At the root of all the great contrasts between Johannesburg and Cape Town has always been their respective attitudes to money. Long before the first miners dug earth on the Rand, Cape Town was old and established with institutions and traditions. It bided its time, waiting for ships to arrive and grapes to ripen on the vines — the home of old money and the certainty of compound interest.
But Jo’burg is impatient, impetuous and has ambitions fuelled by risk and adventure. It is a town of schemes and failures, boom and bust. Jo’burgers put their faith in the redemptive powers of bankruptcy and starting anew.
Over the past two decades, a new breed of Capetonian — smart, fast and innovative — has emerged.
One such operator is epicurean entrepreneur and restaurateur Paul Kovensky of the Aroma Liquors family. He started off in the nightclub business. Hard work, vision and boundless energy has resulted in Kovensky launching five restaurants in 10 years along the lucrative Camps Bay-Clifton stretch: Paranga, Pepenero, Zenzero and The Bungalow Restaurant. These are trendy establishments where people go to be seen; places, which when busy, are described as “pumping”.
It was therefore with some trepidation that the dyed-in-the-wool Constantia set learned last year that the beloved three-centuries-old Alphen Estate had been turned over to city slickers Kovensky and his long-time collaborators at Stefan Antoni interiors.
Originally a part of Groot Constantia, it was the first estate to grow grapes and make, bottle and sell its wines to the public. It boasts the oldest surviving mill on the peninsula. Its guests have apparently included Captain James Cook, Mark Twain, Cecil Rhodes, George Bernard Shaw and Jan Smuts. For 150 years it has been in the Cloete family and for the past few decades in the capable hands of Nicky and Dudley Cloete-Hopkins.
In good hands
The Alphen reopened late last year after an extensive facelift. Certainly, the boutique hotel looks a lot younger and more vital. In the manor house the extensive private collection of antiques, gold-framed oil paintings, original Irma Sterns and heavy fabrics are still present, but they are now interspersed with modern surreal fantasies, oversized chandeliers, designer provocations, Nguni cow skins and hedonistic furniture. My one complaint is the annoyingly inappropriate and repetitive “ambient” music.
The old green-and-white Cape Dutch buildings under the oak trees and autumn leaf litter stand undisturbed. It is a beautiful property.
The Boer and Brit pub of the landed gentry is now the La Belle Café, deli, bakery and bistro for breakfasts and lunch. It specialises in salads, sandwiches, light meals and patisserie.
For a starter I tried the grilled green asparagus spliced and served on a salad of rocket and tangy mustard greens with some capers, topped with a poached egg and a light, sweetish béchamel sauce.
The mustard-and-herb roast chicken — a drumstick and attached thigh — had a bit too much sauce and was a little anaemic.
The beer-battered kingklip, neatly presented on a wooden board with the chips in a tin bucket, had perfect texture.
Evening dining takes place in the 5 Rooms Restaurant, which is exactly that: five rooms, all with fireplaces. I spied Dudley Cloete-Hopkins and other Cloetes having a relaxed dinner in one. The rooms are pleasingly well lit when so many restaurants these days seem to be run by Eskom.
As a guest of the establishment I was assigned to the “portrait room” with its historical paintings of, among others, Dr James Barry and Lady Anne Barnard.
Despite its opulence, this is not a fine-dining venue in the way other Constantia wine-farm restaurants such as Buitenverwachting, La Colombe and The Greenhouse are. Kovensky has taken a more profit-making approach. Chef Fernando Roman gives the South African middle class what they like and understand.
For a starter the cold, fresh and smoked salmon tian with “smashed avocado”, caviar and crème fraîche was fat on the palate. The spiced artichokes with asparagus, cucumber, watercress, poached egg and lemon dressing was far more successful.
Our waiter recommended Haute Cabrière Pinot Noir 2007 for the starters. Of course, it is nearly impossible to find a wine to go with artichokes — the cynarin in them makes the wine taste sweet.
For mains a Waterford Kevin Arnold 2009 Cabernet Shiraz was suggested.
I opted for one of the signature dishes — the lamb trilogy of biltong-dusted lamb loin, grilled lamb cutlet with whole grain mustard and lamb tortellini with truffle sauce.
This dish would be better off as a duo because the combination with creamy, sauced pasta simply is not kosher. The tortellini itself was rather good, but it is an ill-conceived match.
The braised duck with Asian greens, roti, sweet chili, lime and soya reduction was superb — one of the best duck dishes I have had in a long time.
For dessert: chocolate fondant, chocolate ice cream and a Nachtmusik cappuccino, and a trio of crèmes brûlées with fresh berries, a pink ball of spun sugar and mint.
Like the mythical salamander, which is the Alphen’s emblem, this Cape Town establishment has shown the power to reinvent itself once again.
By Brent Meersman for Mail & Guardian online