by Matthew Sterne
on October 15, 2010
“Just give me a comfortable couch, a dog, a good book, and a woman. Then if you can get the dog to go somewhere and read the book, I might have a little fun.” Groucho Marx
The Duchess of Wisbeach is a bit of a conundrum, it’s loud, busy, chaotic – the service was erratic, the electricity tripped twice and they ran out of two of the dishes we ordered. But I loved it all the same.
The bold, pink, front door is flanked by awnings and two large painted cameos of women, one languidly smoking a cheroot. Inside, there’s a great energy – homely, playful and ever so slightly mischievous. Book in advance, or, like us, the only table you’ll be able to get on a Saturday night will be at 9pm. 9pm soon became 9.30pm as the Likely Lad of a host juggled tables and cajoled people into moving to the bar by baiting them with complimentary cognacs.
The place was packed. And it’s not a big place either, so there was plenty of shuffling, squeezing and awkward maneuvering going on in the cosy and superbly decorated bar where an enormous cattle head presides. This was apparently the owner’s father’s (the Duke’s?) favourite cow. When it died, he had the head stuffed and mounted in memory of the beloved bovine. Behind the marble-topped bar are wooden shelves crammed with bottles, glasses and rows and rows of books. But trust me, this is not the place to come and enjoy a good read.
We sat under a large portrait of Marie Antoinette – just one of the life-size portraits of gracious ladies in flowing gowns. Throw in some crisp white damask cloths, candles in long, silver or pewter candle holders and elegant French antique mirrors and you have a beautifully designed and familiar dining room. Instead of flowers on the tables, there are little porcelain dogs of unusually servile countenance.
The Duchess herself is Theresa Beukes, chef, restaurateur and creator of this idiosyncratic fantasy. She and designer Craig Kaplan worked together on the design including the raised galley-kitchen overlooking the dining area. From here Theresa keeps a beady eye on her team – she knows exactly what is going on at every table and isn’t scared to bark out an order or two at the frazzled waiters. And don’t be alarmed if you see a couple of small yapper types squirreling around your feet – Theresa has two well-trained Jack Russells, Pipo and Dusty, who follow her around.
The wine menu and the food menu are both gratifyingly small but perfectly formed. Prices are across the board and not excessive. We opted for a bottle of the Raka Quinary at R153 which is a favourite blend of mine. If you feel like splashing out, the Iona The Gunnar is another exquisite red blend coming in at around R250.
The food is magnificent. It’s good, hearty, uncomplicated home cooking. We had grilled calamari to start which was tasty and tender, as well as a delicious roasted tomato soup with mozzarella toast. We also tried a rather scrumptious dish of roasted onions stuffed with Gorgonzola and wrapped in Parma Ham, served on a bed of rocket and Parmesan and drizzled with a balsamic reduction. Good start.
For all of you fish lovers out there, I was introduced to the Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative – SASSI – a project of the WWF which seeks to educate consumers about what seafood they should and should not eat based on fishing practices and whether the stocks of that species can survive the fishing pressures they are exposed to.
SASSI provides a useful little service where you can SMS/text the name of the fish to 0794998795. They will text you back with a colour code. Green is classified as the best choice, Orange species are to be consumed with caution and the Red species are not supposed to be sold, so don’t eat them and be sure to complain if you see them on the menu.
East Coast Sole came back ‘Orange’ which I have decided to interpret as – don’t eat it unless you really want it, haven’t had it for a while and know it’s going to be really delicious. It probably would have been delicious but I opted instead for the beef fillet, feeling equally guilty under the beady glass eye of the Duke’s taxidermied ungulate. Tubby Two had the Sole. In fact he didn’t have the Sole, because after the starter, they told us that they’d run out. They’d run out of the flattened chicken with broccoli and feta as well. So he had the lamb chops, which were the only disappointing dish of the evening. A little on the dry side, but not disastrous.
The fillet was sensational – served with a decadent béarnaise sauce and the best chips I have ever eaten. Ever. I’m not sure what her secret is, but I’m still thinking about those chips. I’m told that the vegetable sides are very good – as well they should be for R35 each – but they’d run out of those as well.
We finished off with a rich cheesecake which was tasty, if a little heavy on the cinnamon.
Despite the intermittent bouts of shambolic service and dubious stock ordering, the food is great and the atmosphere contagious. Don’t go if you want a quiet night and are a bit anal about service. Go with friends, go for the food, dress up – eat, drink and be merry. I can’t wait to go back!
Duchess of Wisbeach
1 Wisbeach Road
Tel: 021 434 1525.