Bonthuys, the Saucerer

April 25th, 2011 § 0 comments

‘But you’re South Africa’s first celebrity chef,’ I gushed all flushed on Raats Cabernet Franc after a talkative dinner with friends at Casparus, the new home of culinary stalwart Etienne Bonthuys.

‘Ag, moenie laf wees nie,’ he responded with an affable smile. But I’d already moonwalked past his kitchen when my very pointy shoe slipped on a metal strip in the concrete floor designed by partner and land artist Strijdom van der Merwe.

Laf was my only recourse!

My peers are in agreement. Etienne Bonthuys was our first ‘celebrity chef’. The first to blow our minds with out of the ordinary combinations. In the bad old eighties and early nineties before most of us traveled and were introduced to flavours-from-beyond, he was the braveheart of flavour emancipation. In spite of all this, I’d never met the man let alone seen a photo of him. So, great was my surprise to encounter a slim, relaxed (as can be given a 2 month-old restaurant), and decidedly humble man in his kitchen.

Given how many Spur grillers he rehabilitated in his time, Etienne Bonthuys is downright Zen

I must admit, I missed the Tokara years. My last Etienne Bonthuys experience was at Bonthuys in Cape Town before he moved to the winelands. I had mussels in an orange and banana sauce… which at the time was an epiphany. I mention this to him and he replies: ‘O yes, I’m going to do them again but at the moment there’s a red tide so we can’t serve mussels.’

I was gunning for big meaningful answers but Etienne wasn’t having much of it. I wanted to know what direction his food would take in this refreshing new space. ‘Ek wil net ‘n bord kos maak.’ (I just want to make a plate of food.) So I persevered and he admitted to not wanting to reinvent his own wheel. He just wants to cook what he knows and loves best. ‘Ek wil net geure crieer (this must be Belgian for ‘skep‘ or ‘create’ because it’s not Afrikaans and I don’t know how to spell it) soos wat mense dit deesdae nie meer doen nie.’ He is famous for his combos and sauces. Flavour upon flavour. Rich and rewarding. The Casparus menu is peppered with old Bonthuys favourites. I had one of his signature dishes to start with and it was full-on fabulous.

Warm oysters in Cap Classique wine buttersauce

Hmmmmm just look at them beauties. I could have stopped there. In fact, I should have. But no, like a trooper I ordered a whopper of a main course… the baby calamari and shredded oxtail with saffron sauce. I was punching above my weight but couldn’t resist this Bonthuys classic. It’s an interesting combo but not one that I would revisit soon. The oxtail was on the salty side and together with the creamy saffron sauce, a tad too heavy for my palate.

Weight restriction: no 2 - 75kg

Diagonally across from the Akker in Dorp Street, Stellenbosch, Casparus has a groovy front room that reflects the history and intention of the space. It’s clear that Etienne loved collaborating with his friend Strijdom van der Merwe, who is completely responsible for the look and feel.

Wall smart at Casparus

And the surprising back-end of Casparus – now with drop-down screens to shield diners from the elements – which bucks the usual wall and ceiling configuration.

Out there dining

I’ll be talking about Casparus on SABC3 Expresso Show tomorrow morning at 6.50 am. Although I enjoyed my meal, I suspect Casparus will hit its stride in months to come and given Etienne’s determination to create affordable classics, it will become a regular meeting place. Especially when it’s cold and I crave sauce with soul. Our first celeb chef is in a space that he loves, doing what he does best, at a price that doesn’t put his food in the ‘special occasions only’ category. What a bargain.

The understated exterior

It’s quite easy to miss if you don’t know what to look for and hard to forget once you’ve found it.  I know myself, I’ll be back for the oysters. Soon.

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