Cape Town is a city of many things: of great wine, great food and unparallelled natural beauty. Whereas in many other cities, you have to look pretty hard to find a restaurant that ticks all three these boxes, in Cape Town they are a dime dozen. Mountain view? Take your pick. Sea view? Ditto – we even have two oceans for you to choose from! The world truly is your oyster if you are looking for a dining room with a view. So why then, on the third night of my recent trip to Cape Town, did I find myself not gazing out to sea, but in the soulless maze of high-rise office blocks in the Foreshore, trying to find parking space so that I could dine in a restaurant that appears to be located in the repurposed entrance to an underground parking garage? You might say it sounds a little crazy – or bizerca, to be more exact.
And that’s exactly what French chef Laurent Deslandes and his South African wife Cyrillia’s friends called them when they decided to pack up and move back to South Africa after 17 years in France and Australia. Add to that their somewhat somewhat peculiar choice of location for Bizerca Bistro, and the decor (which is a little stark for many people’s taste) and you would think you have a recipe for disaster. Instead, the restaurant has gained a steady stream of accolades since opening in late 2007, and is regularly listed among South Africa’s top 10 restaurants, with a devoted following of regular diners. I figured there had to be a reason why the restaurant generated such fanatical devotion amongst its fans, and if it wasn’t in the decor or the view, it had to be the food – and I was not disappointed.
The restaurant occupies a space adjacent to the lobby of the Circa hotel and shares an entrance with said hotel. There are garage-style roller doors along one entire wall (albeit with glass instead of metal panels!) and much of the ceiling ducting and pipework has been left exposed, a la Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. The floor seems to be the original concrete, sanded down a little and then varnished in true industrial chic style. Having been slightly disconcerted by reports of the decor, both Nick and I walked into the almost entirely monochrome space and found it instantly appealing. There are a couple of long wooden tables for larger parties, but most of the tables are bistro-style four-seaters made of resin with a black damask design on them – no need for tablecloths. I loved the large window into the kitchen and the Gustav Klimt-esqe scroll design along the bar counter outside the kitchen – but most of all I loved the enthusiastic and trés Francais maitre d’ who talked us through the menu in detail. There is a short menu of classic dishes that are always available (including their braised pig trotter with seared scallop and truffle oil, which has an almost fanatical following), as well as a chalkboard of seasonal and constantly-changing dishes. I always rate the success of a menu by how difficult it is for me to make a choice – and this one presented me with an agony of indecision.
After much debate and some lubrication in the form of a glass of French bubbly, we made our choices. Nick started with the salmon gravalax with crab, avocado and papaya (R68.00). This was served as a tian consisting of layers of salmon, chopped avocado, crab mayonnaise, more salmon, and finally some ribbons of papaya. We loved the pretty presentation as well as the utterly fresh ingredients – but mostly, Nick was besotted with the garnish: pea shoots and little cubes of tomato that had been marinated in vinegar – potent little flavour bombs to complete a heavenly dish. I opted for the white asparags with prawns, pea shoot salad & Hollandaise sauce (R68.00). This was also wonderful, with two of the plumpest and juciest prawns I have ever had, nicely paired with the fresh white asparagus spears and a particularly good and creamy Hollandaise. Both dishes were relatively light, as a starter should be, and both left a lasting impression. But it was what came next that really knocked my socks off. We had just ordered a glass of red wine each when the maitre d’ reappeared and said he had something for us to try – “just a leetle taste”. This turned out to be their justifiably famous beef fillet tartare (R68.00), served rather glamorously in a martini glass with home-made wafer-thin potato waffle crisps. I have no problem with raw meat, but I usually don’t order steak tartare as I generally find it to be underseasoned and the raw-egg-on-top thing does not really do it for me. This one, however, was absolutely sensational. The meat is already mixed with the egg and plenty of seasoning, including Worcestershire sauce, cornichons and salty little capers. Serving it with the crisps was inspired, and despite both of us just having eaten a generous starter, we found ourselves unable to stop eating this. Definitely the knock-out dish of the evening for me.
For his main course, Nick chose the pan-fried kingklip fillet, vegetables jardiniere, roasted fennel and a saffron veloute (R135.00). The kingklip was a gorgeous piece of fish – firm and meaty, crisply seared on the outside, and just cooked to the point of flaking. The vegetables were bright and fresh, while the roasted fennel and the saffron veloute added some more strident flavours. There was also a dollop of something sweet on the fish – possibly a fig compote? – which was a surprising but very successful addition. I opted for one of their classic dishes: braised veal shoulder with roasted mushroom, grilled semolina, asparagus & prune chutney (R125.00). This was a a wonderfully autumnal bistro dish – simple, yet rich and deeply satisfying. The veal was literally fork-tender and a far more butch affair than the insipidly pale veal you are often served in other veal dishes in restaurants. The earthiness of the mushroom and the comforting starchiness of the semolina worked well with the meat, and the addition of a few fresh asparagus spears stopped the dish from being too heavy or stodgy.
I had already selected my dessert at the beginning of the meal as I was warned that it takes 45 minutes to prepare: the apple tarte fine with creme fraiche ice cream and honey syrup (R50.00). This was everything a dessert should be: light, fruity and elegant. Both the pastry and the apples were sliced paper-thin before baking to a caramelised golden shade. The intense sweetness of the honey syrup was balanced by the creme-fraiche ice-cream, and the portion was just big enough to leave you wondering if you could manage a little more. Nick is not usually a big dessert fan, so the maitre d’ suggested that he try a selection of three mini-desserts: Valrhona chocolate fondant pudding; white chocolate creme brulee; and raspberry sorbet (R55.00). To my surprise, Nick adored each one of these – in fact, we both did! The creme brulee was thick and creamy with a good crackling crust; the fondant was one of the most decadent I have had, with a truly liquid, rather than barely oozing, centre; and as a zingy, palate refreshing finale, the raspberry sorbet would take some beating.
It was one of those meals that you enter into without any defined expectations, and depart from on a cloud of gastronomic contentment. The service, both from the charming maitre d’ and other staff members, was efficient, knowledgeable and friendly. We both loved the space, and we were both blown away by the quality of the food. Even better was the fact that the portions and prices were bistro-style, the ingredients and the innovative preparation were far closer to what you’d expect in a more formal (and more expensive!) fine dining restaurant. It’s not often that you find this combination – in Cape Town or, indeed, elsewhere. Lauren’t confident cooking is evident in every dish, both in his rendition of French classics and in the more local and seasonal creations; and there truly is no substitute for a good maitre d’ looking after front of house while the chef concentrates on his kitchen. All in all a fantastically enjoyable experience – and one well worth braving the soulless streets of the Foreshore for.
LIKED: the incredible steak tartare, good service, excellent value for money
DISCLOSURE: We enjoyed this meal as guests of Bizerca Bistro. Other than the meal itself, I received no remuneration and all opinions are my own.
Tel: +27 (0) 21 418 0001
This post is part of a series called Sundays in South Africa. The series started as a way of providing visitors with some ideas of what and where to eat during and after the FIFA World Cup 2010 which took place in June/July 2010 in my home country of South Africa! Although the tournament is over now, I still try to post a review of somewhere South African, or a South African recipe on Sundays as culinary inspiration for visitors. Click here for previous posts in the series.