/ 14 March 2011

Sea Point seagull

The culinary rehabilitation of Sea Point reached a new level last year with the opening of La Mouette (the seagull).

Co-owner and chef, young Henry Vigar, has an excellent pedigree — he has worked alongside the likes of Paul Bocuse and Alain Ducasse, and in several Michelin-starred establishments, including Auberge du Lac and La Noisette (now closed), and fairly recently as head chef at Kensington Place.

The restaurant is in a Tudor Revival-style house on Regent Street, once home to that Sea Point institution, the Europa — I remember it being popular for paella on Sunday nights in the late 1980s.

According to my Lonely Planet guide, the double-storey home was built in 1919 and was once the official residence of the mayor. The characterful interior with grand wooden fireplaces and lead-paned windows has several elegant dining rooms. The cobbled entrance courtyard sports a large, bubbling fountain stocked with koi.

I’ve dined inside and alfresco and both spaces are pleasant, although some of the metal chairs outside are very uncomfortable and, if you’re like me, phobic about music blaring from speakers in restaurants, you might want to avoid the patio and sit away from the house. There are woofers and tweeters hidden in the perimeter foliage, but the din blends in with the general city hum after a while.

The service can vary greatly. The first time I went, it was spot-on. But on my last reconnoitre, the personnel behaved as if they had hardly been trained. Dishes and wines were plonked down in front of us without the waiter identifying them; neither could they always answer questions. Apart from restaurant reviewers, most people do not try to memorise the chef’s descriptions of six courses and their wine pairings before returning the menu to the staff.

Vigar’s taste favours a classically French bent — modern fine-dining, keeping it unassuming and unfussy. There are slight Asian twists (rice noodles, nam jim dressing, dim sum) and strong Occitan influences — ­ratatouille, bouillabaisse, risotto, chourizo and sauce vierge (though no cassoulet).

The opening special of R150 for the tasting menu has expired, but the current R210 for six courses, R400 if paired with wines, is still good value.

A glass of non-vintage Graham Beck Brut arrives first. Then there is a choice of two for each of the regular courses, except the premier.

The hot deep-fried croquette truffle balls filled with cheese were decidedly moreish and were served in a snazzy spherical dish cut away like one of those pod chairs from the 1960s. There used to be an option of a potato and shallot bhaji with spiced yogurt and tomato chutney, which I think was better.

Soup follows. The chilled tomato gazpacho is a consommé, so it is clear. But frankly it was a little bit like salad dressing, primarily because it was too oily.

There is watermelon and tiny translucent cubes of tomato jelly (the waiter said they contained apricot, but I could not detect it). An unwooded Tokara Zondernaam Chardonnay was an appropriate match.

The other choice, a warm coconut broth, was far more successful, but also suffered from too many floating globules of oil, probably rising from the tasty vegetable dumpling in it. Its partner, a Thelema Muscat de Frontignan, was persuasive.

To follow: the artichoke ravioli, garnished with a strongly scented basil leaf, was pleasing, if shy, but that helped the wine — a Glen Carlou Tortoise Shell white blend. The calamari they used to serve has been scrapped in favour of a more novel Cape salmon ceviche with fine green chilli, served in a glass, topped by an unusual amount of espuma. The slightly oaked Allée Bleue Chenin Blanc 2010 was suitable. As you may be gathering, the wine pairings were good, but nothing exciting.

For entrées: angel fish, delicately roasted, with diced red bell pepper, a sweetcorn salsa and smoked paprika dressing, and a herb-crusted beef sirloin. This was the tenderest sirloin I have ever had, accompanied by coriander carrots, smoked aubergine purée and dainty potato gnocchi. The Waterford Pebble Hill 2008 I found a disappointing choice given the nature of the establishment and that this was essentially the star course.

A deconstructed ‘gin and tonic” — tonic jelly, gin syrup and bracing lime ice cream — has replaced the apricot sorbet palate cleanser. It is a delightful deconstruction, a really refreshing pick-me-up.

To end, a thin triangle of Kimberley cheddar with peppercorns, a smidgen of quince jelly and a square of crisp lavoche bread. The De Krans Cape Ruby Port was fortifying.

La Mouette already appears to have a healthy tourist following from the nearby hotels; every time I went more than half the tables were not speaking South African. For locals, it is a welcome addition to the fine-dining scene, especially since Jardine folded and others are tottering.

La Mouette, 78 Regent Road, Sea Point. Tel: 021 433-0856