Classics: La Perla

Certainly one of Cape Town’s longest-standing dining institutions, La Perla opened its doors in 1959. It’s the kind of place your parents probably ate at. It has gathered scrapbooks of famous diners and certain tables are known as “so-and-so’s”. But I struggle to get its mystique – at least by looking at the plate. Then again, by concentrating on the food, I think I’m looking in the wrong place. It’s all about the “face” of it here. Quite literally.

To start, there’s the fantastic position and its sea views, followed by the bold art that has always adorned the interior, and in human turn filled by the “see-and-be-seen” set since the beginning. Then there are the waiters, in their European white tunics, who put on a great show of being proper. They may in fact be the defining element of La Perla’s form of nostalgic food theatre, and some of them (fewer and fewer, it has to be said) have a decades-long tenure here. However, the feeling that there is an element of role-play was bolstered by our waiter, who smoothly enquired after our lunch order by starting with “ladies and gentlemen…” when there were only two men at the table.

But, good looks aside, is this quality food theatre?

A recent lunch suggests there’s more pastiche than good performance. In my memory, this establishment had always charged a premium for its fame and position, so I was pleasantly surprised when the wine list presented good options in most categories, at fair prices. The trouble began when trying to order. The last bottle of our first choice, I was told by the returning waiter, had been sold that weekend. He made a few seemingly-random suggestions but I asked for the list again. When naming my second wine option failed to register, I was forced to indicate my selection by placing a finger on the typed word in the wine list – a bit of physical clarification that is unfortunately not uncommonly required, but I would not have expected at this establishment. Ditto the fact that the vintage was wrong when the wine arrived.

And so to the food. A Caprese salad and a house-made pasta to start. Caprese is one of those beautiful combinations of ingredients and flavours that relies on freshness and quality, as there is nowhere to hide. I think you can guess where this one went, and even though my expectations were low, they failed to reach them. Barely-ripe, ordinary tomatoes with plain supermarket-grade mozzarella is a sure sign of pastiche – certainly when you are paying R110 for the plate.

The “Piemontese Beef & Chicken ‘Pinched’ Parcels with Basil & Tomato” (R135) were better, as long as you are not seeking heaps of flavour. The parcels were tenderly cooked, and the olive oil and grated Parmesan presented on the table helped to kick the flavours up a notch.

Main course plates offered no enlightenment to La Perla’s fame. “Tagliate” [sic] of sirloin with roast tomato, olive oil, chilli and garlic (R215) was again plain and under-seasoned, mostly aided to flavour by the sun-dried tomato (which was not even mentioned on the menu).

But the tagliata was actually much better than the kingklip, which was (hopelessly over-) cooked in the house-style “Medallions of Linefish with Tomatoes, Capers, Olives and Baby Potatoes” (R240). It did not look too appealing to begin with, either.

It certainly is (now) the case that the vitality of La Perla is not on the plate but what’s around the food. This truly is ground zero for the form of cuisine I call “South Africa Italian” – a very bland and rather lifeless interpretation of a vital cuisine, one which aims to upset no-one, but shouldn’t impress anyone. Of course, the fact that you are sure to run into people that claim to love the food here, even people with second homes in Churchhaven or Capri, is another matter.

La Perla

Beach Road, Sea Point

(021) 439-0817