Within minutes of arriving for dinner at Aubergine, we have opted against a glass of the house bubbly in favour of water, and my husband has sent a fork crashing to the floor. ‘Be careful or they’re going to think we’re Michelin inspectors,’ I joke under my breath once our excellent waitress, Amelia, has very discreetly removed and replaced the fallen fork, restoring the initial harmony to this understatedly elegant space of muted acoustics and tinkling crystalware. This is by no means our first meal at this culinary institution in Gardens, Cape Town. In the 21 years since chef-patron Harald Bresselschmidt opened the doors of this restored 1830s house, it’s been a must for every self-respecting foodie on a visit to the Mother City. Which is not to imply that Aubergine doesn’t have a loyal local following. On the contrary; from our bistro table in the bar area, we see Harald emerge from the kitchen several times to greet his regulars. Apart from those lucky souls, there are several tables of Japanese and German gourmands experiencing Harald’s East-meets-West-while-proudly-SA cuisine for the first time, a number of business deals being celebrated, and a couple of older guys in tight trousers trying to impress younger ladies in tight tops (and it isn’t Aubergine’s fault if they don’t succeed). We even see two walk-in tourists invited to peruse the menu (but they quickly sidle out in pursuit of more casual fare). ‘Ausgezeichnet!’ is the comment from one of Bresselschmidt’s countrymen as he leaves, the German word that translates as somewhat better than simply ‘excellent’. ‘Exceptional’, perhaps. But, for a number of repeat customers at the establishment, the keyword is ‘consistency’. The food and wine combinations rarely, if ever, disappoint – which is why Aubergine not only achieved Diamond status in last year’s Diners Club Winelist Awards, but was also named best restaurant overall in the Western Cape for its remarkable cellar of both local and foreign wines, lovingly curated over two decades and collated in a veritable tome of a wine list.
My husband is someone who can look at a menu and immediately know what he would like to eat – on this occasion,
a light and summery cucumber gazpacho (with salad of octopus, tomato, green olives and chilli) followed by the lamb rump (whole roasted with black garlic, coconut purée, potato tuile and braised leeks). Sommelier Ralph Reynolds has promised not to ‘harass’ us until we know what we’re eating, but now returns with his dry sense of humour to suggest some Cederberg Bukettraube 2015 to accompany the chilled soup and Thelema Sutherland Syrah 2011 to go with the lamb, served perfectly pinkly medium-rare. Unlike my better half, I quite enjoy being steered towards dishes I wouldn’t necessarily choose myself, so I opt for the degustation menu, which one can enjoy as three, four or five courses – all with or without wine pairing. I can’t choose between the starters, so I decide to order both options: cured and sous vide sea fish (with crispy fried hake roe, braised tomato crème fraiche and purslane) paired with Blackwater Blanc 2014 (Francois Haasbroek’s cutting-edge blend of 80% Swartland Chenin Blanc with 15% Durbanville Sémillon and 5% Ashton Bourboulenc), followed by duck consommé (with duck ham and fillet) paired with Aubergine Special Cuvée Riesling 2009 (one of the restaurant’s ‘house wines’ produced, in this case, by Bruwer Raats from Elgin fruit, with Bresselschmidt personally involved to make sure it complements his cuisine). The fish dish is light, fresh, delicate, delicious – amazing with the Blackwater, a sip of which Ralph suggests I keep for the duck starter too. There are, in fact, two parts to this latter dish – and I am afraid to say the first is my least favourite combination of the entire meal, matching a Riesling sorbet with shavings of foie gras. While I adore foie gras (to the extent that my conscience allows it), the sorbet seems to rob it of that decadent melt-in-mouth deliciousness that I crave from time to time. Happily, the second component of the dish saves the day with its rather simple, savoury intensity – contrasting with the dry Riesling, which suddenly seems much sweeter, and proving the ultimate umami match with the glass of Blackwater. (Note to self: buy this wine by the caseload before all of Signature’s readers do…)
My main dish is the springbok loin (with a mulberry sauce, mushroom crumb and celeriac fondue) paired with Damarakloof Regale 2008. This Bordeaux-style red is, for me, a new discovery that comes – Ralph informs me – from a small farm adjacent to Joostenberg in Paarl. Quite savoury and herbal thanks to a little Cabernet Franc, its rich cassis notes are a wonderful foil to the tender, juicy, medium-rare meat with its sweet mulberry jus, and earthy mushroom and celeriac. Although the portions are not overly large, I don’t think I can manage dessert. However, I find my arm quite easily twisted by Amelia, who says I can’t possibly miss out on the délice of red fig and marzipan (with pomegranate soft centre and mango sorbet) paired with Krone Night Nectar Demi Sec Rosé 2015. Like all the dishes, it is plated beautifully and proves to be a délice indeed, the off-dry bubbly cutting through the shameless sweetness of the decadent white chocolate and marzipan. Hubby, meanwhile, declares his crème brûlée one of the best he’s ever had. After coffee – served with a selection of friandises (little jewels of home-made confectionary that make us feel thoroughly spoiled) – Bresselschmidt comes over for a quick chat. I ask him to share a couple of his secrets – firstly about pairing food and wine: ‘It’s simple. Food and wine can complement each other if they have similar flavours and levels of acidity, but contrast often works better.’ As for the overall success and longevity of Aubergine? ‘You just need good stamina,’ he smiles.
To make a reservation at Aubergine, call 021 465 0000 or visit aubergine.co.za.
Text: Joanne Gibson discovers; Photography: andreas eiselen/hmimages.co.za