Right, so for the purposes of this review of Eckhard’s choice, the part of Eckhard will be played by Jessica. Please imagine this entire review read in a hammy German accent.
The Roundhouse is a national monument dating back to the eighteenth century; it’s a quaintly circular building perched up on the hill above Camps Bay, with a spectacular view over the bay, the hillside and the sunset. It’s also the most upmarket and expensive place we’ve eaten yet, which means that this won’t so much be a review as an extended meditation on the nature of Value and Service in the Modern Restaurant. We had a fabulous evening.
It starts well because they reserve parking for their guests, and offer to re-park your car for you if you didn’t stop to enquire about the reserved parking and parked all the way down the hill. There’s a small waiterly phalanx on the front steps, including one of the evening’s hosts: you are welcomed, your reservation confirmed apparently from memory, and are ushered into the rather charming curved-walled, wooden-floored restaurant to be given a table right next to the window and the view. Everything’s white linen and solid silver cutlery, but they’ve left what could quite possibly be several hundred years worth of graffiti scratched into the windows, so the whole thing has an air of slightly raffish character. Your jackets are hung up for you. (I love that. It’s such a personal touch). They suggest aperitifs, and bring you incredibly tall glasses of gin and tonic, filled with ice. The host introduces himself, and the menu, which is full of fascinating flavour combinations – foie gras and mackerel, quail with artichokes, hake with roasted peppers and fennel.
The service in this place is, quite simply, superb. There’s a very high ratio of waiters to guests, and they seem to stagger the arrivals of the guests deliberately, so each arrival is a bit of a production. They passed the water test with flying colours – it arrives in a lovely old silver jug, and your glasses are filled attentively. If you leave the table, someone folds your napkin. The wait-staff drift around in the middle distance, working in well-coordinated teams to bring everyone’s meal to the table in one fell swoop; they synchronise movements by eyebrow semaphore and, apparently, telepathy. The waiter wanted us to order four courses at once, we wanted to do two first and then the next two; the host was there in seconds to graciously permit the deviation. They are very, very good at reacting positively to exceptions.
The menu is set out in four courses – starter, fish, mains, dessert, with three or four options in each – but you pay for either four or five courses, and can pick from wherever you like. (Jo, predictably, had steak for dessert again, which cracked up the waiter rather gratifyingly). You can also do the wine-pairing option for an additional charge. The charge is not small: R395 for four courses without wine, R595 for the same with wine. It’s inevitable that we’d compare this with Overture, who still come out ahead – food slightly better, prices lower, and, most importantly, larger portion sizes. The Roundhouse is very nouvelle; when the first course came out, I was conscious of a sinking feeling, looking at the tiny, arty island of food in the middle of the huge plate – it seemed entirely disproportionate given the cost of the evening. The wine portions are likewise small, less than half a glass, although beautifully served in individual glass decanters. It’s a testament to the quality of the food, service and ambience that we ended up leaving feeling absolutely the reverse of taken for a ride.
So, first course stv and I both had the ricotta cannelloni with pickled beets, which was unusual and really excellent – strong beet flavour and creaminess enhanced with a balsamic jelly reduction which was amazing and intense. (The rosé which went with it was perfectly chosen to complement it). Jo and Eckie had the foie gras and smoked mackerel terrine, a slightly bizarre combination which worked absolutely beautifully, and was served with (fairly minute portions of) octopus and toasted brioche, which, yum. The second course was slightly more substantial; my roasted cob with a chorizo and mussel veloute came with mashed potatoes, and was very good and surprisingly like a creamy bouillabaisse in flavour. (Eckhard also had this, as I recollect). Steve had the hake with roasted peppers, which I think was the winner in this course – lovely balance of flavours, the strong peppers very interesting with the more delicate fish. Jo went, I think, for the crayfish with smoked pork trotter and broad bean salad, and I am completely unable to remember what that was like, owing, I suspect, to flavour overload.
For third course, Jo and Eckie tried the lamb’s brain/tongue/cheek combination, daring things that they are. The waiter was not actually significantly helpful with this, suggesting that the lamb’s brain was “chewy”, whereas Jo and Eckie were more inclined to describe it as “not chewy”. The tongue was excellent, though, and the celeriac purée a surprising but apt accompaniment. I had slow-cooked quail with artichokes (yum! I love artichokes, these were tiny and tender and intense) and asparagus, and a rather vivid sherry-based jus. I can’t remember what Steve had – the same? Losing track.
Dessert was good – Eckhard had a baked camembert which he didn’t say much about other than that it was good; Steve’s chocolate fondant with honey ginger ice cream was the clear winner. I had a raspberry soufflé: it’s served all hot from the kitchen, and the waiter cuts a cross in the top and inserts a scoop of pistachio ice-cream. It was very good, moist and fluffy and seriously raspberryish, but a little too sweet for my taste. Should have had the chocolate. Jo had, as aforementioned, beef with a parsnip puré, which I think was good but not spectacular.
I think this could have been a disaster in the legendary mould of Aubergine, except for three things. (Apart from the beautiful setting, which is On Tap courtesy of Cape Town, and thus slightly cheating). One, we were expecting the steep price, and had decided to go for it anyway: we were in the mood to immerse ourselves in that upmarket atmosphere. Their web information and phone booking process are very good at making perfectly explicit exactly what you’re getting into. Two, they really do it very well. Their service is immaculate: attentive, intelligent, alert but not actually too intrusive, and you end up feeling enormously well cared for. The food is beautifully prepared and served, rife with fascinating flavour combinations: the portion size ends up nicely-judged in a four-course meal so you’re satisfied by the end, but not overstuffed. I mean, we have no problem with overstuffed, but occasionally an elegant sufficiency is a nice change. Three, they do it with a refreshing, charming and rather warm-hearted complete lack of pretension. I was struck by the good humour of the staff – they seem to genuinely enjoy working here, and interacting with their clients. There was none of that offended, rather rigid and slightly stultifying thing Aubergine did to us which basically made it an awful evening.
So, on the Patented Jo Scale:
Atmosphere: 9 / 10 (classic high-end dining with a particular warmth, and a really lovely setting)
Staff: 8 / 10 (intelligent, good-humoured, good at their jobs)
Service: 9 / 10 (It’s a whole ethos of service, and it shows)
Food: 7.5/ 10 (Good, interesting, occasionally exciting, slightly variable in quality)
Value for money: 7 / 10 (a heavy blow to the wallet almost completely justified by the experience)
I’d go there again in a heartbeat, supposing I had a lot of money and a really spectacularly important occasion to celebrate. But I think I’d go to Overture first.