After a surfeit of gourmet, gimmicks, leaves and ferments, Myrna Robins is ready for simple, rustic, flavour-packed classics. Turn to bistros, she suggests, to find time-honoured Gallic creations, made with love, prepared with care and offered at palate-pleasing prices.
Photos: Chad Henning
It’s that time of the year when the best of everything is awarded medals and certificates and, of course, gets welcome publicity. The recent Eat Out awards saw Western Cape restaurants take nine out of the Top Ten places, with a single Gauteng venue taking fifth place. While culinary practices of pickling, smoking, foraging and fermenting continue to be prominent on menus, the Eat Out website suggests that the hottest current trend is that of vegetarian “charcuterie”, illustrated by colourful pictures of artfully arranged forests of leaves, strewn with edible flowers , funghi and baby veggies.
While it’s exciting to explore the world of gourmet innovation, few can afford to dine at these exalted venues regularly. The appeal of popular alternatives – burger and pizza joints and Asian noodle bars – can also pall. Time, perhaps, to consider finding a neighbourhood bistro, preferably one that offers traditional French dishes. If the quality of ingredients and the care taken in combining them are regarded as the yardsticks by which to judge the fare, you probably have a winner. Of less importance is the plating, likely to be straightforward with nary a wisp of foam, puddle of essence or scattering of crumbs in sight.
French bistro food celebrates generous, full-flavoured cooking, family fare that includes robust soups, rustic salads, wine-scented stews and casseroles, bubbling gratins and granny’s desserts. It adds up to inexpensive soul food from small eateries all over France, where pride and tradition ensure maintenance of quality: even truck drivers would not continue to frequent bistros where popular items like sausage and potato salad, coq au vin, salade niçoise and lemon tart were not consistently good. Summer may see pan bagnat or pissaladière on the menu or mussels steamed in white wine, while winter warmth comes as pot au feu and chicken with tarragon vinegar. Creations are usually well-balanced, combining chicken roasted in chicken fat or butter with fresh watercress to foil the richness and leg of lamb roasted above a gratin of potato, onion and tomato, the latter flavoured by the meat juices which drip into it.
Where to find these sources of Gallic goodness? Meet one of our most popular of French chefs, known to hundreds of Cape diners: Christophe Dehosse has lived in South Africa for some 25 years, where he has delighted locals and visitors with both gourmet cuisine and now bistro fare in two venues.
Paris-trained, Christophe was working in a well-known restaurant in Cognac country when he met Susan Myburgh, who grew up at the historic Joostenberg farm, near Klapmuts. The couple relocated to South Africa where they opened the popular La Maison de Chamonix restaurant on the Franschhoek wine estate in 1992, then moved to the city and started the Au Jardin restaurant at the Vineyard Hotel in Newlands two years later. Regulars were devastated when they left the suburbs to join the Myburgh family enterprises: a farm stall and nursery at Klein Joostenberg soon blossomed into a deli and bistro, while a pork butchery, cut flowers, and a winery on the old farm occupy other family members.
Today the deli and bistro are well established, the wines attract awards and Christophe leaves the kitchen to head chef Garth Bedford, who started as a trainee way back at Au Jardin. A peek at the a la carte menu reveals a delectable choice of bistro classics: starters include homemade charcuterie with terrine, rillette, cured pork and ham with a mini-bobotie quiche for local flavour. Mains offer that famous toasted sandwich Croque Monsieur, English-style pork sausage with apple sauce and mashed potato, and braised beef and mushroom ragout in red wine on homemade pasta. Families that reserve tables for Sunday lunch can expect trays of starters to include items like brawn and pickles, hummus, a vegetarian roulade and salads with homebaked breads. Their choice of main course could vary from tuna steak with ratatouille and sauce vierge to slow-cooked Karoo lamb or roast shoulder of pork. The final course is a mélange of local cheeses, classic floating islands, fresh strawberries and a blueberry cheesecake. This feast costs R205, while children can enjoy two courses for R85. The value is obvious and the culinary standards consistently high, and advance bookings are required.
When I heard that chef patron Dehosse was to open a bistro on the sophisticated Glenelly wine estate outside Stellenbosch, I wondered if the downhome bistro principles could be maintained: a recent lunch there has proved that indeed they can. He continues to be inspired by traditional French fare, sourcing ingredients from local organic growers, adding a soupcon of African flavours to the mix. A starter of tuna tartare preceded silverfish or beef fillet in red wine sauce and chocolate fondant with poached pear and yoghurt Chantilly completed the meal. Prices are higher here than at Joostenberg, but, says Christophe firmly, Glenelly is still a bistro where no jacket is required.
It ‘s a measure of his talent that Glenelly’s owner, 91-year-young Madame May de Lencquesaing chose a chef who specializes in rustic fare to complement her ranges of distinctive estate wines, which offer Old World elegance and New World fruit in appealing combinations. Visitors can choose to dine at long wooden tables on the terrace, or inside where antique chairs and classic Parisian tables offer views of verdant hills of manicured vineyards.
This article first appeared in the Life section of the Cape Argus on Tuesday November 29.