Review: Eike by Bertus Basson

The Proposition

Eike by Bertus Basson is the latest addition to this dynamic chef’s collection. You can learn more about all of them on his website, and read our recent review of Overture here.

Eike is briefly introduced on his site with the statement: “I have always wanted to open a dining room that celebrates South African food”. It also explains that this restaurant offers only a “fixed” (tasting) menu. I’ve eaten here twice to date and the menu has so far seen small adjustments, but the idea is to update seasonally according to what’s fresh – but always in step with the underlying concept behind Eike, “to celebrate our food heritage” and to evoke the “nostalgia” of ideas and flavours that may no longer be in vogue – “inspired by childhood memories” says Basson. In a recent conversation with the chef regarding upcoming spring ideas, he explained that this could for instance take the form of pairing asparagus with “basic sandwich ham” – a canapé idea that may well have been a staple of middle-class suburbia in the 1980s, to go with the Barbara Streisand dinner soundtrack. (On the subject of music, Eike plays local-only tunes.)

Some of the menu items will reappear or remain, as these represent cornerstone flavours in South African cuisine. An example of this – his take on bobotie – has been part of the main menu to date but may evolve into an introductory course as opposed to the full plate it now appears as. But more on this below.

The Experience

As a “dining room” (an interesting point of distinction from calling it a restaurant, illustrating the “traditional” hospitality that they are aiming for) Eike is very attractive. A portal experience takes you into the single dark wood-beamed long room of a traditional Stellenbosch house: on one end a beautifully coloured hand-made tile wall with a traditional cabinet set inside it; on the other the open kitchen with a row of “ringside” seats. The handful of generously spaced wooden tables through the middle are custom-made and beautifully down-lit. And the hand-made quality is again illustrated by the art deco-style room divider that screens off the bathroom entrance.

Service is a strong suit with the experienced and delightfully urbane Colette as manager. The wine list and wine service (“we decant all our wines”, the steward explained as she aerated our white wine) is also a real drawcard, filled with interesting options and contemporary directions in South African wine.

Twelve courses (at R850 per person) by chef Kyle (with Basson often in attendance) were on the menu for my first visits, on both occasions starting with something fresh as a snack from the restaurant group’s Jamestown garden. On visit one, this was kale in a chickpea tempura; on the second visit, broad bean tips in the same batter. This is followed by an elaborately presented “wildebeest, celeriac and macadamia” course that, we are told, evokes Basson’s earliest memories of his youth in the north of South Africa. The parcels, perched atop oak twigs and leaves and presented on a polished giraffe shoulder bone, create a fauna/flora assemblage which is at once curious, bold and somewhat gauche. As a collection of flavours, I suspect there is more merit to be explored than currently present in this rather moist and indistinct parcel.

What then follows is far stronger in concept and communal flavour-memory, along with theatrical presentation: a “prawn cocktail” in deconstructed form but with all the savoury/spicy elements one expects, as well as crunchy deep-fried prawn heads for contrast.

Souttert” (literally, salt tart but more like Quiche Lorraine here) is again cleverly re-ideated as a mousse-like intermediary course. On my first round this was rather over-seasoned, but it was bang-on the second time round.

Opsitkers” (waiting up candle) harks back to rather historic farm times, when the farmer would light a candle when a suitor arrived to visit his daughter – the arrangement being that the suitor would need to leave when it burned out, so a well-liked suitor would get a longer candle… here it becomes a beef-fat candle that you dip your bread course into. Sourdough and “mosbolletjie” (grape must) bread the first time, sourdough and “roosterbrood” (griddle bread) the second, in rather generous portions, with home-made butter. The “roosterbrood” is cooked on the open coal range in the kitchen (also later used for the steak) and this is a true South African “braai” staple.

Along with the bread, lamb “biltong” and Jamestown kohlrabi as well as “cucumber presse, olive brine, labneh”. I would have preferred the kitchen to re-imagine beef or venison biltong which are much more representative of this national dried meat, and I certainly liked the second rendition of the lamb more than the first, which was too thick and raw-flavoured. The cucumber dish was, however, a superbly refreshing blast of texture and flavour on both visits.

We then get to the “bobotie” a hyper-traditional “meatloaf” recreated here as a variation on kibbeh. Actually it’s even more complicated in culinary references, as the kibbeh lies underneath sweet potato “raviolis” that are filled with the egg custard that is usually found on top of the traditional bobotie meat layer. For me, the essence of bobotie, and it’s raison d’etre, is as a recycling of previously cooked meat, be it beef or lamb, in mince form. So this is a bold variation. I can imagine Basson wanted to put good space between his interpretation and the many poor versions you find in restaurants, and also to “fancify” this very ordinary casserole. While there’s an interesting conversation to be had around this (and purists may shudder), the flavours are nevertheless true to the template – and as Basson related to me, it is important to give culinary tourists a taste of this dish’s interesting interplay of sweet, spice and savoury.

“West Coast memories” follows, a rather wild melange of “Miss Lucy” (Red Roman fish), bokkoms (dried fish, see here), waterblommetjies and “viskopsop” (literally fish head soup, but usually fish stock in general). On my first visit this course was the clear standout, beautifully cooked fish with deep and rich accompaniments that really evoked the marine elements. On my second visit, the fish was regrettably over-cooked.

One may begin to feel pretty well-fed at this point, but you are only getting to the meat course, and, as the kitchen will tell you, being over-fed is true to South African hospitality. “Plankievleis” is simply meat from the braai presented on a wooden board – here, sirloin cooked over the coals. Closer to most braai experiences would be a lamb variation of this, and I hope this variation will arrive in due course. The meat was well-cooked, but lacked the point of difference that previous courses had. And as if some steak is not enough, this is served with more meat in the form of “Bees pastei” (beef pie) with potato scallops – accompanied by “pampoen poffertjies” (a true classic, pumpkin fritters) and spinach – which is usually creamed to qualify as a true “steakhouse classic”.

A pre-dessert of rose, sorrel and blueberry in mousse form provides a fresh hit of sweet and floral; and then the dessert “What happened in the garden of Eden”?, a rather elaborate and delicious toffee-apple concept.

Finally (unless you indulge in the supplementary cheese trolley) – “a kid in the candy shop” collection of small delights designed for your coffee or digestif.

The Verdict

Eike is a restaurant that is a vitally important addition to the Cape, and South African, dining scene. It truly interacts with our indigenous cuisine, and it’s also dynamic – at once paying homage and pushing in new directions. The space is delightful and very comfortable, and the service is certainly very good.

I do however think there is some way to go in polishing the experience to bring all the courses to the same level of interest and technical quality. Erratic seasoning needs attention, as well as some rather rustic presentations (assuming they are aiming for a fine dining concept). There is also a need to look at the “volume” of some courses, for instance the bread and meat rounds. I would also like to see closer exploration of key endemic ingredients (lamb, in particular) and cornerstone culinary concepts like stewing and preserving.

Aside from the actual food, what I look forward to seeing is how they ultimately define and refine the experience – whether they tune it towards general “fine dining” or more towards a sense of “South African hospitality” – with the particularity of style and presentation that this approach suggests. South Africans know the “feel” of a Sunday lunch – arguably the hallmark of our celebratory meals. And Sunday lunches are far from a small plate concept.

The evolution of Eike is going to be very interesting indeed.

Eike

Dinner Tuesday to Saturday

50 Dorp Street, Stellenbosch

021 007 4231

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