Happily ensconced at 2 Deer Park Drive, Vredehoek in Cape Town, South Africa, the Woodlands Eatery is serving delicious food that defies any stereotype. Yes, it does do pizzas and burgers, but they are especially wonderful pizzas and burgers. But it is not just a pizza and burger place! This little gem of food happiness produces dishes to satisfy all tastes and palates. Wonderful antipasti, dishes of the day that make choice impossibly difficult and desserts that include a chocolate fondant that is the stuff of dreams. (Incidentally, before you tar and feather me for appearing to cast doubt on the nobility of pizza and burger places, let me hasten to assure you that I am in total awe of good examples of those particular cuisines.)
And the best news of all, the owner, chef and keeper of the keys, is Larry Steenkamp. First heard of in Plettenberg Bay as the guy who had 'Larry's Bar' and then, staying in Plett, the visionary who together with Mark Valentine, dreamt up and gave life to Emily's Restaurant at the lovely Emily Moon River Lodge. Eugene and I visited Emily's whilst Larry was at the helm and we were captivated. I wrote an article for Back Chat at the time, which I published under the heading, 'The Legend of Emily Moon.'
Visiting Woodlands eatery is a relaxed experience. Parking is plentiful and the restaurant beckons convivially. We strolled in through an enclosed wooded patio where we were warmly welcomed by a member of staff. I always find the welcome in a restaurant so very important. This first impression becomes a lasting impression. It was a balmy day and we opted for a table on the outside deck. In no time, we were offered drinks and menus.
The decor of the Woodlands Eatery is marvellously eccentric and eclectic. Unplastered walls stand happily next to walls painted in soothing blues and greys. Dainty, vintage lampshades contrast with crystal-type chandeliers and heavier deco shades. A bar made from a huge slab of cement resides under dainty lights and is attended by green Formica high chairs. All this is combined with an Alice in Wonderland collection of tables and chairs. Polished wooden table tops, some with painted ball and claw legs, Formica kitchen-type tables with posh chairs and banquettes opposite chairs painted in glorious golds, pinks and blues all live together in gentle harmony. The walls are adorned with pictures of birds and woodland creatures, a giant star and a collection of mirrors of all shape, sizes and periods. I would later learn all about the provenance of these fascinating bits and bobs, frills and furbelows.
The menu is on recycled cardboard. It folds open to reveal a wonderful array of pizza choices, burgers, antipasti and desserts. There are sections devoted to exotic cocktails made from seasonal fruits; varieties of tequila and on the back, a list of craft beers and ciders. We were also presented with a sheet of white paper with the specialities of the day. We were doomed to dither! On our first visit Eugene, who has a lactose intolerance, spotted a mushroom and artichoke pizza with goat's cheese and cherry tomatoes. As it is only cow's milk products that are a problem, this was a pizza he could safely eat. Hallelujah!
I was drowning in antipasti choices. I wanted all of them. There is a choice of salads that made my mouth water. Enjoy a 'pear salad with gorgonzola, rocket, red onion and toasted seeds dressed with vinaigrette' or a 'roasted butternut salad with slivered almonds, avo, roasted beetroot, feta and sprouts dressed with lemon, herb and white wine vinaigrette; a 'Caprese salad' or a' lime and chilli prawn salad'. The first three choices are obviously perfect for vegetarians. There is a list of bruschetta for all tastes and diets. This concern for different dietary requirements is a feature of the menu. Pizza options reflect vegetarian choices and amongst the totally yummy burgers, there is a magnificent 'chickpea, lentil and butternut burger.' I have seen it and it is huge and gorgeous. Ultimately I chose an item off the special menu of the day, 'mussels poached in cream and white wine'. I can't resist mussels, ever! To complement my choice, I asked for a mixed side salad.
Guiding us through this maze of choices was Larry himself. I had spotted this person dashing about, chatting with guests, advising on food choices and generally adding life to an already lively milieu. He listened attentively to Eugene's story. No problem! Remove the mozzarella base, extra goat and sure he could have anchovies and capers if he wished. Easy Peasy. Off he dashed to the kitchen, before I could engage him in any chat. I would visit Woodlands a day later to interview this Jiminy Cricket person.
In addition to the drinks on the main menu, there is an excellent and compact wine list, printed on a sheet of white paper. I love the offerings. The brands have been carefully chosen by somebody with a love and knowledge of wine. Eugene ordered a craft beer that Larry recommended, described as 'Darling Slow Beer, (half draught) an extreme lager with a rich golden colour, refreshing with a real hops signature without the bitterness'. I stayed with cool and refreshing iced water.
Eugene's pizza was a sight to behold! Served on a large board, it looked stunning. A beautifully crisp, crunchy thin crust was covered with a special home-made tomato sauce, Larry's secret Old Italian recipe. It was laden with mushroom, artichokes and all the rest. A triumph! Eugene grudgingly parted with a slice for me to taste. Delicious! I would pinch another slice later. My mussels arrived plump and glistening in a light creamy sauce and accompanied by homemade Bruschetta. They were sumptuous and I mopped up every vestige of the lovely sauce with the bruschetta. My side salad was beautiful. Lots of lovely Cape gooseberries, beautiful leaves, avo, feta, beetroot, cherry tomatoes and more. What a feast we had!
On subsequent visits we ransacked the menu. Eugene polished off Larry's famous cheeseburger. A dish that he had created at Larry's Bar. Delicious, succulent and oozing juices. (And specially catering for his dairy intolerance, the sauce was served on the side - I ate it!). Larry has now replaced that famous cheeseburger with an even more famous cheeseburger. Whimsically named 'The Far From Classic Cheese Burger", it is a '150gm Frankie Fenner grain-fed free range beef patty, served with a blue cheese cream, cheddar cheese, pickled red onions, gherkins and deep-fried onion rings'. All this accompanied by roasted baby potatoes. Next time definitely.
I enjoyed a delicious Chicken Roulade from the Special Menu of the Day. This was stuffed with mushrooms, spinach and feta and served with a potato rösti, fine beans and salsa verde. It was succulent and wonderfully flavourful. Probably one of the best röstis I have ever eaten. I always imagined that you had to be a Swiss to really succeed with rösti. I was wrong! My daughter, Lexie, made a wonderful meal of the Lime and Chilli Prawn Salad. She raved! Larry had adjusted the chilli to suit her taste. I tasted it and loved it. Another dish I drooled over was the 'Salt & Pepper Squid' starter. Lightly dusted with flour, salt and pepper and deep fried, it is served with a delicious homemade basil mayo. Tender, crisp and succulent beyond words. Oh yes, another dish to try ASAP is the Seafood Linguine. So much still to do
When I arrived a day later to see Larry, we sat down to talk and his tale is fascinating. Leaving home at 16, he worked in kitchens at night to finance his schooling by day. Always passionate about food, he went on to work in restaurants and kitchens and was the general manager of Ghirardelli at the age of 21. Then overseas, travelling the world, absorbing cultures and cuisines and making his way cooking on those yachts that are the pleasure palaces of the privileged.
Back to South Africa and to Plettenberg Bay where he met his wife, Sarah May. Together they relocated to Cape Town and created Woodlands Eatery which they opened on the 15th November 2010. This is a wonderful joint adventure, which began with Sarah as the front of the house person and Larry doing the cooking. Now Larry has found a wonderful new talent in a young chef, Simon Whitelaw. Trained at Capsicum and having worked at River Cafe, he came to Woodlands Eatery as a waiter. He had heard of this man Larry Steenkamp, and wanted to know more. Larry discovered that his young waiter was an aspirant chef and decided to test his abilities. Simon prepared a dish for Larry that pleased the passionate perfectionist and the next phase of Simon's life began. Larry has trained and mentored the young man and together they have established a wonderful working arrangement. But make no mistake, Larry is everywhere, cooking and styling food, tasting and debating tastes and making sure that his inimitable food persona is retained.
Simon's presence has freed Larry up to indulge his gregarious side. He mingles with the guests making everybody feel at home and relaxed. He regards the restaurant as an extension of his own living room. He seems to know everyone and indeed on the day that I turned up to interview him, he had a greeting and a word for all the passers-by. He describes how he and Sarah found the location of Woodlands. It was in a tatty run down building that they stripped bare, redid and remodelled. They share an enduring passion for environmental issues. Most of the materials were sourced from an old timber shed and the furniture, where possible, was found at sales and second-hand shops. They are very aware of their carbon footprint and make a point of using local ingredients. The big star on the wall above the bar is Larry's lucky talisman and has followed him everywhere.
I watched as a young patron, sitting nearby, demolished a most amazing looking pizza. I was bursting with curiosity and asked about its provenance. He identified it as 'Larry's famous lamb pizza; Tuscan style slow roasted lamb with fresh rosemary and a dash of crème fresh'. I asked if I may photograph it and he agreed, adding that once a week he had a craving for the pizza. Oh my word! I suppose if I had asked him if I could taste it that would have taken good neighbourliness a step too far.
The Woodlands Eatery is open for: Dinner from Tuesday to Sunday from 4.30pm.
Lunch on Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 12 - 3.30pm
Booking is essential in the evenings.
On Monday Evenings, you can visit the Woodlands Evening Market. All manner of handmade clothing and interesting things find their way there.
Address: 2 Deer Park Drive, Vredehoek.
Tel: 021 801 5799
Bookings are not available by email.
Eugene and I love eating out and we always pay for ourselves whenever and wherever we go.
Back Chat Eats Out is the dining experiences that Eugene and I have enjoyed and wish to share with you.
They are written purely for pleasure and Back Chat is in no way affiliated to or remunerated by any establishment.