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon, in particular, over and over. His passion was in that bottle of Ernie Els Proprietor’s Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 (showing all the signs of the great vintage), which came out after we’d praised the 2017 (a modern take on the classic Bordeaux grape) and weren’t too impressed with, well, the other mid-range EE Cabernet Sauvignon 2015. The heavy meat was a no-brainer match. (Cheese would have been brilliant, too, had some been offered.) The chicken and fish dishes paired pleasantly with the lively, beautifully just-right pink Cabernet Rosé 2020.
On that late-summer’s day, sitting outside, this was probably the wine of the event: crisp, dry while fruity, yet never deserting the specific, all-too-delicate aromatics of Louis’s cherished Cabernet grape. – Melvyn Minnaar