The lanes are broad and leafy, the air is that of well-heeled gratitude for the general success enjoyed by residents and businesses in Cape Town’s Constantia suburb. An off-shoot ridge of Table Mountain casts an imposing shadow over this area which has a deserved reputation for fine wines, extraordinary eating experiences and general good taste.
Think of restaurants such as La Colombe and Catharina’s, wineries bearing the names of Groot Costantia and Steenberg, and one will know Constantia is to the good life what allegations of Donald Trump’s gropes are to the Clinton campaign.
It was thus somewhat of a surprise to find one of the worst – if not the most very worst – restaurants in Cape Town quietly hiding in the neat, historical part of Constantia.
La Belle Bistro & Bakery was open on a recent Monday evening and its name sounded like one of those innocent, non-plussed but approachable eateries to which one could take an Italian cook who had just travelled from his hometown of Sacile north of Venice to Cape Town. On a bicycle.
Joining us was art consultant Hildegard Lowe who had just returned from a visit to Tahiti in search of a lost Paul Gauguin self-portrait and, like Braggio, was hungry from exotic travels in places faraway and desolate.
The La Belle Bistro & Bakery is situated in the gentrified square where the Alphen Hotel sits, ancient oaks and VOC buildings adding a tone of historical reverence to the area in which this eatery is allowed to ply its trade. We sat outside in a warm, yet fresh, evening, and everything was soft and quiet and peaceful.
The Congolese waiter’s immigration papers were obviously in order, for he never stopped smiling as he took orders for drinks. Beers for me and Braggio. Hildegard wanted wine, and my eyes popped out when seeing the mark-ups on the carte’s items. At R170 the Pecan Stream Chenin Blanc was the cheapest wine on the menu, and I had no qualms about ordering it. This, like the other wines, implies a 400% mark-up on trade price. Nice work, if you can get it.
Thinking about the wine rip-off had given me a dull, vacant hole in my stomach. So for a starter I chose the mushroom tortellini, while Hildegard and Braggio shared a Caesar Salad.
We had scarcely began to sip the over-priced wine or discuss Braggio’s machete-duelling technique in Rwanda when the food arrived at the table in about the time it takes to remove a pre-made salad from the fridge and to microwave the tortellini.
I don’t comment on other people’s food, but there were a lot of hard-boiled eggs lying on some iceberg lettuce that did not look very Caesarish.
My tortellini was, fortunately, almost invisible due to the dark night-sky and the dim outside lightening. I eventually found a piece which made its way to a mouth that was no longer all that expectant.
The pasta pillow should not give way too easily to the bite, but it should preferably not have the texture of the flesh found between the webbed toes of a dying and diseased hippopotamus. Deploying frenetic nibbles that a hamster would have mistaken for an invitation to mate, I did manage to chomp through the pasta.
Having opened the pasta sheath I was met by strange contents. There was a crumbly sensation as the stuff inside the tortellini spilled into my mouth revealing a texture akin to rough sawdust having been mixed with Purity baby-food regurgitated by some toddler with a puke problem. There was a rancid cheesy taste combined with the easily identifiable flavour of tinned mushroom soup that had been opened at the beginning of spring and started curdling in the can.
Braggio and Hildegard were having none of this, mopping their plates with bread, sipping wine and discussing the early palette techniques of Carravagio.
For main course Braggio had chicken schnitzel. I played it safe by ordering sirloin steak and Hildegard went local with chicken pie, something she had missed while subsisting on yams, goat meat and wild spinach in Tahiti.
Once again, we hardly had time to put down our napkins when Monsieur Congo and his smile appeared bearing the food.
My steak came with an extra order of French fries, predictably sourced from those horrible purveyors of pre-cooked chips. The meat lay on a bed of baby potatoes and this being Constantia, a decision had been made to introduce kale as the vegetable of choice.
The call to order meat as the “safe” option was about as responsible as walking around UCT campus with placard denouncing the inclusion of transgender rugby players in the Springbok rugby team.
Supported by a bed of halved little potatoes was a strip of meat. In the Northern Cape, where I come from, passing off this pathetic flap of flesh as sirloin steak will be met with calls for the re-institution of the death penalty. The overall impression was made worse by the steak being covered with a greasy, shimmering layer of sauce the colour of the sundried gall bladders of Pacific turtles.
To the cut, the steak was far from the medium rare I ordered, but was probably safer and contamination-free in a cindered state than it would have been bloody and rawish.
It was ghastly in the mouth. The hammering that had been induced to tenderise the steak had set the fibres loose, making the mouth-feel that of sucking on a nail brush. Every taste of beef had been extracted from the meat. It was the first time I found that describing something as tasting of “cardboard” can, in fact, be apt and spot on.
The dearth of meaty flavour was obviously well-known by those responsible for the menu. Thus the suspect looking brown gooey stuff spread over the steak and being passed off as black peppercorn sauce.
Sweet and salty with an edge of burnt fat, the sauce had been blended into a slimy, luke-warm texture that stuck to one’s lips like curdled milk to a woollen blanket. It was gooey and pornographic, dangerous-tasting in the sauce’s aggressively flavoured attempts to mask the horridness of the steak.
Pre-cooked French fries with ketchup dominated the rest of my meal.
Braggio devoured the chicken schnitzel which even a modest guy like himself announced to be “small”.
Hildegard was keeping quiet, putting knife and fork together after three bites of chicken pie. This, in an apparent surge of inspiration from the chef underscored by a mysterious pretentiousness, came deconstructed. A circle of undercooked, pale-yellow puff-pastry lay next to a mound of chicken strips swimming in a pale, translucent liquid the colour of freshly lanced boils.
I did hazard a mouthful, choosing to forgo the niftily deconstructed pastry part and spearing a shard of chicken which hung listlessly from my fork. Like the dish, the taste was messily arranged and all over the place: poultry flesh devoid of flavour, the pus-like sauce a combination of cornflour, soured long-life cream and dank kitchen cupboard.
La Belle, however, does have one thing in common with Constantia: history shall remember it. And no doubt have the final say.
- Emile Joubert