I recently attended a San Lorenzo tasting dinner at Osteria Dell’Arancio and had the good fortune of sitting next to the charming and extremely well-travelled restaurant critic Andy Hayler. We discussed all sorts of things but, unsurprisingly, the conversation kept returning to food. Andy mentioned that despite the huge population of South Africans in London, there did not appear to be a single good South African restaurant in town. Sure, you have the Spur out in Staines that’s fine for a fix of steak, but let’s face it – even in South Africa it’s not exactly high-end dining. Then there’s Chakalaka in Putney where neither of us has been, but which (judging by the menu) is going for a crowd-pleasing greatest hits mix of South African favourites – and good for them because we do have some particularly yummy traditional dishes. Milk tart, tomato bredie lamb shank, pumpkin fritters, oxtail potjie… All fine and well. But where (asked Andy) were the smart South African restaurants?
Well, after my recent trip there, I can now confidently direct Andy to Vivat Bacchus if he is in search of a sophisticated dining experience featuring modern cuisine with a South African twist. Oh yes, and a huge selection of excellent South African wines (no, not Kumala). Vivat Bacchus is the brainchild of Gerrie Knoetze and Neleen Strauss, a South African-born sommelier who decided to open the restaurant after 20 years in the wine trade. The restaurant prides itself on its huge cellar of South African wines, part of which can be seen through the windows as you approach the restaurant entrance. Chef Robert Staegemann changes the menu every 4-6 weeks to keep it seasonal but his famous roast haunch of springbok is always available.
Pretty much everyone that I spoke to on the phone as well as the front of house staff are South African, so you get the full effect of proper South African hospitality right from the start of your visit. We made the mistake first of going round to the wine bar entrance – a large and attractive room serving a limited menu as well as an excellent value daily set lunch, to which I would definitely like to return another time. The restaurant entrance proper is on Farringdon Road at the other end of the property and the warm welcome we received took the sting out of the chilly London evening. The dining room down a flight of stairs is modern yet cosy with lots of exposed brick and polished wood, and mercifully lacking in pretension. The ratio of staff to diners can’t fall far short of Gordon Ramsay at Claridges, and all are friendly and efficient.
Our first obstacle was choosing the wine. The wine list that is brought to the table contains only a very small percentage of the wines available, so if you don’t find something you like you can either ask to visit the cellars and choose a bottle for yourself; or you can leave yourself in the capable hands of Neleen, who was on hand the night we visited. When I had initially suggested the restaurant, my dining companion had pleaded bankruptcy but had agreed to go as the menu looked so good – “but let’s steer clear of expensive wine”. Hah. Within minutes her eye had alighted on a wine that I had never had, but she had tried at Winex in Johannesburg last year – the Veenwouden 2003 Merlot. At £49 per bottle, this was not bank-breaking, but still, not exactly what I’d call a cheap bottle of plonk. Still, said companion was so persuasive that I agreed, and when Neleen came over to take our order she approved wholeheartedly. The wine is apparently yet to be released in the UK but the restaurant had managed to import a couple of cases from South Africa after its launch there. I was having too much of a good time to make tasting notes, but I can tell you that it was one of the more delicious merlots I have had – ripe and fruity with almost none of the chalkiness on the finish that I have come to expect of South African merlots. Well worth every penny.
Right, on to the food. The menu is succinct and probably best described as modern eclectic, but every dish looked tempting and there is definitely a South African slant to it. It's not every menu that features crocodile spring rolls, after all… We decided on two starters which we shared equally. The first was the gammon and foie gras terrine, pictured above left; and the other was the irresistably unusual crocodile spring rolls pictured above right. The terrine was a bit heavy on the gammon and light on foie gras for my taste, but if you find the richness of foie gras overwhelming, it might be just right for you. It did pair extremely well with the cranberry compote with which it was served (hidden in my picture behind the sinfully delicious piece of fried bread). The crorodile spring rolls were an intriguing Afro-Asian combination of flavours. The julienned vegetables were fresh and crunchy and the spring rolls were piping hot and not at all greasy. The filling (as far as I could tell) was strips of crocodile and shitake mushrooms which made for a meaty contrast to the crisp pastry. I have had crocodile before and found that it tastes like chicken. Really! It has a meatier texture than chicken, but could not be described as the world's most flavourful meat – which is why serving these babies with a smoked chili jelly was inspired. Not only was the jelly good to look at but it also lifted the taste of the spring rolls. A really lovely starter.
For the main course, my friend decided to go for the blow-out and ordered the Wagyu beef rump, while I had my heart set on the irresistible-sounding roast hanuch of springbok. I had never had Wagyu before and so awaited its arrival with anticipation. At first glance, it's just another thick rump steak balanced on green beans and topped with wild mushrooms – but oh, the texture! Buttery is probably an overused word to describe this particular meat, but it is entirely apt. I didn't want to do Lisa out of more than one mouthful, but one mouthful was enough to convince me of the reason for the existence of Wagyu beef. But don't for a second think I didn't love my own main course. The springbok seemed to me to be more grilled/seared than roast – and there were those giveaway grill marks on the outside, but who am I to complain when the meat arrived so perfectly seasoned and so perfectly pink in the middle. The taste of the meat (peppery) was allowed to shine through, which was deeply satisfying. It was served on a "cassoulet" of coco blanc beans, piquillo peppers and South African boerewors. Well, a cassoulet it wasn't – there was none of that unctuous gooeyness that comes from long, slow cooking and melding together of flavours. This was an altogether lighter affair, and rightly so, given the intense flavour of the meat. Between the beans and the slivers of pepper there were also cubes of zucchini and the boerewors gave everything a slightly coriander-spice flavour. It set off the springbok beautifully – I really loved this dish and felt it worked on all levels.
But it seems the best was being saved for last. Should I be less well-nourished next time I visit, I may well be persuaded to take a trip to their dedicated cheese room where you get to put together your own cheese platter – I'm sucker for that sort of thing. But as I said, that's for another visit. This time we were both too full and instead, we opted to share a dessert. Luckily, the same dessert leapt off the page at both of us and we promptly ordered the white chocolate cheesecake with stem ginger. I was expecting something similar to the white chocolate and ginger cheesecake served at Wagamamas, but what arrived was a very different creature – an individual white chocolate cheesecake. And beside it was a generous pile of finely chopped syrupy stem ginger laced liberally with cumin seeds. Carrying on the theme, there was a cumin tuille atop the cake, and the plate was decorated with a line of icing sugar mixed with ground cumin. I cannot begin to tell you how this delighted my taste buds. Why do ginger and cumin not always get served side by side? I loved the repeated motif of flavours and I loved the textural contrasts. In fact, the next day I was still smiling when I thought of the cleverness of it all, and that to me is the mark of a truly outstanding dish.
The service throughout could not be faulted. We never had to wait for things to be cleared or wine to be poured, but at the same time the staff were never intrusive. When I asked a question, the waiter either had the answer or would go and find out promptly, and of course Neleen was an excellent and knowledgeable sommelier. The meal for two including water, service, wine (at £49) and the Wagyu at a similar amount, came to £170 for the two of us. It's not a bargain basement price, but I felt that we had had excellent value for our money. There is also a daily changing lunch menu which, at 2 courses for £15.50 and three for £17.50, seems a total bargain. And if you are into the liquid side of things, the restaurant also hosts a wine club that often focuses on South African wines and hosts visiting South African wine makers.
47 Farringdon Street
Tel: +44 20 7353 2648
Fax: +44 20 7353 3025
Verdict: inventive food, excellent service, extensive cellar. Great place to impress clients or a date