96 Winery Rd review

O dear, I am very behind on this review. Amazing how a solid weekend marking Honours essays will motivate attention to other procrastinations. Since I’m late and it wasn’t my choice, this may be a slightly short and perfunctory review, at least compared to my usual screeds. This was Eckie’s choice, at the end of August; 96 Winery Rd is a rather attractive restaurant in wine country between Stellenbosch and Somerset West. In a break from tradition we went for lunch, since it’s easier to trek back into town when full and slightly drunk if it’s also not pitch dark. On the other hand, there goes the day, and you’re not much good for the evening either, owing to a tendency to groan a lot and refuse to move.

The vibe in this place is lovely – the countryside is beautiful, and it’s a large, spacious, well-lit place with lots of room between tables and a pleasingly thatched roof which always gives me flashbacks to family Christmases on the ranch. The décor is warm, lots of wood and random pictures and a slight sense of comfortable clutter – a very farmhouse feel. The service is fine, also warm and pleasant, and the relaxed vibe is reflected in the fact that, on a Saturday afternoon, there were only two other tables occupied, one of them for several hours by a family including small (regrettably noisy) children. That didn’t really work, unfortunately, with their menu, which points to the ineradicable problem with this place, viz. its multiple personality. It needs to work out what it wants to be, already, and not do this weird mix of relaxed with formal, fine dining with steakhouse, family with swish.

Eckie chose the restaurant because it apparently does good steak, which suggests a slightly more steakhousey, large-portion vibe. But it has pretensions of novelle in its presentation, which is all artful and piled, and it has a a tasting menu. The tasting menu has no bloody idea what it wants to be. Its portions tend to be slightly larger than the usual upmarket tasting menu, possibly too much so, because we were all seriously and almost unpleasantly full by the end of it. And its “fine dining” thing is horribly half-arsed. The best example is the salad which made up the first course, which is billed as “Winter salad with truffle and sherry dressing”. The truffle and sherry dressing was delectable, I seriously have to try that flavour combination at home. The salad was a pile of iceberg lettuce with a few half-hearted bits of tomato and other random veggies I can’t even remember now – radish, perhaps? – tucked randomly within. It bore a striking resemblance to the traditional steakhouse lettuce/tomato pile all right-thinking diners leave righteously on the side of the plate, secure in the knowledge that no-one really expected you to eat them. Token, is the word. I felt the same about the pork bellies, which was clearly on the menu because every good Cape Town restaurant in the history of ever does pork bellies at the moment. I have no problem with the trend, pork belly is a lovesome thing, god wot, but these were arb. Tiny portions, crackling more soggening (although I can’t really bitch about that, it’s the one area where Overture fumbled the dismount last time we went), and the usual, uninspired, sweet-potato/chutney garnish. I think the wild mushroom risotto was better, quite intense flavours, and the pinotage/berry/black pepper sorbet was lovely, but I honestly don’t remember much about the main courses – seared salmon, Hollandse pepper fillet, créme brulée. All very standard dishes, no stand-out flavours or combinations. Hussar does everything except the salmon. The steak was, in fact, good. I have the vague impression that the pine nut/maple salsa with the salmon may have been interesting.

I think this experience may have been better overall if we hadn’t gone for the tasting menu – the problem is, it raises fine-dining expectations which are simply not met by what is effectively nicely-executed high-quality steakhouse fare. If they want to be in the Overture class, they need to provide something more than a slightly unenthusiastic imitation of the current top restaurant trends with a nouvelle glaze. It wasn’t at all a bad experience, but it would have been better if it wasn’t confusing.