“Did they assault you?” Melissa, our server, asked as she handed us the menus. No, we had not been mugged in the verdant boroughs of Constantia en route to the River Café. She was referring to the tasting at the wine shop next door, where indeed my husband and I had been “assaulted” with a strategically sequenced medley of offerings from the vineyards of Constantia Uitsig.
Still lingering on our palates was the clean, crisp opening of the bubbly 2009 Methode Cap Classique that evoked Granny Smith apples between each sip. The unwooded Chardonnay, which our host Johan described in musical terms as a “harmony between treble and bass,” delivered a full-bodied flavour and a light, tart finish, while the Sauvignon Blanc buzzed with vibrant tropical notes. Still chuckling over Melissa’s question, we asked for a carafe of the Constantia White Blend the versatility of which would see us through the multifarious meal ahead.
We were sitting in a sun-dappled corner of the courtyard that overlooks the Café’s alfresco arrangement, just beyond the arched doorways leading out from the cosy wine shop. Birds chirped a cheerful background to the casual conversations of old friends, book clubs, business associates, and pairs young and old. Scattered amidst generous patches of garden foliage, we all enjoyed the shade of the awning over our red chequered tables. It made for a relaxed atmosphere that belied the discreet efficiency of the waiting staff who navigated the cobblestone walkways.
Our starter came neatly served on a long wooden board as a trio of chicken liver paté, onion marmalade, and nutty brown bread (R 45). Light in colour, the paté was full-flavoured but still mild, each heaped bite made complete with the marmalade’s soothing sweetness.
I may have audibly gasped when the Butternut & Gorgonzola Salad (R 65) appeared at our table. Not only was it the prettiest salad I’d seen in a while, it came with a full flavour profile, rich in both taste and texture. I dived straight in for a chunk of the roasted butternut, followed by soft gorgonzola, crisp baby greens, cherry tomatoes, a sprinkling of toasted seeds, and – the best part by far – slices of perfectly poached pear. The colourful array was topped by a gentle balsamic and honey dressing with a peppery undertone that highlighted the freshness of the ingredients. If all salads came like this one, I could easily turn vegetarian.
But not yet: the River Café Ostrich Burger (R 85) came next. Each bite offered an even taste attributed to the perfectly seasoned patty that did not rely on any of the usual accoutrements – not even the bacon sauce. No need for condiments here. However, the patty did come quite a bit rarer than I’m prone to like and the soft bun did not hold up against the heavy centrepiece.
Our other entrée, the Marinated Mango & Coconut Prawns (R 105), had called my name from the Daily Specials list, which we were told us helps Chef Craig Anderson “keep the love going” through the menu routine blues. The dish lent an adventurous flair alongside the Café’s regular offerings, but between the coconut ginger chicken broth and the scrumptiously caramelized prawns we could tell that a great deal of thought had gone into balancing what could easily have been a clamour of dramatic flavours. In short, it reinforced the pattern of well-constructed flavour profiles we’d encountered from the start.
Concluding our meal was the Hot Chocolate Fondant (R 55) with its rich, molten centre and the Hazelnut Meringue (R 45), a giant fluff of a meringue piled high with whipped cream, strawberry coulis, and fresh fruit. As we noted that the fondant clearly tasted of quality dark chocolate and the meringue was fruit-sweet instead of sugar-sweet, the River Café’s key appeal became clear. Each dish is carefully crafted to highlight what the local ingredients naturally bring to the table. By allowing the freshness and quality of the ingredients to do their job, the chef need not to rely on heavy seasoning to buffer the taste buds.
Although we did not, this time, veer from the lunch menu, I can safely surmise that breakfast offers a similar treat. But just to be sure, we made a plan to return for the “River Benedict”.
by Esther Lim
Location: Constantia Uitsig, Spaanschemat River Road, Constantia, Cape Town
Hours: 8:30am to 4:30pm (timed menus for breakfast, tea, lunch)
Ample parking, indoor seating available.
Bookings: 021 794 3010 or email email@example.com
Event enquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org