Chef Bertus Basson has always been a highly charged individual, and of late he has channelled ever-more of this incandescent energy into his food enterprises, opening a number of restaurants and off-shoots to restaurants as well as being featured in a number of local food TV series. The latest restaurant to open is Eike (which will soon be reviewed); joining Bertus Basson at Spice Route, Spek en Bone, De Vrije Burger, The Deck and his very popular catering company.
This latter part of his career, leading to his current position as one of South Africa’s pre-eminent chefs – one could call it his “mature” phase, even though he would probably dislike this – began at Overture on the Hidden Valley wine farm just over 10 years ago. Since Overture was recently re-opened after a renovation, it was a good time to revisit the “mothership” of his current portfolio.
From the start, here at Overture, Chef Basson created an experience that combined innovation and evolution in South African cuisine, married to bold flavours and surprise elements on the plate – alongside a knock-out view high up the valley. Now the restaurant space is substantially improved in the practical sense that it maintains its superlative panoramas but is now better weather- and wind-proofed. The light-filled interior has been elegantly enhanced in a modern contemporary idiom and is (again) more mature in its feel: lovely organic touches against modern, bold contrasts such as concrete and plain metal tables against supremely comfortable leather seats. The whole has been simplified and straightened-out without losing any of its relaxed charm. The kitchen, which has always had a surprisingly small footprint, has seen enlargement and improvement – no doubt very good for morale.
Service here has always been personal but with good “generals” keeping an eye on matters. The very experienced Mathias Heinz currently holds the floor. For any diner, the reassurance of a “host” is not only welcome – it used to be a sine qua non of any decent restaurant. However, for reasons that usually include a lack of resources and/or experienced individuals, but can simply reflect a lacklustre restaurant culture, this vital role is so often lacking, even in top-end establishments.
But I’d easily argue that it’s as important, perhaps even more important, that South African restaurants spend more energy here. Decent food is enhanced by good hosting skills and great food deserves it. So while we tend to have some layers of experience in the kitchens (and even here they are less developed than they could be), on the floor we generally find a dire lack of managers in the old-fashioned sense of people who are actually working the floor, not just popping in and out to “ask how your meal was”, if at all. In other words, managers with an emphasis on the service part and less on the back-house business part.
On this day, the menu options were a five course set menu or a three course à la carte (but with pre- and post-courses this equates a five courser). The value is very good for this level of cuisine: Three courses for R575; five for R725. However, the wine prices are noticeably high. The estate wines offer mid-price options, but the list really goes straight for upper-end luxury and commensurate pricing. I’d prefer not to find myself buying a French red wine for R400, as we did this day, because it hits a reasonable (better?) quality/price nexus.
To start, one classic amuse, gougeres, and one playfully local one, “Chrisna’s olives with bokkom cream”. Bokkom, dried West Coast harder (fish), is a (very) localised delicacy and these olives carried the pungent ultra-fishy reek without shirking. Probably a dish that would sharply divide opinion. In mine, the tangy intensity could have been modulated without losing the idea, which I really liked. The gougere was good, as was the contrast of classic and novel ideas.
Bread service was enhanced by the homemade butter, a bowl of fragrant tomato, garlic, basil and oil, a tasty slice of pig’s head terrine with mustard, and delicious “whipped kuite” – fish roe blended with yoghurt, et al. – light and flavoursome.
Starters. The “charred Cape bream, spiced coconut dressing, cucumber, macadamia, charcoal oil, coriander and sesame seeds” was delightful – super-fresh fish perfectly cooked and very well accompanied with ingredients that enhanced the liveliness of the fish and added layers of texture.
Second starter. “Slow cooked rabbit, gnocchi, spinach leaves” was good, but not quite as singing. Somewhat dry meat and a plate that had me expecting more than the basic comfort dish it was, considering this menu, in this restaurant. Probably would have worked better treated purely as an Italian plate, but then it would not belong here?
Mains. In “crown roast chicken, prawn, Brussel sprouts, Jamestown spinach”, the menu nods to the provenance of the spinach (a local suburb of Stellenbosch) but the bird itself is surprisingly “origin-less”. A plate that relies on each element being on point, as there is little place to hide, the chicken was fine but the prawns were not springy bright in texture. So overall, fair but not superb.
Second main. “Tomato sorghum bredie, baked aubergine, basil, peanuts, parmesan” was both novel (for restaurant menus) and very good indeed. Rich and pure flavours with well cooked elements. One of the better plates, and certainly a stand-out vegetarian one (a bredie being a stew).
Dessert. They are famed for their soufflés, and today it was an orange soufflé with vanilla ice cream that did not disappoint.
More innovative was the “chocolate mousse, mulled pear, naartjie” dessert that hid its cacao heart most effectively – an elegant and well-executed dessert with freshness and richness in play – but lovers of chocolate “puro” would have missed their “hit”.
Coffee was served with “the chef’s take on Jolly Jammers, one of his favourite childhood biscuits” and this is the kind of playfulness that chef Basson has long been celebrated for. The menu on this day brought a more mature and less edgy kitchen to the table but the blend of new and traditional, classic and very local, is still a signature and the reason Overture remains a very important restaurant in the modern South African scene. But an evolution into classicism, or simply a more fully-grown restaurant and team, demands a constant precision of the kind that is less susceptible to be hidden or excused by innovation or flamboyance.
Lunch daily; dinner Thursday to Saturday
Hidden Valley Wines, off Annandale Road, Stellenbosch
021 880 2721