At first glance it looks like a large classic painting hanging from a red brick wall, surrounded by simple dark wood furniture to complete the rustic Italian look. It is in fact a large printed ‘family portrait’ of the Societi Bistro staff keeping busy with what they each do best: a server laying out the tablecloth to one side, someone writing the specials on the blackboard behind her, the chef carrying a giant tray of steamed lobsters, another server working on her Mac while her colleague shines the silverware. In the centre is owner Peter Weetman sitting askew on a plush armchair, overseeing the operations. The best part? He’s wearing sneakers.
In spite of all the accolades it has gleaned over the years, Societi Bistro has retained that quintessential easygoing Capetonian touch we all love to see in a neighborhood favourite. Its genial, lighthearted vibe works: solid proof that putting a serious foot down isn’t the only way to thrive in Cape Town’s competitive culinary scene. Throw a few humorous quirks in, some creativity alongside good food and service, and it just might be the right recipe to keep everyone coming back.
Take the pastas on their summer menu, for example. You’ll see a dish called “Sylvie Hurford” (R 78/120)—ever heard of it? Probably not, because it’s named after one of Weetman’s friends whose favourite pasta is pappardelle with braised lamb, tomato, basil, and Grana Padano. The light and creamy tomato sauce complements the soft lamb, and the yellow heirloom tomatoes lend a personal touch. Following the same vein, it appears Robyn Cooke (R 76/113) favours spaghetti with bisque sauce and crabmeat, “claws and all”, and Kamil (R 78/111) loves her tagliatelle with trout and vodka cream. This imaginative arrangement makes for an interesting variety among the pasta selections.
The menu is also adapted seasonally, which means Chef Stéfan Marais gets to flex his creative muscles for the local repeat patrons. The Summer Salad (STB) is a nice rendition of the classic Italian starter: sweet melon and prosciutto with watercress and feta or goat cheese depending on the day, all drizzled with a syrupy balsamic reduction. The ingredients are fresh – easy on the tastebuds – and the contrast of sweet and salty in a cool dish makes for a gratifying summer option. Also try the Seared Squid (R 56) for sizeable chunks with a handsome char; lime, not lemon, as the neutralizing citrus and the inclusion of roasted mint are both superb ideas for this starter.
Finally, a nod to free-range meats and sustainable fish options leaves diners feeling good about their choices. Free-range options include beef, pork, ostrich, venison, duck, and chicken, while the fish offerings are vetted against the SASSI guidelines for sustainable seafood. Both the Free-range Pork Belly (R 136) and the Cape Fish (sustainable fish of the day, in my case yellowtail; STB) unfortunately posed overcooking missteps during my visit, as the meat was tough and the fish somewhat dry. But the pork belly did deliver the more “robust mouth feel” as promised in the menu, especially with the lip-smacking liquorice bark lacquer sauce, and the yellowtail came with a lovely ensemble of sides.
If you happen to be a true chocophile, do not pass up the flourless Chocolate Nemesis (R 30). It looks like a slice of cake but feels more like a dark chocolate soufflé in the mouth, and it’s the prime reason I’ll be returning to Societi Bistro. True to its name, it’s a bustling place in a prime location so you’ll want to make a reservation, but if you do it’s highly recommended that you do it over the phone. Emailing them gets you the following message: “Kindly note that we will most likely be in the restaurant, doing what we love best, thus please expect a delay in response to your email.” See what I mean? Even their highly practical automated message is personable.
by Esther Lim
Societi Bistro, 50 Orange Street, Gardens, Cape Town
Hours: Monday to Saturday 12 noon to 11pm
Tel: 021 424 2100