The beauty of winter in the Cape is that you can walk into your favourite restaurants without worrying about reservations (though some exceptions apply). The curse is that they may well be closed*, or keeping erratic “off season” hours. It’s a lottery, or a project for organised minds who call ahead (and don’t make the mistake of simply believing Google’s opening hours on the search page… or even the restaurant’s website, for that matter).
So it was that I traversed to Franschhoek one sunny winter’s day to discover that not one but two of the places I was keen to eat at were closed. Franschhoek is an epicentre of Cape wine and food and this says something about the distance we still have to go. Imagine the Napa Valley closed for business on a clear winter’s day? I am not saying there is any lack of will from the operators, I just know there are not the feet to make it worth being open.
Fortunately for me, one of the absolute stalwarts of Cape tourism (and previous winner in the Best Of Wine Tourism Awards) was open – Pierneef on the La Motte wine estate. This very attractive and beautifully maintained property has much to offer beyond the dining spaces, including an art gallery that celebrates the work and life of the artist the restaurant is named after. Pierneef is celebrated not only as an artist but as a quintessentially South African one, with a gift for bringing this landscape to life.
And when the eponymous restaurant first opened under chef Chris Erasmus (now at Foliage), they attempted this same philosophy, the menu replete with uniquely South African ingredients, recipe riffs and dishes. It was an exciting opening, a restaurant with something to say about modern South African cuisine, something lamentably few do, turning instead to the safety of international cuisine and current global trends.
Today, the Pierneef menu is not the ground-breaking document it used to be (to wit, they offer steak as a permanent blackboard special) although vestiges remain. I can (again) only surmise that their clientele was not up for the more experimental offerings.
The service has always been very good, and remains so: well trained but not robotic, so that you get a welcoming sense of localism but still on-point attention. The space is elegant without being overbearing and features whimsy like the chandeliers created from old-fashioned crockery. Seating is super comfortable, tables are well-spaced and there is an inside/outside flow that really works for the summer months.
And even though the menu no longer has the intense Cape focus of yesteryear, there are still numerous ingredients and dishes that name-check local roots, with the Cape bokkom salad a long-standing champion on the starter list. An ox tongue terrine also harks back to “grandma’s” food. This meal began with the savoury blue cheese and yellow mealie (corn) “waffle” featuring “blonde” poached pears, bacon whipped butter, pickled cucumber and Cape ham.
The sommelier explained that the chef likes to present multiple “impressions” of a key ingredient on a plate, here the pear was poached as well as dried and also turned into a purée. Arresting to look at, it didn’t eat as well, the “waffle” (their quotes) tasted like it had been hanging around a while (though the taste was very good and authentic), but mainly the multiple flavours didn’t quite gel. The Cape ham, particularly, was a miss – the dried pear offered a better “ham-like” texture that was in keeping with the flavour palette.
On my mains plate, it was the turn of beans to be turned into impressions in a dish titled: Venison with peaches and Cape snowbush. It was further described as a white bean cassoulet with confit onions and saucisson sec. When I enquired about the Cape snowbush it was explained as an indigenous plant with rosemary-like flavours. Using a local plant for culinary flavour is exactly what I’d like to see more of, but here it felt like pure name-checking, as the ultra-reduced, even acrid marmite of a sauce in the bowl overwhelmed any delicate herbal elements. I was not partial to the overly gamey springbok, though again the Cape association was there – it was rolled with peaches at the centre.
Smoky apples and custard was recommended for dessert over the brandied date clafoutis – and came as a rather good apple and walnut cake on top of which a thyme and vanilla custard, and a meringue “shell” covering all. The bowl was brought to the table theatrically covered by a glass lid, the smoke swirling inside and billowing when lifted. The only problem is that it left the meringue with a burnt, ashy flavour – which seemed to summarise the experience: too many ideas and an execution that is too often lacking in refinement, the result of straining to push too far.
La Motte, Main Road, Franschhoek
021 876 8800
*Ironically, please note that Pierneef is closed for a winter break from 17 July to 10 August
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