Opinion: Could the wine list have clinched La Colombe’s title as SA’s top restaurant?

A few years ago I spent a week soaking up the unapologetic excess and cheerful indulgence of Las Vegas – a city that’s smaller, crazier and considerably more diverse than Hollywood might have you imagine. The surrounding attractions are myriad – a helicopter flip over the strip by night, a blaze of neon untroubled by reliance on Eskom. And then there are the shows. I was pleasantly surprised by Céline Dion, but disappointed by David Copperfield, who offered a wooden, disinterested repeat of a schtick he’s run through a thousand times and more. Give him a skip if you hit the City of Sin – but if you are looking for magic, I’ve found a grand alternative. It’s La Colombe, in Constantia, where the sorcery emerges from South Africa’s top kitchen.

At least, that’s the view of the most recent Eat Out Mercedes-Benz Restaurant Awards, where La Colombe emerged at the top of the pile as the new number one restaurant in South Africa, consigning The Test Kitchen to runner-up for a second successive year (although last year it was to Somerset West’s The Restaurant at Waterkloof).

I’ve eaten at Luke Dale Roberts’s acclaimed spot several times in the last year (and was dazzled on each occasion), so dining at La Colombe was both long overdue and couched in curiosity – could James Gaag’s food possibly match the majesty of Dale Roberts? And just as importantly, would Joseph Dhafana’s wine list challenge Tinashe Nyamudoka’s at The Test Kitchen?

To the food first, and the aforementioned magic, which centres on one of the more striking dishes I’ve eaten. After a flashy opening salvo that included a brilliant marlin tataki and a bonsai version of a lamb roti (tiny, but perfect), part of the set of Jurassic Park emerged from the kitchen. A passion fruit that appeared to be charred balanced atop a pile of rocks and shells, with ferns adding to primeval air of the dish. But the magic was the passion fruit: somehow, hidden within was a sweet mussel curry. How did Gaag get the curry inside with no apparent damage to the passion fruit? We couldn’t work it out, even with the help of the wine.

And what a selection we had. There’s a good-looking range paired per course, as you’d expect, given Dhafana’s reputation (he won the Eat Out Wine Service Award), but there’s also a superb wine list, enchantingly handwritten by his assistant sommelier. And given one of the guests at dinner was the director Stephanus Rabie, and that his best mate is Eben Sadie, we charged straight into a bottle of Skurfberg to kickstart the night. My favourite Sadie wine is ever-changing, but this 2016 edition of his chenin blanc is a grand celebration of old-vine chenin blanc in all its rich, smooth, fabulous glory.

The chenin theme continued with another of the Swartland big hitters, in the form of the Granite, another release from Andrea Mullineux, who couldn’t have been more deserving of her new role as chair of the Cape Winemakers Guild. And as dishes continued to flow (including the signature La Colombe can of tuna, which opens up to reveal perfectly seared slivers of tuna), so Kaapzicht’s often unsung 1947 completed the chenin journey. It also fed into Justin van Wyk’s Constantia Two white blend – a strong, supple white powerhouse from one of La Colombe’s Constantia neighbours. (Justin is also making a small selection of own-label wine under the Van Wyk Family Vineyards label – look out for some excellent, albeit limited, releases.)

By the time we’d reached the seared beef, paired with a 2015 cabernet sauvignon from Le Riche (few states do the grape better), and finished off with a burst sweetness from Delheim’s luscious Edelsplatz (who knew rotting fruit could taste so wonderful?), La Colombe’s status as a genuine rival to The Test Kitchen was cemented. 

Which one was better? It’s awfully hard to pick. Two exciting, inventive chefs combining theatre with exceptional cooking. Two Zimbabwean sommeliers with a keen understanding of wine and the food that complements it. Two restaurants where impeccable service underlines the entire experience. 

I’ll leave you to try them both and decide for yourself. In the meantime, I have return visits to plan. And as for the magic – I’ll take James Gaag over David Copperfield any day.

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THIS WEEK I’VE BEEN DRINKING: As Richard Kershaw shows repeatedly, Elgin is prime chardonnay territory, and every year new vintages deliver some serious competition to Hemel-en-Aarde for the country’s best cool-climate examples. But there’s a way to make great Elgin chardonnay even more so: age it. I opened a bottle of 2013 from Almenkerk this week, and the result was glorious. Not nearly as dark as you might expect, it retained a lightness on the palate to match the colour, but the ageing had rounded and softened the wine quite beautifully.
Want to see what else Dan Nicholl has been drinking? Watch his latest episode of Dan Really Likes Wine