Review: Skotnes at Norval Foundation

The Proposition

As of writing, the Norval Foundation building is so new that they are still snag-fixing, but it is already something to behold, and clearly adds another contemporary jewel to the crown of the Cape’s beautiful art spaces so far populated by the likes of the Zeitz MOCAA and Cavalli. The Norval is a space where creativity is on display in the architecture as much as in the sculpture garden and the exhibits within. The gallery has a strong link to the famed South African artist Cecil Skotnes, hence the name of the restaurant on the premises. So it’s an eatery with plenty of sophistication and high art around it to live up to.

The Experience

I use the word “eatery” advisedly. An acquaintance of mine recently claimed that you cannot call a place a restaurant if it doesn’t have table cloths. I could use this reasoning, but I’m pretty sure the modern interpretation of “restaurant” allows for “cloth-less” establishments; in any case, cloth-less Skotnes is more of an eatery than a restaurant in its relaxed menu that leans more to casual than to finer dining. There’s also a kids’ menu and weekend brunch offerings. The approach and style of the team on the floor is certainly more casual than “strictly” correct. But the space is high style and so are the appointments – it’s all very beautiful to look at and to touch. But this is a food site, so let’s not dwell on the picture frame…

When I first looked at the menu on the website, I was happy about the attention to South African flavours apparent. The starters offered a chicken liver parfait, with “port” and plum jelly alongside toasted mosbolletjie (a local bread traditionally leavened with grape must); a fried chicken salad with makataan (a native melon) preserve and a whole jaffels section (more on this below). Within weeks the menu has shifted here and there (which is very standard practice, especially for a new place), but regrettably quite a few of the more unique local flavours have been removed. So we focussed on those with a Cape slant that remained.

From the salad section, the “hot smoked salmon with a three bean salad, beetroot, courgettes, avocado, kale and sour fig vinaigrette” (sour fig being a plant native to the Cape sand dunes). This was unfortunately one of those times that what one imagines while reading the menu does not equal the reality of the plate – which was more of a poké-like, “deconstructed” salad. Perhaps it was one of those times (every time?) that one should ask the waitress what the dish *really* is when you are presented with a menu that essentially reads like a laundry list of ingredients. Nevertheless, there was freshness galore, and a good crunchy texture, but I like my hot-smoked salmon at room-, and not fridge-, temperature. Sure, hot-smoked refers to the method of cooking, but that same method presents a better result if the meat is not then overly cooled afterwards, which robs it of flavour. The three bean salad (very regional) was fair, if garlic-heavy, but I missed a bold expression of the unique sour fig vinaigrette ingredient.

Hot smoked salmon and three bean salad

A jaffel was a must-try, and this was the “croque monsieur” version, with fynbos honey-roasted gammon and Emmenthal cheese, served with a tomato smoor. What makes a jaffel – an iron-pressed and toasted sandwich –  different from any other “toastie” is the ringed shape that the iron impresses on the bread, so it was a pity to have this hidden under a very heavy-handed cheese blanket. The jaffel itself was ordinary, stodgy and mute in flavour. The other options – with “Cape Malay” braised brisket (not sure there is a bona fide “Cape Malay” version of this?) and peach chutney filling; or spinach, feta and butternut – may have been better choices.

“Croque monsieur” jaffel with fynbos honey-roasted gammon and Emmenthal cheese, served with a tomato smoor

On to the main courses. Here the bias towards “eatery”-style dishes is even more obvious, with choices like linefish tacos and a burger, but I was again drawn to what they would do with the options that showed a more local approach. Bobotie is of course a famed South African main course, and very seldom cooked with much respect in restaurants. Here it is offered as a lamb version rather than the more common beef. It’s also “pulled” instead of minced, both welcome departures. Beautifully presented in a hot skillet with rice and condiments served separately, the flavours were good (and true to type) but there were problems in technique both in the too-sloppy meat and the dried out, hard rice.

Lamb bobotie in fiery hot skillet
Curry leaf rice and bobotie condiments

The second main was a piece of steak ordered mainly to see what they would do with the accompaniment, a braaibroodjie (a toasted sandwich, usually cheese and tomato, cooked over coals), once more a very traditional South African side order. The free range ribeye was served with bone marrow, parsley pesto and the broodjie.

The steak arrived a regrettably thin cut, meaning the requested rare was more medium and anyway cooked at too low a heat, while the bone marrow had been crumbed and fried, a case of gilding the lily. The braaibroodjie was pretty and tasty, however not coal-toasted, which is what gives this food its unique flavour.

Ribeye with braaibroodjie

Desserts tasted were the piesangbrood (banana bread) with granadilla namalaka (a variation on a ganache), granadilla glass and burnt banana ice-cream; as well as “Japie se gunstelling” (Japie’s favourite), which was roasted naartjie atop a baked pudding with marmalade caramel, and burnt honey and macadamia ice-cream. These were both good, if pretty similar in texture combinations.

Banana bread dessert
“Japie’s favourite” dessert

The Verdict

The images, I think, illustrate the sensory beauty on display here, and a good few hours at the gallery and eatery are indeed a very pleasant and recommended visit. I do, however, feel there is an opportunity here to take local cookery more seriously and this chance is rather squandered – I challenge the team to pay some proper attention to the local ideas they are working with. Using evocative names or employing concepts without being true to origin (for example, the braaibroodjie) or translating ingredients into Afrikaans is not good enough on its own. This fantastic establishment deserves more.

Skotnes at Norval Foundation

1 Ou Kaapse Road corner of Steenberg Road, Tokai, Cape Town

087 654 5900