Before Avant-Garde, the only things I knew about Russia was that it’s the progenitor of vodka, the world’s best caviar, and a rather depressing novelist called Dostoevsky. And so, upon arriving at the sprawling Hazendal heritage farm and wine estate on Stellenbosch’s Bottelary Road, our expectations were a blank canvas with plenty of elbow room for impression.
Mark Voloshin, the owner of Hazendal, is Russian, which explains the colourful percolation of Russian culture and cuisine into the estate’s offering, from its authentic traditional tea ceremonies to its soon-to-open vodka distillery. That’s right: move aside craft gin. Beneath these charming Russian accents, however, Hazendal is most assuredly South African in heritage with its collection of Cape Dutch homesteads dating back to the late 1700s, right around the time that Catherine the Great was behind the wheel of the Russian empire. And it’s in Hazendal’s beautifully restored and elegantly dressed historic wine cellar that you’ll find the estate’s wine tasting lounge and flagship restaurant, Avant-Garde.
Getting to grips with Russian cuisine
Executive Chef Michélle Theron had little experience with Russian cuisine before her appointment at Hazendal Wine Estate. It was under the gentle guidance and encouragement of owner Mark and his family, and the tutelage of an experienced Russian chef that she dived deep and mastered a diverse cuisine that bears the influence of multiple ethnicities and social classes, from Northern Europe to East Asia and from the austerity of the impoverished peasant class to the exorbitant excess of the tsarist regimes.
Avant-Garde’s menu presents a subsequent fusion of South African and Russian flavours and ingredients, a musical composition that would have impressed even Pyotr Tchaikovsky. Presented with such a smorgasbord of delicious sounding dishes and perhaps a few words we had to run past Google Translate, we sent our waitron back to the kitchen with a single request: “surprise us.” Chef Michélle responded with a magnificent volley of fusion dishes that both entertained and educated our palates.
Multi-course dining and wine pairing
We eased into our meal with an amuse-bouche of savoury pastry crowned with fennel-laced cream cheese and a generous dollop of black caviar, which we washed down with a golden flute of the Hazendal Scarlet Sails MCC 2014. Next, was a delectable constellation of starters paired with wines from Hazendal and surrounding farms along Stellenbosch’s Bottelary Road. Lightly smoked snoek and potato pampushki, Russia’s answer to croquettes, were served with Cape Malay curried sweet potato, apricots, and parsley purée and paired with the Hartenberg Riesling 2016; octopus terrine with a bright and lively salad of green melon, dehydrated tomato, salsa verde, chorizo, radish, and saltbush sprigs (pairing: Hazendal Sémillon/Sauvignon Blanc 2017); and asparagus, fennel, poached pear and pickled cucumber salad with Valley blue cheese from Riebeeck Kasteel (pairing: the Christoffel Hazenwinkel Cape blend 2017, a vibrant and fruit-forward, yet velvety Cape blend of Pinotage, Shiraz, and Cabernet Sauvignon.)
This inundation of delicious and surprising dishes was followed by a Ramen style bowl of mushroom broth packed with bean sprouts, spring onion, tender slices of pork with crispy skin, a perfectly cooked egg, and springbok pelmeni (Russian-style dumplings). Then, we tried the winter-perfect slow-braised lamb on a bed of kasha (a savoury barley porridge) with hazelnuts and mushrooms, which, we were told, is traditional ‘peasant’ food in Russia; and roasted Kei apple-glazed duck breast with an apple and onion tart. I adored the upturned onion halves filled with Chef Michélle’s rich, savoury reduction. These main dishes were paired with the Goede Hoop Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 and Hazendal Chenin Blanc 2017 respectively.
Dessert was no less impressive and just as artistically rendered as every dish before. We had the apple sharlotka, a classic Russian apple sponge cake topped with a flavourful apple and thyme ice cream in a milk chocolate encasing; and Anna pavlova with cream cheese custard, green tea sablé cookies, matcha coated milk rocks, strawberries, and cream. And while, by this stage, we were grossly over-filled, we managed to conclude the experience with that classic vodka cocktail: the Moscow Mule. How could we boast about our meal at Avant-Garde without a nip of vodka?
Picture perfect setting
My early ignorant impressions of Russian cuisine – potatoes served with potato and a side of potatoes – has been completely obliterated by Chef Michélle and Avant-Garde’s sumptuous menu. Enjoyed in an elegant, classically attractive setting complete with hand-painted mural ceiling and a view of the wine cellar’s impressive stainless-steel tanks, Avant-Garde truly is a picture-perfect venue for long, leisurely lunches framed by Hazendal’s beautifully-crafted wines.
Avant-Garde at Hazendal is open Tuesday to Sunday from 11:30 to 15:30. For bookings and enquiries, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call +27 (0) 21 205 5620 (bookings essential)