Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Duchess Of Wisbeach

Dining with the Duchess at No.1 Wisbeach Rd, Sea Point

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?

A most pleasant and chatty  P.R. person,  Robin, showed us to a table positioned under a large portrait of Marie Antoinette.  The room is beautiful.  Large life-size pictures of gracious ladies in flowing gowns, tables with crisp white damask cloths and candles in long, silver or pewter candle holders.  The light is mellow and lovely.  Elegant French antique mirrors reflect flickering candlelight and the muted glow from shaded wall fittings.  The chairs, some of them antique, some of them reproductions, have gold and green upholstery.  Instead of flowers on the tables, there are little porcelain dogs of lovely and appealing countenance. 

For me, the scene is French; so very very French of another more earthy and exciting era.  I whisper to Eugene, "I almost expect Toulouse Lautrec to appear at any moment."   The 2010 'Eat Out Restaurant Guide'  has voted the 'Duchess of Wisbeach' as one of the 10 best looking restaurants.  Their comment is  "Miss Havisham meets Marie Antoinette - an unashamedly feminine (but not overly so) comfortable space."   Well, I suppose I could imagine Miss Havisham in her tatty wedding dress inhabiting a dark corner, but I prefer my romantic French notion.  Eugene calls the atmosphere "off-centre" and I think that sums it up very well.

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.

We did not wait long for our starters.  The mussels were a wonderful sight.  A bowl full of steaming mussels in the half shell with a lovely fragrant soup and served with a big chunk of baguette.  Eugene got stuck in, scooping  the succulent and plump mussels out of the shells and dunking the baguette into the soup.  Oh Yum!  My Caprese Salad was without doubt the best that I have ever eaten. A ball of Buffalo Mozzarella surrounded by halved baby cherry tomatoes and dressed with olive oil, Balsamic vinegar and fresh basil.  It was delicious.  The mozzarella was of the very best quality, moist and tasty, the tomatoes ripe and juicy and the dressing tangy and flavoursome.   Everything in keeping with Theresa's philosophy of using only the very best ingredients.

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.

Eugene's Curried Seafood was served with a tomato salsa and basmati rice.  There was a mélange of delicious and tender calamari, mussels and line fish.  The curry was a skillful blending of spices and not too overpowering, allowing one to enjoy the delicate flavours.  Eugene loved it.   My beautifully cooked chicken  was moist and flavoursome.  I have so often eaten flattened chicken breasts which were overcooked and dry. This was certainly not the case with my dish.  The chicken is done with Soy sauce, lemon and chilli and the chicken gravy was excellent.  No bouillon cubes in Theresa's kitchen.  The winter vegetables were creamed spinach, gem squash cooked with nutmeg and parmesan cheese and butternut with rosemary.  All lovely, all delicious.  On a previous visit, Eugene had ordered the Duchess Famous French Fries and they are a treat, lovely real chips.

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.

The Duchess of Wisbeach is open for dinner every evening at 6.30pm from Monday to Saturday.
Booking is essential.

Telephone: 021 434 1525

Eugene and I love eating out and we always pay for ourselves whenever and wherever we go.


Patricia said...

You really paint a vivid picture of the place. I would have liked you to mention the price range.

Leslie Back said...

Thank you for your kind comment.

I never mention prices as these articles are not critiques or the sort of restaurant reviews that one encounters in the mass media where discussion of prices is essential.

As a writer and not a critic, I attempt to paint a picture for the reader. The food, the fun, the ambience and the great enjoyment that Eugene and I experience.

Prices continually change and become outdated and this may cause problems for the readers and the restaurant.

I always give contact details so that one can phone or e-mail the restaurant to get the current prices.

Michael Olivier said...

Now this is what a restaurant story is all about - a full picture of what to expect as a prospective guest. Well done, lovely piece.


Leslie Back said...

Thank you for your lovely comment. It is very rewarding to receive such a positive assessment.