Thursday, August 19, 2010
The Duchess Of Wisbeach
I would never have thought that whimsy could exist and flourish in tatty world-weary old Sea Point. But it does exist and it has flourished at 'The Duchess of Wisbeach'.
The Duchess experience starts outside the red double doors of the restaurant. Atop tables that are set on the pavement, gas lights flicker in their lanterns. The door is flanked by two large painted cameos of women, one languidly smoking a cheroot. A very elegant doorman, Innocence, welcomes us and ushers us in.
Inside the bar-cum-entrance area, the atmosphere is warm and welcoming. A great stuffed cow's head glares at us from above the bar. We discover later that this was the owner's father's favourite cow. When the cow died, he had the head stuffed and mounted as a permanent memory of his beloved bovine pet. Do I believe this? I am not sure. Behind the marble-topped bar is a backdrop of wooden shelves crammed with bottles, glasses and rows and rows of books. Why books? Why not?
The Duchess is Theresa Beukes, chef, restaurateur and creator of this idiosyncratic fantasy. Theresa has been in the restaurant business for 20 years. She owned Fino's and Sam's Café in Johannesburg, relocated to Cape Town and in 2009 acquired the site that would eventually morph into The Duchess of Wisbeach. It was an ugly internet cafe, in her words, 'a dump'. She and designer Craig Kaplan worked together to create her kingdom. With an earthy laugh, she declares that they completely refused to take themselves seriously, and that one would need a sense of humour to really appreciate the nostalgia and romanticism of the place.
Theresa, who describes herself as a self-taught cook, has taught in cookery schools all over the world. She met the great Julia Child at the Cipriani in Venice and also taught at Prue Leith's in London. While Theresa is the high priestess of all she surveys, her extraordinarily talented head chef Amy Vicars and her assistant Cynthia Phiri, are the architects of the delights that emerge from the kitchen. Certain dishes, amongst them the steak tartare and all things pasta, remain Theresa's own dominion. The kitchen is a raised galley-type kitchen, 4.5m by 2m, overlooking the dining area. From here she surveys her kingdom and with imperious professionalism plates the food that causes people to return over and over again. Theresa has two lovely well-trained dogs, Pipo and Dusty, who follow her around, visit diners when summoned or otherwise sit quietly and watch her cook. They are used to late nights.
The food can be described as beautifully cooked home-style comfort food. A 'bord kos' is how the business card describes the fare. ( Bord kos is an Afrikaans expression which, roughly translated, is a wholesome plate of food.) The menu, which changes seasonally, includes favourites from one's childhood, dishes from around the world and some quintessentially South African dishes. For starters Eugene ordered 'Fresh Mussels Steamed in Carrot Juice,Ginger, Chilli and Coriander' and I settled, after much deliberation, for a 'Mozzarella, Tomato and Basil Salad'. The starter menu includes a 'Soup Of The Evening' ( the Duchess is only open for dinner), Grilled Calamari with Tamarind Sauce, Spicy Fish Fingers with Onion Riata and a Steak Tartar.
For mains, Eugene chose the special of the evening, curried seafood served with basmati rice. I had previously enjoyed the wonderfully huge and delicious Fish Cake with Mayo and Salad, so on this night I chose 'Flattened Chicken Breast with Winter Vegetables and Chicken Gravy'. The staff are all very clued up and knowledgeable about the contents and preparation of each dish. I find this to be one of the essential aspects of good service. Theresa trains her staff well.
Other dishes to enjoy on the Mains menu are Fish and Chips, Grilled Karoo Lamb Chops, Fillet Steak, Cottage Pie, Line Fish of the Evening, Crayfish Spaghetti and more. For vegetarians there is a Moroccan Chickpea And Lentil Stew with Corn and Ginger. This is all winter fare. I wait with great anticipation to sample the summer offerings.
There is a well-chosen wine and drinks menu. I enjoyed a glass of bubbles, Villiera Traditional Rosé and Eugene ordered a Peroni Beer. There are many interesting options and I look forward to trying the 'Duchess Cocktail' on one of our future sorties. All the while, the staff were moving about tending to their flock. Theresa has a system whereby nothing that has been plated is allowed to stand for more than 30 seconds before it is served. The result, beautifully presented fresh and steaming plates of food.
The desserts follow the formula of home-cooked style favourites and include a divine "Bread and Butter Pudding with Homemade Ice Cream". Other choices are 'Hot Chocolate Brownies with Vanilla Ice Cream', 'Hot Sticky Apricot Pudding with Fudge Sauce and Ice Cream' or the Home-made Ice Cream of the Evening.
'The Duchess' attracts all sorts of interesting people. Given the theatricality of the place, I was not at all surprised to learn that Sir Ian Mckellan and the whole cast of 'Waiting For Godot' had chosen to eat there. Stephen Fry, the brilliant English actor, author,comedian and raconteur has been a guest as has the English talk show host Graham Norton. By the way, Wisbeach is a place in England and P.G. Wodehouse is one of many authors to have written about it.
By the time that we had finished our meal, the restaurant, which seats 40 people, was full and the bar was a lovely jumble of people, eating, drinking and partying. Many were waiting for tables whilst enjoying the 'Duchess Experience.' As we left the sound of happy people and the strains of the 50's music followed us out through the red double doors. We will be going back over and over again.
Booking is essential.
Telephone: 021 434 1525
Eugene and I love eating out and we always pay for ourselves whenever and wherever we go.