Restaurants in obviously popular places often see little need to try hard with their food. (See: Camps Bay.) At South Africa’s extremely attractive and much visited Constitution Hill, this could have been just a nice little spot with an easy-pleasey menu. Instead, each item is truly considered and prepared with utmost care, calling food lovers to flock to The Hill Café.
The chefs source responsibly, sustainably and super-fresh; grow the ingredients; bake all the breads, rolls and baguettes every day on site; preserve and bottle accompaniments and sauces; and even make cheeses to produce a variety of delicousness every weekday. The menu is a mixture of firm favourites and experimental specials, but always what’s in season.
The bun of the house burger is baked that very morning; the bacon cut to desired thickness. This, the best burger patty in my eating experience, is composed of a combination of three different beef (not fillet) sections from Braeside Butchery, for varying textures and tastes. The accompaniments are plucked from the planter boxes in front of your hungry eyes - I’ve even seen sweet piquant peppers flourishing in boxes - and the burger’s sauce has been created in the kitchen for the right smoky flavour. The chips are hand-cut, of course.
People stand up to come examine a plate of sweet potato, feta and avo pancakes served with homemade yogurt flecked with just-picked herbs and golden pumpkin seeds – and then ordering the same. Guests exclaim a lot and Instagram when the food arrives, such as bunny chow of lamb curry in a specially created bun; the pulled pork of slow-cooked barbecued neck that comes with brioche and fresh coleslaw; and the pies with house-made phyllo pastry containing a mixture of artichokes, mushrooms, roasted potatoes and white wine. A seemingly simple roast chicken salad features roasted baby tomatoes, balsamic breadcrumbs, grilled thick-cut bacon and The Hill’s mayo spiked with mustard.
Specials featuring currently are marrow bones with herbed crostini and homey soups, while salads like the warm chickpea, box-grown aubergine and broccoli with bulgar, toasted sunflower seeds and a lemon yogurt will never be allowed off the menu.
There’s no real dessert on the menu; people often order a grilled pineapple dish, unbelievably thick and fresh milkshakes, or fun coffees in Consol jars.
The serious coffees are made by Mike the barista, who’s been practising his art since The Hill opened late last year. Alongside the Graham Beck bubbly range and the Spier collection, expect dalliances with Shannon Vineyards and the red wonders of Morgenster before the management settles on what wines are most eagerly sipped by “the people”. I love that absolutely every wine is available by the glass. Beers fall into the classic and the very local craft categories, but the most popular drinks are actually pressed juices made with farmer-sourced fruits.
Vincent Chipendo is the masterful manager of The Hill Café. He’s very earnest about his food and its journey to your table, but is also very amusing. Staff always look as though they’re having a joyous time here, and it’s infectious.
That lightness of spirit is especially remarkable contrasted with the gravity of the old gaol courtyard, ramparts and watchtowers. Nothing permanent may be built here, so the outdoor part of the restaurant seems to float a little above the old paving stones, with specially engineered sun- and shade-vents. The long bar runs its smooth length under Mandela’s quote about letting there be justice, peace, work, bread, water and salt for all.
The old warden’s house contains the bakery, kitchen, more restaurant rooms and a comforting fireplace. The kitchen is wood-fronted and sunny, with men in toques popping in and out to snip produce out of the décor, the fresh things in boxes surrounding the outer tables.
Part of the success of The Hill Café is that it is an Awethu project, where promising chefs and restaurant entrepreneurs are given experience and trained in every possible way for excellence in their chosen fields.
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