We ate at a SA restaurant that's ranked among the world's best. The R2,800 meal included tuna in a can - and it was spectacular
- La Colombe in Cape Town was ranked No. 6 out of 25 fine dining restaurants around the world by TripAdvisor.
- It was also recently named among the top 120 restaurants worldwide in the 2019 World‘s 50 Best Restaurant awards.
- The iconic Tuna La Colombe was a highlight.
- For more stories, go to BusinessInsider.co.za.
Stepping into La Colombe feels like I'm entering an über chic treehouse — and that's because that's exactly what it is.
Since opening in 2014, the restaurant at Cape Town's Silvermist Organic Wine Estate has undergone two renovations. Now, executive chef James Gaag calls the dining room "grown-up ... exactly what I think it should be".
"Since I started at La Colombe I've always dreamed of running it," Gaag told Business Insider. "I didn't really want to go anywhere else. A lot of chefs have a different idea of how you should develop your career. I have a slightly different view — I much prefer being in a kitchen that suits me and where I feel free to be creative and cook the food I want to cook. I was very fortunate that this was the kitchen for me and now it's my kitchen."
In his years running the kitchen at this top-rated, award-winning restaurant, Gaag has transformed the menu to incorporate all sorts of flavours inspired by his travels.
While the minutiae of the menu can change daily, he really only does a complete overhaul once a year — and something he'll never take off his menu again is the now iconic Tuna La Colombe. He said there's almost nothing he wouldn't try on a menu with the exception of brains, "just because brains isn't something I would want to serve".
Gaag told Business Insider he's not interested in doing elaborate gastronomical things to his food. He said he prioritises flavour and good ingredients, and then just "makes them look really pretty".
"It's got to taste amazing first," he told Business Insider.
Coming from a family of foodies — his mom was a culinary school teacher, as was his wife who also owns another Cape Town eatery — Gaag's love for the pure ingredient is felt throughout every dish.
Eating at La Colombe is an experience I'd recommend to anyone — regardless of which menu option you choose — and the fact that it only set me back around $180 (R2,800), which can be the price of an average dinner for two in my hometown of New York City, really seals the deal for me.
The 11-course Chef's Menu option costs R1,495 - for a wine pairing, add R995. A service charge of 12.5% will be added.
La Colombe was ranked No. 6 out of 25 fine dining restaurants around the world by TripAdvisor. It was also named in the 114th place worldwide in the prestigious World's 50 Best Restaurant extended list.
Diners can visit the restaurant for lunch or dinner — both of which are scheduled and seated for a single round of a 60- to 70-person service every day.
Located on Silvermist Organic Wine Estate, a wine farm in Cape Town's Constantia suburb ...
... the views and forest-like surroundings inspire the restaurant's ever-evolving menu.
The food is generally inspired by nature, as well as executive chef James Gaag's travels. You can see visually that dishes resemble the forest-type setting they're in. Gaag told Business Insider that La Colombe used to embody French and Asian flavours, but now it's "a mix of whatever I think tastes good".
Gaag worked his way up at La Colombe from student to sous chef in three years. After taking one year off to work in England, he returned to Cape Town as head chef at this Silvermist wonder of gastronomy.
Gaag grew up around people immersed in the culinary world. His mother is a chef, and Gaag's first experiences with cooking came from sitting in on her classes — she taught at the Silwood School of Cookery where Gaag was later a student. "After that, I never wanted to do anything else," he told Business Insider.
Although flavours in dishes can change daily, as it really depends on what's fresh and available, Gaag told Business Insider that he only completely changes the menu once a year when the restaurant closes for annual renovations.
The building is a legitimate treehouse — it sits on stilts — and because of its location, the views of rolling vineyards, mountains, and vegetation, I felt like I was about to have a meal while sitting amongst the living versions of everything I'd eat. And that's not too far from the truth.
The most recent renovation transformed the indoor area into a single open dining room, a departure from its previous layout of a main dining room, terrace, and miniature greenhouse, where guests would eat one of their courses inside walls covered with vegetation. The staff moved their small garden to the forest floor just below the restaurant.
While La Colombe is unmistakably a fine dining restaurant, it has an atmosphere that's just as inviting to vivacious parties of five as it is to quieter, solo diners.
The whole restaurant is decorated with funky potted plants ...
... a minimalist colour palate of whites, greys, and greens ...
... and varying clusters of these art deco-esque spherical hanging lights.
When I first walked in, I was greeted by a tree stump dotted with little colourful spheres. The spheres were a palate cleanser — just a little something to reset your taste buds from whatever you might have eaten during the day.
I followed instructions and popped a sphere in my mouth whole. Then it exploded and released this refreshing, semi-sweet liquid.
It was flavoured with green apple and tarragon, but I really just tasted the freshness of the green apple. If it wasn't green on the outside, though, I'm not sure I would have guessed green apple.
Diners are offered a welcome drink of either sparkling wine or gin and tonic water. But I think I missed out on that while I was running around snapping photos before the sunset.
Chef Gaag came to the table to introduce himself and make a small introduction for the meal — nay, the eating experience — we were about to have.
I've dined at La Colombe once before in 2016 but ate from the "Reduced" menu — a mere eight courses. This time I was here to go big or go home: the 11-course "Gourmand" menu with a course-by-course wine pairing.
First up were some breads and spreads. There was a beautiful hunk of sourdough placed on our slate bread plates ...
... and black olive and parmesan sablé — basically parmesan biscuits with driblets of olive paste on top — that really tasted like the Trader Joe's cheese sticks, which is a huge compliment if you ask me. Those things are amazing and were my childhood.
The spread didn't have too much of a distinct flavour, but it was definitely good. The flavour of the chorizo stood out, and the spread cut the saltiness in a great way.
The "snacks" course was twofold: A sticky bun with pork belly inside came to the table sitting on top of this dark, stone box. Once Gaag took the lid off, smoke came pouring out revealing a langoustine head, maize, and crostini that definitely had a Cape Malay vibe. The thin piece of crispy fat on the sandwich tasted familiar — like amazing pepperoni.
Then the wine started flowing — I got a generous pour of a new wine with each following course for the remainder of the meal. Each was from one of the many wine regions across South Africa.
After the "snacks" came the restaurant's signature Tuna La Colombe. The iconic Instagrammable dish has become a fun, blind-tasting experience.
The tuna is presented in a sealed can reminiscent of lunchtime tuna fish, and instead of listing every flavour in the dish like they do for every other course, the server says to leave it up to your taste buds and guess.
The wine served is also a mystery. It comes in a dark, blue glass with no introduction. I guessed a sauvignon blanc but had some doubt. It turns out it was a chenin blanc ... not too far off!
The tuna had some basic tuna tartar flavours — I was able to guess most of them. Gaag noted that the ingredients were also listed on the back of the can for whoever wasn't feeling the guessing game — he said it's essentially tuna tataki with some seared pieces and some tartar. La Colombe started serving the tuna when it opened at Silvermist — Gaag told me it was the very first dish they served.
Gaag and his culinary team had just been to Spain and they wanted to put tinned sardines on the menu. He said they couldn't find the perfect sardine tin, but they did find a tuna tin and asked, "Why don't we do a kick a-- tuna dish?" Gaag left it on the menu for around a year and then thought it was time to change it up.
But then he realised people were coming to the restaurant expecting the tuna and were disappointed when it wasn't on the menu. Now it's a staple — he told me the flavours evolve all the time, but the concept of tuna in a can is La Colombe's signature.
Gaag was surprised to hear the dish even got him recognised in New York. He told INSIDER he was eating at a Manhattan restaurant when the chef "brought out a dish, I can't remember what it was, and they said, 'This is our answer to your tuna can,' and I couldn't believe it! It means that we are doing something right".
Next up was a dish of quail and prawn.
There was this crispy chickpea nest that was a little spicy but so interesting in texture.
Something that's common throughout the La Colombe menu is the use of many different parts of a single animal — or the same part prepared several different ways, like in the tuna. With the quail, there were three different variations of the protein on the plate, each offering its own unique flavour profile that worked with everything else, too.
Next up, scallops and sweetbreads — which, by the way, is the culinary name for the meat of an animal's thymus gland or pancreas. The scallop was seasoned and cooked perfectly. There was nothing flashy about the scallop either — just good, honest, tasty seafood.
The sweetbreads tasted like the sauce they were in, with a hint of smokiness at the back. It was spongy in texture, and I chose not to finish the entire portion. I still had a lot to eat, and I made the decision to not finish anything I wasn't crazy about.
A palate cleanser of prickly pear and mezcal — served in a frozen, hollowed out prickly pear of course — came next. It was like a wake-up call for my taste buds. Without being too sweet, the flavour of the prickly pear overpowered any taste of alcohol.
They also used paper straws — which was probably my favourite part about this course. I jotted down notes on each course, and while revisiting them I noticed part of this one reads: "Unreal. So eco-friendly." Good on you, La Colombe — your efforts to reduce the existence of single-use plastic are appreciated.
One of the main dishes was next: linefish. The meaty piece of white fish was accompanied by a smoked mussel, a pickled squid, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and two sauces. The light brown sauce didn't have much flavour at all, but the curried snoek sauce — a thick sauce creatively made using snoek — was amazingly rich and creamy.
The wine paired with the linefish was a chardonnay. I haven't enjoyed a chardonnay since 2016, when I exclusively drank chardonnay and denounced all red wines — talk about amateur hour! I was skeptical of this one.
It wasn't too buttery on the nose, and after I tasted it, I was fully on board. This is the face of someone who is pleasantly surprised.
The next main dish was Karoo lamb and there were two cuts of the meat on the dish. The braised neck was my favourite — it fell apart with the slightest touch and was stringy but not tough. The herb crusted cut was heavier, and felt salty without having a heavy salt taste — it was what you'd expect from a classic herb-crusted lamb chop.
The real winner on this dish was the smoked tomato purée. It had its own texture — stiff enough not to be drippy, but soft enough to dip in. Even though these were the only two droplets of the purée on the plate, they were so flavourful that I was able to get the smoky, identifiably tomato taste in every bite of food. I used my pinky finger to scoop up what my fork couldn't.
The transition to desserts started with a cheese dish — cheese courses are generally one of my favourite things, so I was pumped to try this rendition. It featured dollops of oak-smoked Stanford gruyère, quince — which is a fruit kind of like a pear — a dollop of pecan ice cream on top of pecan dust, and onions pickled in sherry vinegar. The cheese was great, but the pecan ice cream was my favourite thing on the plate.
Our waiter brought over a dessert wine — not a port. I was skeptical because I hate super sweet drinks, and my experience with dessert wines has been über sweet — as I've usually tasted a port specifically — but it was actually quite pleasant.
Unfortunately, the next dessert wine was not my favourite. To my amateur palate, it tasted like a mix of Manischewitz wine and the Kedem white grape juice I'd drink as a kid in synagogue on Shabbat — on first taste I was immediately brought back to Hebrew school.
It turns out my least favourite wine was served in accompaniment with my absolute favourite dish of the night: gourmet banana pudding. There were pieces of banana playing on this playground of a dish with hazelnuts, tonka bean — a South American bean that's actually illegal in the US — passion fruit sauces, and clearly a mess of other ingredients that weren't even listed on the menu.
There were fluffy banana bread-like cubes playing happily with dense, tart purées and rich — but not too sweet — creams. And then the cookie hits. If there's one thing I love more than anything else in the confectionary world it's an impeccably crafted shortbread cookie. The butteriness and flakiness and that little film that sticks to the roof of my mouth — there is nothing like it.
When I took my first bite I thought, "This is what people mean by 'explosion of flavour.'" The whole thing was unbelievable. It tasted like a better version of the banana pudding from New York's Magnolia Bakery — a dream version that includes buttery crunchies and gland-tingling passion fruit. I dragged my pinky finger around the plate until it was clean — zero shame.
A rather appropriately timed coffee offer came after the banana whirlwind. Typically, you can bet anything I'm getting a cappuccino at the end of a meal, but this time I was just the right amount of full that I knew my milky friend would put me over the edge in the worst way. I opted for an espresso instead and had no regrets.
Just when I thought we were done, I looked at the menu — it kind of acted as a programme for the evening's events — and saw we still had something called "Flavours from our garden" coming our way. Sure enough, a hunk of tree bark arrived at our table.
The petit fours were a "thank you" to us from the La Colombe team. Each table received a piece of tree with enough of each treat for everyone dining. There were sticks — yep, real sticks from the outdoors — topped with lemon and thyme flavoured, toasted marshmallow fluff, which tasted a bit plain ...
... macarons flavoured with rose and geranium, which I did not care for ...
... and a chocolate sphere filled with what tasted like a bourbon, butterscotch, caramel liquid — I wasn't into this one either and I wish we ended on the banana dessert. But I did appreciate that each of these tiny confections was inspired by — and made with — the herbs grown in the garden beds I saw outside.
At the end of the meal, Gaag and I talked about the menu. He told me his favourite dish changes often, but at the moment he was loving the quail and langoustine. An example of the way he changes ingredients daily, he told me this dish started out featuring chicken and then sweetbreads before they landed on quail. "I like to give a dish enough time to sort of develop and try and perfect it as much as we can," he said. "Although I don't think we're ever going to find a perfect dish."
Gaag's humility just added to the wow factor of the La Colombe experience. Not only was it surprisingly affordable, — and well worth it — it was also surprisingly simple. The flavours were so deeply complex, but when broken down, each dish was made of fresh, recognisable ingredients. There was no fluff or exaggeration — if anything, it's all super downplayed. The way the servers introduced each dish was in an incredibly relaxed way, making the visuals way less overwhelming.
The whole experience was an overall class act. If you're not a wine connoisseur, I'd say you can go ahead and skip the wine pairing — which brings your bill down to R1,495.
You can still order a chef-recommended carafe or bottle.
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