5 stars : La Colombe Restaurant Review

CAPE TIMES, 26 NOVEMBER 2015

BY JOS BAKER

* * * * *  Pushing culinary boundaries

Jos Baker

I HAVE just celebrated a magic marriage. The pairing of a decade of De Toren wines with a menu created by the just-announced S. Pellegrino Chef of the Year: Scot Kirton of La Colombe.

For me, it was a serendipitous occasion, following up on a rare moment at a wine show some ten years ago. Working my way round the reds I spotted an unfamiliar label. Asking the origin of the name, I found that “the tower” signified that the wine’s gravity-driven cellar replaced harsh pumping-over in the farm’s gentle winemaking process.

I requested a taste and was stopped in my tracks. My sort of wine. A merlot-led smooth and succulent Bordeaux-style blend from South Africa – a country that both local winemakers and connoisseurs said would never make a good merlot-dominated wine? I filed the name immediately in my memory bank – and was happy to watch De Toren wines notch up scores in the coveted nineties by experts.

Although De Toren wines appear on the La Colombe winelist, it’s obviously unrealistic to expect the numbered and signed celebratory bottles of De Toren Decade, a single-vineyard merlot – grown in the vineyard, rather than made in the cellar, and selling at R400 a bottle – to be available for tasting. But I was so excited by the invitation that I unthinkingly didn’t realise that the dishes would not be available later on the restaurant menu.

However, the La Colombe staff assured me that the care and creativity that went into the De Toren matching exercise, characterises all wine and food pairing at La Colombe. In fact, menu matching is easier. You can try several wines to find the perfect partner, while in marrying food to a wine, you can’t tweak what’s in the bottle.

So what’s the format? In De Toren’s case, the wine farm sent the restaurant the selected vintages plus winemaker Charles Williams’s tasting notes. These were submitted to the wine-matching panel, led by acknowledged wine expert, restaurant manager Jennifer Hugé; wine-enthusiast head sommelier TJ Dhafana and the chef, who, in typically modest style, downplays his contribution: “I just throw some ideas on ingredients into the pot”.

For the De Toren paring, the result of the think-tank was, as always, mouth-wateringly unexpected and eye-catchingly plated. The stand-out combo for me was the choice of ingredients paired with the berry-rich, complex De Toren Z 2012: three ages of Boerenkaas, pickled alliums, balsamic cherry purée, cumin and walnut ice-cream.

When I spoke to him, Scot was still in shock at the news of his award. But he’s a realist, knowing that the hard work starts now.

His rise to culinary fame shows a steady upward trend. When he joined Haute Cabrière in 2001 he had no formal training. In four years he was sous chef. Next step up was London’s Savoy Grill where in a two-year crash course under Gordon Ramsay, he suffered the swearing and absorbed “the art of the perfect plate”.

Once back home he was appointed head chef of the River Café for a short stint, moving to La Colombe as sous chef when Luke Dale Roberts was appointed executive chef. When, in 2010, Luke opted for independence, Scot replaced him – the first SA born chef to head the La Colombe kitchen. Luke must be feeling proud of his protégée, with La Colombe now just one spot behind The Test Kitchen in the judges’ top 10 restaurant ratings.

Scot’s guiding mantra is to cook from the heart and believe in the dish you are creating. “Anything is possible, and this is what we celebrate at La Colombe.” Note that “we”. He’s quick to credit his kitchen team for his success; saying of the award that it meant “more than anything to me and my La Colombe family”.

Expect refreshing originality and playful presentation. Scot believes a dish must have that make-you-smile element that will make you remember it, and add to your pleasure when eating. Although he’s a keen fisherman, I confront him with his first hyper-critical assessment since his elevation. I suggest that the signature “tuna in a can” is past its sell-by date, having lost its surprise appeal. Unexpectedly, he agrees, but confesses his quandary: what you do when it’s so popular that people order four cans?

Those who enjoy surprises, be patient. He’s working on something new. Luckily, he has no shortage of inspiration. He finds ideas “everywhere”, from trying the cuisines of other countries, to crockery. He and key team members have just eaten through Spain (watch for smoked paprika in dishes). Ceramic sea urchin shells he glimpsed in a Simonstown shop window have stimulated ideas for a sea-urchin filling – without the spines.

l R210 average main meal off à la carte; R495 for four-course dinner menu; R790 for gourmand menu (R1150 with wine pairing).