Cape Town's burgeoning restaurant scene reflects city's many cultures
People come to Cape Town for its fine beaches and waterfront—they have since the 1600s, when the Dutch established it as a watering stopover for ships trading with the East. They come for the sports: The city will hold eight World Cup matches this June. They come for the history, to see Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent most of his imprisonment.
But few visitors come for the food.
Daniela Bonanno, who works here for New York-based custom-vacation company Absolute Travel, thinks that may change. A spurt of high-caliber restaurants has transformed the dining scene, she says. Where the top places once offered French cooking, often heavy and meat-based, now chefs are training abroad, offering a wide variety of international influences while keeping ingredients local.
As in New York, Vancouver and London, the dining landscape represents a confetti of global cuisines reflecting the many cultures of Cape Town's almost three million people. Given the oceanfront setting, seafood plays a big role in menus, as do local meats such as ostrich, karoo lamb and springbok, an antelope variety that's the national animal. And, peri-peri, a piquant red chili, is also common as a side sauce or flavor addition.
Peak tourist season is during South Africa's summer from November through March, and although temperatures usually don't exceed the mid-80s, there can be some exceptionally hot days, especially in January. The slow season is the winter months of May through August. The average daytime temperature is mild at around 55 degrees, but July and August are the height of rainy season where many days can be wet and windy. Cape Town doesn't get big crowds during September, October, March and April, and the sunny days with temperatures in the 60s make these ideal visiting months.
Several weeks ago—Cape Town's fall—my husband and I tried five restaurants, many of them opened in the past few years, that Capetonians said would give us an idea of their hometown's cuisine.
This place in the Camps Bay area, a chic South Beach equivalent full of trendy eateries and bars, got its start as a fish store in Johannesburg. "Customers began asking if the store could cook the fish they picked," says owner Skippy Shaked. Diners still get to select their fish from a large case—usually including several prawn types such as the prized tiger, crayfish, the South African version of lobster, and filets of the codlike kinglip and Cape salmon from the restaurant's own fisheries. The fish is grilled only with a touch of fish spice, and served with sauces including peri-peri and sweet chili apricot on a bed of fries and Asian style stir-fried vegetables. Make sure to see the sunset.
Gordon Ramsay, the feisty task-master of reality-television show Hell's Kitchen, runs this year-old spot at the One&Only hotel. Each of the seven restaurants of this name around the world has a distinct menu—including, in Cape Town, Namibian oysters, Mozambican langoustines and grilled eland, another South African antelope. The towering space also has an open pastry kitchen turning out desserts such as malva pudding, a kind of caramelized cake dating back to the days of Dutch rule. The 5,000-bottle cellar claims to be one of the largest in the country—heavy on South African wines, of course.
After a decade in Australia's Blue Mountains, Cyrillia Deslandes returned home to South Africa and brought along her husband, Laurent, from France's Loire Valley, as chef. In late 2007, the duo opened this restaurant. Mr. Deslandes applies French techniques to local ingredients. While some dishes, like the braised farm pig trotter, are always available, a half-dozen different starters and four entrees are added each day, usually new recipes. The white mussels in a beurre-blanc sauce from Saldanha Bay on South Africa's west coast are so meaty they could be mistaken for scallops. A seared steak comes from a farm in the north, and a Provençal fish soup is rich with chunks of local crustaceans. Mr. Deslandes also regularly gives springbok filet, veal shoulder and karoo lamb stew a French treatment.
In the 19th century, Indians were brought to South Africa to work as indentured servants, and today they're one of the country's prominent ethnic groups. There are four Bukhara restaurants throughout South Africa; we visited the original in Cape Town's Central Business District, which has a long glass-walled kitchen and offers all the standard North Indian dishes. Many Indian eateries don't do beef justice since it's forbidden in Hinduism, but here the beef pudina marinated in mint uses South African beef, often likened in quality to the highly regarded Argentine meat. A tandoori chicken was free of the pasty orange flavor too often common in this dish.
THE GRAND CAFE & BEACH-
In an airy converted beachfront warehouse overlooking Table Bay, the restaurant's seating spills out onto a large terrace and the beach itself. A chic set packs it every night. Owner Sue Main is a globetrotter and her menu reflects that: The prawn tempura is via Japan, the 3-foot-long crispy pizzas topped with thin slices of local parma ham are inspired by Italy, Steak béarnaise is from Paris, and the Waldorf salad comes from the States. As for the crayfish sandwich—Cape Town's answer to the New England lobster roll—Ms. Main cuts the meat into small pieces (it's almost always served whole), mixes it with homemade mayonnaise and tucks it into a soft bun.
Flying through Johannesburg is the only way to reach Cape Town from the U.S. without a stopover in Europe. Daily nonstop flights to Johannesburg include South African Airways from New York's JFK (the return flight stops in Dakar) and Delta Air Lines from Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta. From Johannesburg, there's frequent service to Cape Town; the flight lasts about two hours.
Where to Stay:
One&Only Cape Town—This 131-room, supremely luxurious hotel with a contemporary style opened last year just off the waterfront. Rates per night start at 6,000 rand ($815). www.oneandonlyresorts.com Cape Grace—The 120-room grand dame of Cape Town's luxury accommodations, on the waterfront and decorated in a traditional Cape Malay style, was refashioned in December 2008. Rates start at $550. www.capegrace.com . De Waterkant Village—Amid cobblestone streets in a historic neighborhood between the waterfront and center area, this collection of self-service cottages, apartments and bed and breakfast style rooms has affordable, well-appointed accommodations. www.dewaterkant.com . Rates start at 950 rand.
The Five Restaurants: Details
Codfather, 37 The Drive, Camps Bay, 021-438-0782, about $50 a person. The Grand Café & Beach, Haul Road, off Beach Road, Granger Bay, www.thegrand.co.za, 021-425-0551, about $35 a person with a glass of wine. Maze, One&Only Cape Town, Dock Road, Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, 021-431-5222, about $40 a person with a glass of wine. Bizerca Bistro, Jetty Street, Foreshore, www.bizerca.com, 021-418-0001, about $35 for two-course meal with a glass of wine. Bukhara, 33 Church Street, www.bukhara.com, 021-424-0000, about $30 a person.
— Shivani Vora is a writer based in New York.