Decrypting French cuisine

With less than 10 hours of daylight, as autumn changes to winter (officially on the solstice on June 21), thoughts turn to soft comforts, good red wine and fireplaces. Given Cape Town’s reputedly damp, grey winters, there is a real scarcity of fireside dining venues. Yet on wine estates they abound with Steenberg, Delaire, Glen Carlou, Haute Cabriere and, of course, at Constantia Uitsig, La Colombe.

In the city bowl several historical homes that have been converted to restaurants still burn log fires. The Opal Lounge has two, but the place itself is suffocatingly pretentious. Asoka, Rick’s Café and Rafiki’s have open hearths, but all three are extraordinarily rowdy places and dinner is not their priority. They will be popular with the soccer fans though. The Societi Bistro, however, strikes the right note.

Formerly in the V&A Waterfront, where it had a good name, but was philosophically out of place, the Bistro relocated to a charming heritage property with sash windows on Orange Street, home to several restaurants and lounge-clubs over the years.

It has three fireplaces, counting the inglenook, and there are several rooms in which to dine. On Indian-summer nights (we had a spectacular few recently), one can also dine out on the large patio, surprisingly undisturbed by the traffic.

The popular bar, The Snug, will put up a big-screen TV for the first time for football fans, which seems quite compatible with the vintage erotica on the walls: Physique Pictorial postcards of muscular American hicks wearing nothing but lunchbox pouches.

The dining areas are homely with wooden floors and exposed red brick, gentle lighting and Putamayo’s French compilations playing softly in the background. A large window inset with a grainy black and white photo of the Eiffel Tower cues one for what to expect from the menu.

Owners Tammy Botbyl and Peter Weetman are full of proactive concepts: They offer a chauffeur service; a chef’s table starting at R200 a person; three- or five-day courses under the banner “Kitchen Unconfidential” (Anthony Bourdain is obviously one of the chef’s heroes) where you can train to “dice onions like a pro”, make custard and get a “complimentary callous”. They sometimes offer enticing discounts to theatregoers at the Intimate across the road.

On one of the five occasions necessary for this review, I dined after Gaetan Schmid’s wonderful physical comedy Rumpsteak about a French restaurant. French cuisine is so codified, dishes can be evaluated and rated on a comparative basis with reasonable fairness. Head chef Stéfan Marais appropriately, for a young chef mastering his art, is not attempting to take us into new territory, but to provide us with well-proportioned, honest comfort. His method is classic not traditional. Some nights I did feel like the chef’s guinea pig, which is not entirely fair on the paying customer. His approach is akin to Raymond Blanc’s foolproof French cookery, though Marais could learn a few things from Blanc on presentation. Perhaps a certain sloppiness and understatement here is intentional; the kitchen aims to be a neighbourhood restaurant; the staff to give an open-house feel.

The á la carte autumn menu, like the season, is an in-between arrangement; not quite summery Tuscany, not quite wintery Paris. To his credit, Marais promotes local and seasonal produce, changing the menu quarterly.

The wine list has an adequate price range with well-chosen cheaper options. Only one kind of bread is served, which is a pity, because the options of baguette or an olive sourdough would enhance the menu.

Marais likes his soups chunky; even for a minestrone (R38) it was shy on liquid. For starters, I recommend the rich chicken liver parfait (R42), also the sautéed duck liver salad (R44) and the tomato and parmesan tart (R40) will be familiar to diners as it is identical to the one introduced to Cape Town by the Savoy Cabbage’s Janet Telian in the Nineties. The lamb liver starter (R38) was overpowered by a very piquant sauce; the veins and connective tissue had not been trimmed properly, which was regrettable as this is more important with lamb than with calf liver.

For mains, the pork neck (R92) is a signature dish. The Cape fish (R90) was a well-prepared kabeljou, but the white polenta was inedible. The waitress removed it without hesitation and offered alternatives.

Mushroom risotto (R94) is a filling dish and can be monotonous so it’s also offered in a small portion (R64). It is intense and flavourful, with thyme and bay leaves coming through. Cream seems to be added and not left purely to the creaminess of the rice starches. The lamb shank (R130) is a generous size with lots of red wine sauce, mash and carrots.

The artisanal cheese platter is sparse and here the presentation shows itself to be a shortcoming. The vanilla ice-cream (offered complimentary on my third visit) is a safe dessert.

Societi is a well-run, comfortable, homely neighbourhood eatery. I noticed more than one food critic colleague relaxing there.
Societi Bistro, 50 Orange Street, Gardens, Cape Town. Tel: 021 424 2100. Open Monday to Saturday: dinner until 11pm; lunch from noon; Saturday brunch from 9am



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