I’ve eaten at many fine dining establishments around the Cape and have typically found that the food (immaculately presented), wine list (thoughtfully curated), and man-made and natural settings (extravagant and stunning, respectively) send diners away with the sensation of having received a thorough gastronomical pampering. But only a fraction of these establishments have delivered art in the truest sense of the word.
Art is the expression of creative skill and imagination, producing an outcome that is appreciated primarily for its beauty and emotional power. And where other fine dining restaurants deliver food that is beautiful to behold and enjoyable to eat, La Colombe’s magical dining experience is emotionally evocative, from the child-like delight of dynamic food presentation and interaction to the intrigue of discovery and the satisfaction of unravelling mystery. This is why, in my opinion, La Colombe exists at the very summit of fine dining in South Africa; perhaps it is the summit. It is also why – after scores of finely plated meals enjoyed in a myriad of beautiful settings – La Colombe is my all-time-favourite fine dining restaurant.
Nature at centre stage
The setting speaks for itself. Perched high up within the Table Mountain National Park at the Silvermist Wine Estate in the saddle between Constantia and Hout Bay, La Colombe’s vantage point yields glorious views of jubilant summer vineyards and handsome, towering stands of Eucalyptus trees. Wrap-around glass windows allow green-tinged sunlight and the views beyond to filter into the restaurant on all three sides. The interior and décor does not attempt to compete with nature, for that would be folly. Rather, it is clean, elegant, and sophisticated (with botanical highlights), yet humble and unpretentious.
I’ve said it about La Colombe before and I’ll say it again: there is no trickery and no clever manipulation of light, art, or architecture to distract the senses. Guests throng here for the unparalleled food experience and the views, not to admire the thread count on the tablecloths, which I’m sure we would have found to be very high if we had paid attention. Besides, the art is on the plate in front of you: not on the ceiling or walls around you.
La Colombe essentially gives diners two set menu choices: the Chef’s Menu consists of 10 courses of suitably small plates, which is just as well or else you would require a forklift to deposit you back at your car after the meal. Alternatively, diners can opt for the Reduced Menu, an abbreviated version of the Chef’s Menu. Both are available as vegetarian options and can be enjoyed with or without wine/beverage pairings. That’s the dry account of what La Colombe does. Now, let me attempt in feeble words to convey the emotional, colour-saturated, and pure hedonistic experience it is to sit down to a ten-course meal at this restaurant.
Again, what La Colombe does is art. Nowhere in the definition of art does the word “perfection” arise – nor should it. And yet, what executive chef James Gaag and his kitchen team do with food is positioned at the very intersection of art and perfection. Each dish is executed with painstaking precision and has no doubt been conceived and developed with the same painstaking effort. Yet the final product is a stunning expression of wild, unrestrained artistry and creative joy.
The first course, for example consisted of three bite-sized canapés of yellowtail tataki, avocado, and burnt lime; mushroom and springbok liver parfait on a delicate, wafer-thin crisp; and a tiny, powerfully flavoured lamb roti. These three exquisite bites were carefully placed within our table’s floral centrepiece and on a whimsical mushroom stand whittled from wood. Our waiter worked deftly to set up the “art installation” that was our first course and, with the final adjustments, magically transformed our table into an edible food garden, through which we could pick to reveal the exquisite bites of food hidden within.
It was a brilliant food concept executed to an exceedingly high standard and – I am so pleased to say – absolutely, unreservedly delicious. Each bite was different from the last and yet struck an equally perfect balance of flavours and textures. And this was just the start of our food journey.
A bread course by any other name
The bread course was delightful. So delightful, in fact, that to call it something as pedestrian as a “bread course” is almost an insult. The dish was presented tableside by a member of the La Colombe kitchen. Wooden bowls filled with warm, fragrant wheat grains were placed before us, and there, perched in the grains was a rather mysterious looking black sphere.
Operating off a little trolley loaded with ingredients, the chef melted a dollop of Wagyu beef fat coloured red with paprika in a tiny copper pot. He then mixed in a slew of ingredients, including chopped parsley, red onion, lime rinds, and Egyptian Dukkah spice. Once the mixture was complete, we opened the black sphere before us to reveal the treasure, which was a nostril full of fragrant wood smoke and a little bowl of fatty bone marrow nuggets. He then spooned his treated beef drippings into our bowls, which we enthusiastically mopped up with warm, plaited sweet potato bread. Again: eye-closingly delicious.
It wasn’t just the aromas and flavours that left us utterly beguiled; it was the degree of dynamism, interaction, and participation each course requires of guests. It was visual and performance art and divine theatre in one. With eight more courses to go, I wondered how on Earth La Colombe could maintain such an already impressive calibre of intrigue, delight, and artistry. They did more than that: each successive course seemed to outdo the last.
Scorched passion fruit filled with a Cape Malay curry of West Coast mussels, snoek, and sweet corn; Kerala-style duck and prawn with coriander and butternut spuma, curried bay leaves, sweet sultanas, creamy yoghurt, and chickpea crumble; and sea bass swimming in a rich Thai coconut velouté with baby bok choy, pomegranate seeds, cashews, and baby corn. Each dish was absolutely delicious, masterfully curated, and presented with great flourish, drama, and intrigue.
Wine, glorious wine
In between artful courses and visits from our server Juan, La Colombe’s sommelier Michelle Moller would bring us a bottle of wine to admire and taste. The wine list is naturally an award-winner and showcases offerings from across our country and the world’s prestigious wine producing regions. Both small-scale, boutique wineries and well-established South African stalwarts are represented but, if choosing only one wine isn’t your strong suit, we greatly recommend the food and wine paired menu. It’s a revelation of the beautiful wine this country produces.
Another fabulous trick up La Colombe’s sleeve is the “blind tasting”, which they serve in an opaque, black wine glass with their signature Tuna ‘La Colombe’ dish. Diners actually get to take a stab at deducing the wine in their glass – usually a local single varietal wine. For those without much wine knowledge, just getting the type of wine right (white or red) can be considered a triumph, explained sommelier Michelle. Apparently, some people have guessed apple cider or some kind of cocktail before.
For us wine snobs, however, this was an opportunity to look clever and so we agonised over the bouquet and flavour profile and…well, we got it wrong; although, said Michelle, our guesses of wooded Semillon and Rousanne were very good ones. The mystery wine turned out to be the Mosi Wines Tinashe Chenin Blanc 2018, made from 35-year-old old bush vines in Paarl.
Attention to detail
The magic at La Colombe isn’t only to be found in the food and wine. Look closer – listen, even – and you will discover it in the restaurant’s tiniest details. Every time you visit the rest room – and you will likely do so several times because the average dining experience lasts three to four hours – you return to a fresh napkin and a smiling server waiting with your chair pulled out for you. The rest rooms are clean, elegant oases with botanical features and a literal sound track of chirping birds playing in the background.
The La Colombe team clearly loves its job, which is wonderful to diners who actually notice such things. The glassware is of the highest quality and is changed for each successive wine, the shape of which is specifically matched to the particular wine you’re drinking. Even my water glass was Riedel and I suddenly became neurotic about placing it too close to the edge of the table lest I knock it off with a clumsy hand. Even in these small details, La Colombe is infallible in its delivery of fine, exuberant art.
Moving devotion to art
Forget cheap gimmicks. Art is the goddess before whom La Colombe kneels in utter devotion to and it’s the moving depth of this worship that percolates into the dining experience, rendering it emotional. La Colombe stages multi-sensory masterpieces of art that both delight and renders speechless the diner, which doesn’t bode well for a writer who needs to express in words the experience to be had here.
Hopefully, however, I have done it some justice.
La Colombe is open for lunch, Monday to Sunday, from 12:00 to 14:00 and dinner from 18:30 to 21:00. For bookings and enquiries, please call +27 (0)21 794 2390.