I am writing this early on Saturday morning, I check in for the RMS St Helena at lunchtime today and onward to the next chapter in this adventure. Cape Town has been a very pleasant and positive experience and somewhere I would have no hesitation in returning to. Much of this sentiment is down to the “home from home” surroundings here at Huijs Haerlem Guest House. I have stayed and inspected over 1000 hotels and guest houses in my time but ask me to name and remember some of them and its only the really fantastic or really BAD ones which come to mind. I can honestly say that Huijs Haerlem will be a strong memory for many years to come and if in Cape Town again I will certainly stay here. So it’s onward and upward as they say.
St Helena here I come!
I don’t know about others but when going on a journey; (or adventure as this is!) the day before leaving becomes entrenched with packing and other essential but unexciting diversions. This was the case yesterday. By noon I was ready to escape.
I hadn’t really done the world famous Kirstenbosch gardens justice when I visited on the Cape of Good Hope tour. 45 minutes to see these gardens is almost an insult! The gardens are nestled on the backside of Table Mountain and are supposed to have more species of plant life in them than the whole of the British Isles!
Now I am not a botanist but I am a lover of colour, formation and anything that looks good in the viewfinder of my camera. The weather wasn’t that great, windy and grey with a spattering of rain every now and then. I managed a good three hours walking around. The proteas are just starting to bloom. These flowers you sometimes see in expensive bouquets in the UK but they certainly won’t grow over there. They come in a myriad of colours and sizes and all look fantastic.
My body clock was telling me it was time for lunch (3.30pm yes it was!) so I headed to the Kirstenbosch tea rooms. And what a delight that was. The young man who served me was articulate, very pleasant and had voice that could have been put to use doing the trailers for blockbuster movies........”she was scared, she was alone, she had nothing. Then it happened!” When I asked him what the Rump steak was like he said “DIVINE” in a deep baritone voice.......now that’s not a word I hear often to describe a meal of any sort and with my aversion to overpromising and underdelivering I was on my guard! However I had been so impressed with the beef over here that I ordered the steak. It truly was DIVINE! Chargrilled and tender with a variety of vegetables chips and salad! It was just what I needed on this grey day. The tearooms certainly do the gardens proud and as mentioned staff here are very pleasant and customer focused which is fantastic
The Kabab Mahal marketing speak goes like this: “At Kabab Mahal you discover the finer nuances of the bygone era through the extensive display of dishes. The dining concept is unique in terms of its simplicity yet mysterious as the mystic aroma of its delightful kababs and curries. The welcome at the door is as warm and inviting as the fragrant aroma of spices that envelope you when you enter this intimate restaurant”
Well if all that is the case then why does the restaurant look like it’s in need of some TLC in the decor department and the staff appearance? The whole impression comes across as a tired and “seen better days” type restaurant. This appears to be an example of over promising and under delivering.
The menu prides itself on the variety of kebabs on offer as well as the list of usual curries and biryanis, pricing is a little above average (my meal of kebab, lentils, naan and a drink came to R150 or £13.00) for this part of Cape Town so my expectations were high. The person who took my order could hardly string a sentence together let alone discuss the menu with me. When asking for a glass of cider with ice no lemon it appeared with lemon and no ice! The meal was edible but disappointing as the palak paneer (spinach and cheese) wasn’t available, the lentils ordered were tepid and the naan bread was lacking any element of pillow like puffiness. My warm kebab could have benefitted from another three or four minutes in the oven as there was no colouring to it and it was watery.
Enough said, we know what to do......we just don’t go back.
La Boheme Menu
By contrast (thank goodness) just a stone’s throw down the road is La Boheme where I visited earlier in the week and vowed terminator style to return!
Second time around was just as good if not better. The girls & boys looking after the tables were on the ball with food and wine recommendations for all and even welcomed me back when they recognised me. The prices knock Mr Kabab into a cocked hat with a two course meal and drink for R113 or £10.00.
The meal this time comprised of fish, corn and chilli spring rolls with soy dip and from the other side of the world beef schnitzels with creamy parmesan potato wedges. The main arrived looking like a whole meal and then came along a dish of beets, lentils and corn on the cob! I ate the lot.........it was terrific.
Walking back that evening it was no surprise to me to see the difference in these two businesses. La Boheme had a good few folk dining or having drinks in the place, candles lit and a general aura of warmth and welcome. Kabab Mahal had one table with people sitting at it, and they were the staff.
www.eatout.co.za congratulate themselves as being the only restaurant guide you’ll ever need! Well I think that may be the case in South Africa but it wouldn’t be much good on the streets of London or New York so let’s just say it’s the only restaurant guide you’ll ever need in South Africa! Their annual best places to eat list is a comprehensive testimony to the diverse culinary talents across this country and lists 1000 eateries with the bests ones getting full page coverage and interviews with the chefs. Many of the best restaurants are to be found (as in France and the USA) in the wine producing areas and therefore inaccessible to me on this trip (no car).
At number 7 on the list is Aubergine. Familiar with the restaurant of the same name in London I contemplated whether this Aubergine was named after the London Aubergine or vice versa? I decided to Google – “Aubergine Restaurant” to see whether I could find out. Interestingly there seems to be an Aubergine Restaurant in every major city of the world, in fact Google came up with 3.5 million suggestions for the name, too many for me to trawl through so perhaps I will never know.
Aubergine can be found tucked away in a small side street near the Mount Nelson Hotel, considered to be Cape Town’s favourite hotel. Aubergine's restaurant is modern looking with much wood and glass. A courtyard to one side offers diners an al fresco experience although on my visit it was far too cold to consider.
At R180 (£16.00) for a two course lunch I was surprised to be the ONLY diner that lunchtime. Having recently bought a small Toblerone and pack of ginger biscuits at the local supermarket for R52 (£4.50), it was even more baffling. The very pleasant and professional Maitre D’ said that the restaurant filled most evenings but lunch was always more of a lottery. “Same in most places” I thought to myself. Veal Kidneys with balsamic braised lentils and morel foam caught my eye, as did the fish of the day with waterblommetjies and braised tomato with crustacean sauce. “What are waterblommetjies?” I hear you ask. They are a cape delicacy and only found around here at this time of year. They are the shoots of an edible water lily and can be compared to crunchy watercress with less pepper I guess. Great for adding texture to a dish without adding calories!
The meal was certainly above average with kidneys and fish both in tip top condition and readiness for the table. Either my taste buds are on the wane or it just wasn’t there but I didn’t get any of the promised morel foam flavour on my starter. Perhaps they aren’t as strong as the European morel?
I didn’t take wine although the wine list looks fabulous, including some interesting dessert wines, (my favourites), and by the glass which is always a bonus to smaller parties such as my own!
Would I return to Aubergine? Yes I would. I thought it unpretentious, excellent value for money and meeting the expectations of being one of the best restaurants in South Africa. Whether it deserves the No 7 spot I won't know as on this trip there will be no going around benchmarking the other top restaurants in this massive country.
Maybe next time?
Day four and Camps Bay in the rain. Camps Bay is heralded as THE beach to see and to be seen hence the restaurants huddled around the bay are quite upbeat looking with new looking decor and a host of staff. Usually frenetically busy, Camps Bay was almost deserted other than a few tourists like me looking for something to get them out of the rain.
Ocean Blue chose me as their diner by having one of those engaging door staff who thrusts a menu into your hand and suggests that dining with them could be the turning point in your life! I was going to check out menus down the street but dry and warm seemed a far better proposition with the banter from the friendly doorman. The menu had the ubiquitous variety of grills, fish and steak and lobster etc. Specials were pointed out, one being “surf and turf” with sirloin steak and grilled calamari at R9.00 which is about £8.00. Although not a great lover of huge chunks of meat and little else I do love a bargain so ordered S&T. When it arrived I was pleasantly surprised at the excellent quality of the beef and calamari, both in massive quantity and very tasty. The beef was suffering slightly from the malaise that had struck my kinklip, it was tepid and a tad on the raw side so was sent back (no sushi bar here!). It returned with an apology and the right temperature.
Service at Ocean Blue couldn’t have been more different than my La Boheme experience. Having said that it wasn’t rude, it just wasn’t there! Once the meal order had been taken and food delivered there was not one bit of interaction with guests. Staff appeared to be working at half speed, perhaps in order to fill their day as it was so quiet. It was a strange mix as the chap on the door couldn’t have been more upbeat and pleasant. It would be interesting to return here when the sun is shining and the place is packed. Would the special be such a bargain? Would the staff have upped their game? Could the less efficient service be because they don’t have the regular clientele as does La Boheme? Could it be that customers just fall into the place during the season? I will probably never know.
Day three was a local choice which I had read about and wanted to try. It didn’t disappoint at all, in fact this place had the WOW factor which from this jaded diner is really something! La Boheme is the neighbourhood bistro everyone wishes they had on their doorstep, open from breakfast till late, menu written up on blackboards and changed as ingredients arrive or are sold. The team here (and I say team as they worked as one) were friendly attentive and interested in their customers. I arrived at the tail end of the Tapas and drinks session and the beginning of the full blown dinner session. I could choose where I wanted to sit and the menus were explained with enthusiasm and recommendations. Other customers were being well looked after, even when just having drinks.
An interesting crispy flatbread and warm crusty bread arrived once the order had been taken, swiftly followed by grilled sardines with lemon chilli and parsley. I also had riblets of lamb with hummus and tzatziki. The riblets turned out to be a large stack of crispy cooked lamb breast which had been tenderised by slow cooking and then crisped up in a hot oven, YUM! Service was well pitched with checks on enjoyment and appropriate clearing, by a variety of staff with no repetition as sometimes happens when dealt with by more than one server. Ever had three different staff ask if you want another drink or the bill? I will certainly be revisiting La Boheme before the end of this visit so we will see whether they can get full marks for consistency!
Day two’s meal of the day was taken at Willoughby and Co in the Victoria and Alfred waterfront which is one of the number one tourist attractions of Cape Town. I had walked what seemed like the whole waterfront eyeing up potential dining locations and again using the criteria of the busiest must be best went to Willoughby’s! Grilled kinklip with lemon butter was the special of the day and as this was an unfamiliar fish to me I went for it. TripAdvisor ratings put this place at No16 out of 260 other eateries in the area; although the last review (not so positive) echo my own feelings. The TripAdvisor comments are mainly for the sushi which seems to be judging it on its size, something I have never associated with sushi.
Staff were certainly friendly but in that no eye contact way and with little purpose other than to take the order and deliver the meal. Sadly for the business there was no satisfaction check or query of whether I might like anything else (yes more lemon and some black pepper for a start!). Sadly my kinklip was raw in the middle; perhaps this was the sushi rearing its head again! It took a good minute of waving to attract someone’s attention which was a tad embarrassing as the seating I had picked was in the centre of the main shopping thoroughfare. My waitress, whose tunnel vision prevented her from seeing me waving, then stopped at my table and noticing that my main plate had been cleared asked how I must have enjoyed my fish as I’d eaten it so quickly! Considering she had only delivered the said meal one and a half minutes earlier I was surprised to say the least. Apologies were made and the kinklip was returned correctly cooked and with fresh chips, hurrah!
My first evening meal was a hasty one as I had left it till the sun was just setting before walking down the hill. I was planning on walking along the promenade to a restaurant about half a mile away but was startled to find that the promenade and green was covered by thousands of folk all getting ready to sit and have a picnic. They were part of the local Muslim community who had come to the area to watch the sun go down as it was the last day of Ramadan. It unnerved me somewhat as darkness was falling and back home in Somerset 10 people constitute a crowd. I hastily changed plans and retreated back to the main shopping area below my guest house.
The Xiang Yuan Chinese restaurant seemed the busiest out of the four of five in a row so this was the chosen meal for the evening. Tucked into a bank of shops the place is unassuming as restaurants go. An open frontage and outside seating give smokers the opportunity to eat and smoke at the same time; a choice long gone in the UK. Sushi seems to be the national dish over here, nearly every restaurant I see has some form of sushi on offer and although this looked to be a down home Chinese restaurant with only 30 or less seats, there was the sushi bar at the back with the chef busily creating his wares. The menu was handed to me by a pleasant and attentive young Asian lady who explained the menu and what was on offer. There was regular Chinese, more authentic Chinese, (chicken feet anyone?) dim sum and of course the sushi. I love dim sum and I love sushi so a combination of dishes was ordered........in hindsight it was too much: Steamed roast pork buns, a crispy rice cake, steamed pork won tons and prawn California roll. The meal was rapidly devoured with my waitress returning to the table to check I was enjoying everything.
I guess the standard of service was good enough to warrant a 15% tip which is what was automatically put on my bill; however I am sure all will agree that we would prefer to make our own decisions about what to tip and not be told! Shame as it leaves a downbeat memory to what was otherwise a pretty good meal which in these times where the customer is King could be risky.
Why do we love to travel? To experience another country and its customs perhaps? Alas it sometimes takes time to comprehend and get a feeling for a place, especially when that place has a certain edge to it in terms of personal safety. It is during that in-between time that I have sometimes felt like Alice in wonderland.
It’s now day four and things are becoming a little more familiar. This is in many ways due to the genuine hospitality of my hosts at the guesthouse I am staying at. Huijs Haerlem is perched above the area of Cape Town known as Sea Point. The area is San Francisco like with the steep hill running down toward the ocean. I can see it from my room and can watch the sun go down, love it!
Recommendations for things to do and places to eat come forth with enthusiasm. Johan, my host is a keen baker so homemade bread and bakery goodies are an integral part of every breakfast time as are homemade jams and some lovely fruit salads. My accommodation is perfect with large airy bedroom, power shower and bath and plenty of coat hangers! An honesty bar stocking a variety of good South African wines sits just outside my room as does a giant bowl of fruit.