December 04, 2007

Aubergine Restaurant

Big Spoon and I celebrated our sixth anniversary last week. Things have been a bit hectic at work for both of us, so following the age-old romantic credo of “Can’t Cook, Won’t Cook”, we booked a table for two at one of the city’s most respected restaurants.

Aubergine has been around for some time, but you won’t necessarily find it in any Conde Nast or tourist-lauded list of the most fashionable places to eat. It has a reputation for being a ‘chef’s restaurant’, not least because the owner, Harald Bresselschmidt, is first and foremost a chef. No, this is the place old-school chefs talk about with respect, where theshowroom showmanship has no place. There are no smartie- or chakalakka-inspired desserts on this menu, thank you very much. There is the occasional menu hat-tip to contemporary cuisine: Aubergine acknowledges Cape heritage with a pickled fish starter, and sadly has buckled to modernist pressure in the form of that ubiquitous menu bomb, an east-meets-west platter. But all things considered, this place is called Aubergine, not Brinjal, for a reason – it serves up straight Nouvelle Cuisine, with the focus on French-inspired preparations and tidy, sculptured plates.

This is what it does, and it does it very, very well. The crustacean bisque was exactly what bisque is supposed to be - creamy, rich, with the slightest, acidic catch at the back of the throat – and the same goes for the rabbit (when was the last time a Cape Town menu had rabbit on it?), the veal and the palate-cleansing beetroot sorbet.

My favourite course by far was dessert, which had a playfulness lacking in the rest of the serious menu. We shared a ‘surprise du chef’ (“It’s not a surprise if I tell you,” our waiter informed us with a smile), which was a platter of miniature, different desserts, both on and off the dessert menu. An iced melon soup with mango sorbet and fresh fruit, a deep-fried chocolate truffle with candied kumquats, semolina pudding with mint ice cream, lemon crème brulée and strawberry gelée and parfait were a masterpiece in contrasting and complementary flavours, textures and temperatures, which we lingered over as long as we possibly could.

The ambiance was not stuffy, given the seriousness of the food. Located in a beautiful, eighteenth century house, Aubergine offers high ceilings, warm wooden tones and soft lighting, and the option of eating al fresco in their walled courtyard, under a massive, balmy palm tree. Most notable in a city not known for its service, the waiters were of a professional quality I last saw at a top-100 (international, not local) restaurant. In fact, I think I got more pleasure from the discreet balletic ministrations of hand-behind-the-back waiting staff than I did from the food. After all, as any Cape housewife will tell you, it’s so difficult to find good staff.

And yet... with me, there always seems to be an ‘and yet’. Everything was so technically flawless, so straight-out-of-Larousse-by-way-of-Bocuse that it lacked spontaneity, the excitement of free-wheeling kitchen creativity. For want of a less clichéd, hackneyed phrase – it lacked soul. The truth is, nouvelle ain’t that nouvelle any more, and California has irrevocably ruined my appreciation of classical fine dining.

So if you’re looking for a refined but not too formal ambiance, with superb service and the comforting familiarity of flawless, classical fine dining, Aubergine should be your first port of call. But if you’re looking for something surprising, different and witty, you’ll be better served by Jardine's or theshowroom’s tongue-in-chakalakka showmanship.

39 Barnet Street
Gardens, Cape Town


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