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Review: Casa Labia Cafe – Fine Dining Surrounded by Venetian Style

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If you’re like me, you’ve probably driven many a time down the main road to Kalk Bay, right past the Casa Labia Cultural Centre without even knowing it was there.  For one, it is hard for anything to compete with the ocean view – the cerulean waves rippling just beyond the colourful landmark beach houses of Muizenberg.  It’s a wonder we look at the road at all.  But suppose you could enjoy that very same view from a posh balcony while relaxing over lunch or tea?  Why, yes please.

Walking up the stone steps and past the white columns into Casa Labia feels a bit like entering a small Venetian palazzo via a time portal.  A historic structure that boasts all the charisma of 18th century Italy, the building’s origins lie in its function as the residence of Italy’s first official ambassador to South Africa.  It was formerly the home of Count and Countess Natale Labia, has housed important gatherings and delegates throughout the decades, and is now is open to the public as a multi-functional cultural centre.

The kind of classic charm Casa Labia offers is virtually unrivalled.  Far from the carefully mismatched vintage look that has become the décor trend lately, Casa Labia is the real thing: it exudes timeless elegance that can only be lent by its history and authenticity.  The interior is exquisitely adorned with genuine antique items, from the valuable paintings down to every last chandelier and ornate ceiling panel, shipped over from Venice a century ago.  Even the walls are covered not by wallpaper but by the finest imported damask that requires special maintenance.

Perhaps the best thing about Casa Labia is that despite its visual extravagance – which makes it the perfect space for an exquisite wedding reception following a beach ceremony – it is also very much a cosy and casual hangout spot.  My husband and I visited the Casa Labia Café, situated in the heart of the house with tables comfortably scattered across the former reception area, back patio, sitting room, and ballroom, as well as a few balconies facing the ocean.  We started our lunch with the Casa Labia Caesar Salad (R 115) and the Caramelized Onion, Goat’s Cheese, and Olive Tart (R 75).  The tart, in particular, won me over with its bevy of mild, evolving flavours despite the fact that I’m usually not much of an olive fan.  It was also nice to see that the onions were actually caramelized to nutty brown softness instead of the common sautéed-and-browned-in-a-flash flop.

The signature Club Sandwich (R 94), which came highly recommended, turned out to be a giant of a sandwich with a generous mound of chicken, fontina, salami, caramelized onion, avocado, and tomato, topped by olive mayo.  Owing to its size, I found it impossible to eat it as an actual sandwich, but I’m sure that’s hardly a complaint for anyone with a bigger appetite and mouth.  So enamoured was I with the crispy-fried sweet potato curls on the side that I gobbled up every last piece – it was definitely an innovative step up from the chips that are often left to go cold on my plate.  As for the Spinach & Ricotta Pancakes (R 78), we were glad to find that the Gorgonzola cream sauce was not too heavy and served as a fine complement to the lemony spinach filling folded into the sponge-soft crepes.

The Café offers a well-rounded sweet menu to accompany meals and/or tea, including several choices for “Cake o’ the Day”.  The Rich Italian Chocolate Cake (R 52) was almost cheesecake-like in texture – dense enough to satisfy the craving but also fluffy enough to avoid all-out chocolate guilt – and the Espresso Affrogato (R 62) came with a munificent shot of Grappa to pour over the ice cream alongside a steamy shot of espresso.

To round out the visit (and to walk off some of the calories), we wandered upstairs and found quite a change of scenery.  In contrast to the first floor’s old European glamour, the gallery is arranged in an open and airy layout with a minimalistic vibe that perfectly matches the on-going exhibit of contemporary South African art.  Along with the delightfully stocked gallery store, not to be missed is the CasBah Boutique, which Casa Labia’s director Antonia Labia Hardres-Williams has filled with handpicked items from her travels all over Africa: woven baskets, scarves, jewellery, toys, artwork and more.  Many of the items are made by hand and are sourced from non-profit suppliers who benefit from the sales.  In keeping with this idea, we noticed that the ceramic plates in the shop were the very same ones on which our meal had been served downstairs.

A picturesque view (check), a sumptuous ambience (check), good food (check), a lesson in history (check), art appreciation (check), and shopping (check): if that isn’t an all-in-one experience, I don’t know what is.  Now that I’ve found the Casa Labia and all it has to offer, I’ll be driving that road to Kalk Bay a lot more often.

by Esther Lim

Casa Labia, 192 Main Road, Muizenberg
Café Hours: Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 4pm
Contact: 021 788 6062
Website: www.casalabia.co.za
Tip: there is no designated parking but plenty of street spots to be found nearby on Main Rd.

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