Ask any bona fide globe-trotter to list their favorite places in the world, and South Africa and its Western Cape will come up time and time again. Few other cities can match Cape Town’s abundance of activities, natural beauty and topographical variety. But venture to the wilds that surround this extraordinary city and the treats in store are just as superlative. Stunning windswept beaches up the coast, the Cape of Good Hope to the south, and a seemingly endless series of jaw-droppingly beautiful, mountain-framed, vineyard-studded valleys in every other direction.
And as if this magical landscape with its world-class harvests weren’t enough to draw the world’s tourists to the Winelands region, it’s here, between the towns of Franschhoek and Stellenbosch, Paarl and Somerset West, that some of the country’s most creative chefs are busy cooking up dishes to rival the finest in any major metropolis. Add the current unprecedentedly strong dollar-Rand exchange rate into the mix and you can look forward to a luxury gastronomic tour that most of us can only dream about. Here’s where to eat in South Africa’s wine country.
The Tasting Room at Le Quartier Français — Franschhoek
With awards, accolades and acclamatory anecdotes to spare,Le Quartier Français’s Tasting Room is a place where expectations run high. Some even claim this was the place that put Franschhoek on the tourist map. And when the modus operandi is to serve only an eight-course evening surprise menu (and accommodate whatever dietary requirements are thrown at them as part of the deal), you know they’re either crazy or have the kind of confidence that only the culinary crème de la crème can boast.
Lay eyes on award-winning chef Margot Janse’s first dish of the night, and it’s clearly the latter. In our case, onion and lime crisps with a black pepper snow (which looked just like real snow). And for her next trick? Magic broccoli in five unbelievably delicious preparations (puree, moss, leaves, crisp and tree cake).
Innovative and almost otherworldly, Margot’s menu even celebrates anthropological elements in its artistry, with inter-course vignettes and gourmet presentations of African ingredients such as the superfood boabab or salt-baked peach.
Dinner at the Tasting Room is as much education as meal, particularly if you choose the renowned wine pairing that will almost certainly make you a South African convert by the end of the night. One word of warning, though: This doesn’t involve tiny pours, so after a day’s wine tasting around the valley, you may find yourself wondering if it’s the wine or Margot’s wild imagination that’s making your dessert change shape before your eyes. Turning food into performance art, her theatrical genius renders her world-class surprise menu a truly magical gastronomic adventure. Wilhelmina St., Franschhoek, 7690; +2721 876 215; lqf.co.za
Babel – Paarl
If you think you’ve experienced a garden-to-table concept restaurant but haven’t yet eaten vine-side at the historic farm hotel Babylonstoren, think again.
Effortlessly eclipsing the entire concept with an unrivaled veggie garden and biblical valley views to match, Babylonstoren is both a gastronomic destination and a horticultural wonder of the world. From planting to preparation, your meal has been designed to push the boundaries of what a genuine passion for food can achieve.
Don’t be deterred by the size of the plates pirouetting from kitchen to table at Babel, one of the property’s two restaurants — when they recommend a color-coded salad to start, order with gusto. Rainbows on a plate, these color explosions aren’t just a celebration of nature’s greatest palette but an example of the aggrandized aesthetic of former South African Elle Decoration editor Karen Roos, who is the visionary behind all things Babylonstoren — and, arguably, the most stylish salads in the world.
But while they may take garden chic to new heights, there’s not a hint of shallow here — from vineyard and garden to table, this is a profoundly wholesome affair. Take time out to chat with any of the staff and you’ll take home a little of their passion, an appreciation of craft, and the love that has gone into every bite.
If you can’t get a reservation at Babel, turn up anyway — the farm’s other restaurant, Greenhouse, works on a first-come, first-served basis. R45, Simondium, 7670; +27 21 863 385; babylonstoren.com
Foliage — Franschhoek
Bare brick walls, wooden beams and relaxed decor are a deliberate echo of the back-to-basics ethos that’s made Foliage a Franschhoek favorite with locals and visitors alike. What they know that you don’t is that when it comes to taste, there’s nothing basic about this food. Elevating a passion for great produce to new heights, chef Chris Erasmus puts love and dedication into sourcing his ingredients. Often found roaming the local countryside to forage for delicacies or chitchatting with locals while fragrant clouds billow from his sidewalk smoker, what Erasmus serves up is a genuine community affair.
You may be lucky enough, like us, to find farmer Charlie’s suckling pig on the menu, or treats from a neighbor’s garden, opened up to help Erasmus continue his foraging after the summer drought. It’s this local sense of connection and the warmth of the open kitchen that give Foliage its home-away-from-home feel.
For meat eaters, there’s local venison, such as kudu or springbok. Vegetarian creations include warm squash and heirloom tomato salad (from the restaurant’s garden) with house-made mozzarella and feta and basil vinaigrette, plus pan-fried cauliflower, watermelon and BBQ-roasted beetroot with cashew nuts as a main.
For dessert, specials like lavender and basil panna cotta with wild plum mousse, peach jellies and marshmallow are as home-grown (or home-foraged) as it comes. Franschhoek, 7690; 27 21 876 2328; foliage.co.za
La Petite Ferme — Franschhoek
A veritable institution on the South Africa wine trail, La Petite Ferme boasts heart-stopping views of Franschhoek’s gorgeous valley and the mountains beyond. Its longtime and well-deserved reputation was developed under the patronage of the Dendy family, who invested such personal passion into running the cellar tours, restaurant and vineyard that you were practically guaranteed to run into them when visiting. Proprietor John Dendy was even known to get up and sing on request at the end of an evening.
So when, in late 2015, the Dendys passed the baton to new owners the Nest Co., some wondered if it was the end of an era. Appreciating the richness of their inheritance, the new owners were quick to emphasize that, while keen to enhance the vineyard, they were fully committed to maintaining the essence of its past.
And if food and wine are anything to go by, the famous luncheon institution is as impressive as ever. The Petite Ferme Verdict Bordeaux Blend flagship red plays great accompaniment to unusual vegetarian flavors, such as curry lentil and apple-filled samosa with carrot coconut cream, or any meat option. And you can’t go wrong pairing the melt-in-your-mouth signature whole smoked trout (with buttered baby potatoes, almonds, balsamic beetroot, parsley and horseradish mayo) with the viognier, with its hints of fleshy peaches and frangipani. To finish, choose the Valrhona dark chocolate tart with pomegranate sauce and cream to share, and watch it disappear in seconds. Franschhoek Pass Road, Franschhoek 7690; +27 (0)21 876 3016; lapetiteferme.co.za
Vergelegen — Somerset West
Famous for its camphor laurels, planted by the property’s owner back in 1705, this historic vineyard’s age-old woodlands are now a protected provincial heritage site. Formal fine dining at the Camphors restaurant and less formal international cuisine at the Stables are both worth booking ahead for, but from November to April, picnicking among the camphor laurels is the go-to experience.
Collect your basket from the Stables and find a table in the woods. For just R215 (about $14) a head, you can enjoy goodies such as snoek (mackerel) pâté, Mediterranean chickpea, cauliflower and lentil salads, beet-cured Norwegian salmon, and meat and cheese charcuterie. If you fancy a bottle of Vergelegen’s finest to wash it down, the cabernet sauvignon and the semillon/sauvignon blanc blends come highly recommended. Or venture to the tasting rooms to sample six reserve and premium wines. Cellar tours take you further up the mountain to the modern, architecturally striking winery plant, as featured on the vineyard’s labels. If you’re taking the kids, be sure to ask about the estate’s famous treasure hunts when you book. Lourensford Rd., Somerset West, Cape Town, 7129; +27 21 847 2100; vergelegen.co.za
Tokara Restaurant — Stellenbosch
If you’re a sucker for a stunning setting, Tokara has some of the best seats in the Winelands, where its lofty stone, steel and glass buildings gaze out over the valley between Francshhoek and Stellenbosch. Book a table on the wooden deck for front-row views or slip inside to watch multi-award-winning chef Richard Carstens and his team whip up fusion specialties such as springbok with turmeric croquette, mange tout, butternut, salted apricots, banana icecream and a curry jus.
While the dishes might sound complicated, flavors are elegant and the presentation understated — a reflection, perhaps, of the menu’s subtle Japanese influences. Unusual sorbets and ice-creams abound; on a scorching summer’s day, you can’t go wrong with goat’s milk cheese ice cream, vanilla crème, yogurt, pistachio honeycomb and raspberries, or orange buchu ice cream with orange cake and curd, almond parfait and meringue. Helshoogte Rd, Stellenbosch, 7600; +27 21 885 2550; tokararestaurant.co.za
Jordan — Stellenbosch
George Jardine was one of the first signature chefs to start cooking in the region, putting Jordan on nearly every list of top ten Winelands restaurants, and deservedly so. With a small but perfectly formed, daily changing menu — sometimes offering as few as three mains (meat, fish, vegetarian) — the emphasis is on quality over quantity. You’ll usually spot a South African thread, with local venison dishes such as double-herbed springbok loin, confit shallot, celeriac puree, creamed kale and butter poached turnip. Vegetarians are in for a treat with specials like crushed broad bean risotto with poached hen’s egg, ash rind goat’s cheese, and wild herbs and flowers. Jardine’s penchant for home smoking comes through in the signature smoked yellowtail and his selection of veloutes.
But be sure to make room for a visit to the cheese room, where you’ll find a huge collection of fine South African local cheeses, many unique to Jordan’s cellar.
If you can’t get a reservation at the restaurant, the Bakery dishes up less-formal lunchtime fare, with playful menu options including the Sticky Moo Moo, honey and soy-glazed beef brisket with toasted sesame seeds and dukkah slaw. Or for an upmarket take on East Coast South African Indian takeout, try the Brioche Bunny — Karoo lamb curry served in a brioche bun. Stellenbosch Kloof Rd., Stellenbosch, 7604; +27 21 881 3441; jordanwines.com
Rust en Vrede
From the vineyard chosen to supply the red wine for Nelson Mandela’s Nobel Peace Prize–winning dinner, Rust en Vrede’s award-winning restaurant is as noteworthy as its wines. But don’t let the fact that it produces only red wine worry you if you’re dining here — the restaurant has the most extensive list in the country: 1,200 wines and counting (they’re aiming for 1,500 in the next two years). Still, cabernet is king around here, and it would be a crime for red wine lovers not to sample the cabernet-driven Estate Blend that put this vineyard on the map. For something very special, the single vineyard cabernet is limited to 3,600 exclusive bottles.
And don’t expect the menu choice to be any easier: Rust en Vrede offers four- or six-course à la carte or the Estate Experience surprise menu. Flavors are predominately South African, with expat British chef John Shuttleworth keen to showcase the wonders of his new home’s finest regional ingredients. Don’t be surprised to find local delicacies such as antelope, kingclip (cusk eel) and Karoo lamb to tempt adventurous palates. Annandale Rd., Stellenbosch, 7599; +27 21 881 3757; rustenvrede.com
Where to stay
For somewhere equally delightful to lay your head, here are our top hotel picks in South African wine country:
Hawksmoor House: Cape Dutch luxury for less
La Providence: Elegant boutique hotel
Explorers Club: Stylish selection of self-catering houses for 2-10
Mont Rochelle: Richard Branson’s lavish retreat
Boschendal: Vineyard suites
Babylonstoren: Magazine chic
Lekkerwijn: Affordable and cheerful