Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Cape Town Culinary Highlights

Cape Town is a city full of wonderful eateries. I’ll admit, I was pretty sick of crackers and peanut butter by the time we reached there too. That certainly helped cast the pretty seaside city as a culinary Mecca! Its repertoire is diverse, ranging from cozy cafés to touristy “African fare” joints and posh fusion restaurants. The city has an up-and-coming dining out scene that even critics in established foodie cities are noticing. So, as Melissa planned our travel along the Garden Route, I plotted an (equally important?) culinary itinerary to sample Cape Town’s many offerings during our four days in town.

A fan of locally-owned cafés with lots of character, I found plenty of places to enjoy a cup of coffee or light foods in CT. Mr. Pickwick’s Deli on Long Street was one of my favorites. The joint turns into a chill bar in the evenings too, where you can enjoy a nice glass of South African wine and read about upcoming concerts and art events. Afro Café, on the antique-covered Church Street, offers amazing salads (see picture). I can practically still taste one that Melissa ordered, which had warmed goats cheese, beets, mint and rocket with seeds.

Frieda’s Café, on Bree Street, dishes up heart and stomach-warming comfort foods with a new twist. The décor inside was also memorable – like a modern cafeteria, the café has an open central seating area replete with long tables, but garnished with the decorative charms of a comfy home. Check out the Mustard Seed just across the street for great sandwiches too!

But the dining experience I remember most was our last night in town, when we treated ourselves to dinner at the Savoy Cabbage Restaurant & Champagne Bar. A “New South African” restaurant, it’s one of CT’s most celebrated – and for good reason. I’m joining its throngs of international fans. Elegant without overwhelming, the restaurant’s exposed brick contrasts with modern glass and metal fixtures, and bespeaks a casual-chic that’s also conveyed in the menu options. The ambiance is polished but laid back enough to enjoy meals with friends and family without frills or excessive formality. The Savoy Cabbage's L-shaped dining room is split into two levels with a slight view of the kitchens. That’s where the restaurant’s cooking staff works its magic, capturing the flavors of seasonal South African ingredients in masterfully melded dishes.

Take my favorite starter, for instance, a tomato tart with a practically perfect crust. Simple, but well executed and full of flavor. Some dishes incorporate unexpected flavor combinations. We tried one starter of chicken liver pate coupled with stewed plums and artisanal bread which was unusual but delicious. Chef Peter Pankhurst even managed to make tripe appetizing! My friend Paul braved a main course of tripe cooked in a smoky, tangy flavored tomato sauce that has made him a dedicated fan of this difficult-to-make-appetizing cut of meat. I was very pleased with my choice as well, a filet of yellowfish prepared with a light herb sauce, potatoes and sugar snap peas. The restaurant’s wine list was equally stellar – I enjoyed a glass of Lourensford Sauvignon Blanc 2004 with my meal, a nice complement to the light fish, and which was perhaps the best SB I’ve had in recent memory.

From décor to food and drink pairings, owner Caroline Bagley and her team have done a great job. After traveling across the globe to the southern tip of Africa, I found a dining experience to rival some of my favorites in New York, San Francisco and Boston alike. If you make it there before I manage a return visit, enjoy a meal (or two) there for me!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Pinotage: Dis goed! [It's Good!]

After a long, gradual trip across the country from Durban, we were anxious to get to Cape Town. But not too anxious to rush through wine country! Even in comparison to the dramatic Garden Route cliffs and beaches we had just visited, the idyllic peaks and valleys of Stellenbosch and Paarl were stunning. Vineyards were nestled into the scenery, garnished with simple, white Cape Dutch manor houses. I tried to take some pictures, but we actually ended up in Stellenbosch on a rainy day

Showers didn’t keep me from the tasting glasses, though! I was traveling with my friend Melissa, and we managed to see 4 or 5 of the major wine estates in Stellenbosch in one day despite inclement weather. We tried to select estates for the variety of their offerings – to get the best of South African whites, reds, dessert wines and ports. I’m not well versed in South African wines but this was a great introduction.

For one, the country’s port selection converted me from a dedicated noble wine follower into a fan of sweet fortifieds as well. We found an Allesverloren port (2003 vintage) that I would happily trade a glass of braccheto in for after a nice meal. The wine has a sweet, woody bouquet with creamy chocolate and plum/raisin flavors – with a lingering fruity aftertaste. I’m going to try it out in some dessert recipes too! Allesverloren is actually in Riebeeck West, but if you’re in the Stellenbosch area, you can find some of their ports for sale in the Die Bergkelder (one of the region’s largest producers) cellars, as we did.

I'm far from an enologist or wine connoisseur, but this trip still turned me into an avid evangelist for South Africa’s signature, up-and-coming varietal, Pinotage. The grape is a vinifera hybrid of Hermitage (aka Cinsault) and the finicky Pinot Noir. It was developed right in wine country, at Stellenbosch University in 1925. The grape still comprises less than 10% of total grape wine acreage in SA, and it tends to be received with controversy – some love it, most don’t. But Pinotage is on the rise as more local winemakers and critics are touting its potential, particularly well-aged wines. The locally popular Cape Blend wines that abound in South Africa require Pinotage (30-70%) as a component.

Anyway, history and context aside, I found Pinotage to be an intriguing wine. Its taste varies considerably even between neighboring Stellenbosch estates. What I found to stay constant between vintages and estates, though, was a deep red wine with smoky and earthy flavors, mineral undertones, and sometimes notes of tropical fruits. Sound unusal? It was. Not quite as full bodied as a Shiraz, but not as heavy as a Cab Sauv.

I’ll be honest that it took me some time to find a Pinotage I was happy with. I knew it was uniquely South African before I landed in Johannesburg, but I struggled to find one that didn’t make my mouth pucker or overpower my meal with its aftertaste. We spent an evening at WineSense in Cape Town sipping over half a dozen varieties of Pinotage.

WineSense, by the way, is a place I absolutely, hands-down recommend to any wine fan – connoisseur, amateur or casual drinker alike. It’s a wine bar with a neat concept. Customers buy debit cards, top them up, and get tasting-size, half-glass, or full glass measures of wine dispensed from state-of-the-art machine kiosks. You get to run your own personal tasting! I tried a Simonsig RedHill Pinotage (2004) there which definitely satisfied (although if I had a bottle I’d age it a bit longer). I still remember the wine’s red berry flavors. If you're interested in more on Pinotage, Kanonkop is another major Pinotage producer in the region, and with Simonsig, its Pinotage wines regularly win international and national competitions (but we didn't make it out there).

But what I was really pleased with was a Pinotage (2005) I tried at Middlevlei estate. I didn’t find it as “big” as the Simonsig, but it was a nice, medium-bodied wine, not overpowering with its black berry flavors, with a nice hint of oak and smoke. Something to be had with a nice, spiced red meat dish (from the braai, perhaps?). And a few sips into the glass, there was something about the wine’s flavor that still played with my taste buds – exactly what I like in a glass of wine, a bit of mystery and adventure with an unfamiliar varietal!

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Chakalaka: The Coolest-Named Soup I've Ever Had

To escape the cold and rainy summer weather in England, I left for sunny and warm(ish) winter weather in South Africa in mid-June. I wasn’t really sure of what to expect in the way of South African food and culinary experiences, but we found a pretty mixed bag – some interesting seasonal ingredients, geographically concentrated fine dining, a versatile collection of wine and spirits, and “native”, if not terribly unique or healthy, cuisine.

That said, peanut butter, banana and crackers were staples in the more remote and poor parts of the country that I traveled through. Our trip into Lesotho, where some 43% of the population lives on less than $1 a day, was a lesson in subsistence eating. Even grocery stores in Maseru, the kingdom’s capital, were short stocked with limited food options. In rural Malealea valley, where we stayed (see photo), the abundant and immense vistas almost compensated for meager dining. For most Basotho, fresh pears, oranges and bananas imported in from South Africa are luxuries in this winter season. Food is practical and hearty – simple, filling and drawing on limited available ingredients.

Soups and stews are aplenty at this chilly time of year, and one recipe that piqued my interest was Chakalaka, a spicy and tangy soup that’s almost thick enough to be a stew. It’s satisfying with a distinctive taste. That said, as Brian McCune blogged from Cape Town, there’s no definitive definition or recipe for the dish – Chakalakas across the country can be quite different! What’s constant is that it’s generally vegetarian, and has some combination of spices, peppers, tomatoes and onion.

Sadly, I wasn’t able to pry recipe secrets from the women who made it for us when we spent a night at Malealea Lodge in Lesotho. But I’m pretty sure the key is in the mix of spices, and in slow-cooking the stew. I tried recreating it when I got home this week by modifying a recipe I found online. Limited success. Something’s still missing. . . for the more “shortcut inclined” among us (permissible in the pursuit of authentic flavor, I say), Knorr makes Chakalaka instant flavor packets that you can order online. It’s pretty good, and tastes more like what I remember having in Southern Africa - it’s also got thickening agents for the soup’s trademark stew-like consistency.

Here’s the homemade recipe I tried – if you can think of additional modifications, please share them!

1.5 oz canola oil
2 ½ tbspn chopped fresh ginger
2 tbspn chopped fresh garlic
1 tbspn chopped chili peppers
1 cup chopped onions
2 cups chopped tomatoes
1/3 cup chopped green peppers
½ cup chopped red peppers
3 tbspn curry leaves
1 or 1.5 tbspn curry powder
1 cup grated carrots
2 cups baked beans (in tomato sauce)
½ or 1 tbspn fresh cilantro
3 cups water


  1. Heat oil in a soup pan and lightly fry ginger, garlic, chillis and onions.
  2. Add curry leaves and powder.
  3. Add the tomatoes and cook for 10 minutes, stirring often.
  4. Add peppers and carrots and cook for 10 minutes. Add baked beans and cook for another 5 minutes, stirring often.
  5. Add 3 cups water, allow to come to boil and then reduce heat and let simmer for 15 minutes.
  6. Remove from heat and add coriander. Check seasoning, add salt and pepper to taste. Serve with bread, pap (maize meal), or thick soured milk (if you want the real thing) - hot or cold.