Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Three Amazing (And Dramatically Different) Dining Experiences in Cape Town

Cape Town is an amazing city, and one of my favorite things about it is how good (and varied) the food is. Here are three of my favorites from my recent trip:

V&A Market on the Wharf
Cape Town's V&A Waterfront is nice to walk around, but most of the food tends to be pretty crappy and tourist-oriented (read: bland and over-priced). That said, the V&A Market on the Wharf is decidedly different - offering a wide variety of ethnic cuisines, fresh produce, coffee, snacks, etc, etc, etc.


It's not a very large space, so the vendors are packed in quite closely.

Close quarters

Whether you're in the mood for coffee, breakfast, lunch, or just some Biltong - you can almost certainly find something to satisfy your craving!

When in Cape Town, you can't not try the Biltong!

If you're more in the mood for fine dining, Cape Town also has a number of great high-end restaurants. One of my favorites is La Colombe.

La Colombe
Situated at the Constantia Uitsig vineyard, La Colombe is one of Cape Town's finest restaurants and toughest tables to get. Consistently ranked in "top restaurant" lists for South Africa, Africa, and even the world, the cuisine features seasonal, local ingredients - elegantly prepared and presented.

The beautiful setting outside of La Colombe

The menu changes regularly, but only contains a dozen or so dishes at any given time.

The menu at La Colombe during my last visit

The only thing better than the taste of the food might be how elegantly it is presented - each dish has obvious care and attention to detail put into it, and the final products speak for themselves:

Champagne-poached oysters
Scallop and pork belly appetizer
Smoked trout, asparagus, ham and eggs appetizer
Wild mushroom canelloni
Lamb "La Colombe"

If you're ever in Cape Town, I highly recommend trekking outside of the City Bowl to Constantia to taste whatever La Colombe has on the menu at that time. Be sure to make your reservations ahead of time though, or you'll likely end up disappointed.

Dining With Local Families
In stark contrast to the experiences described above, a local tour group called Coffeebeans Routes offers a "Cuisine Route" that includes the opportunity to dine with local Cape Town families in their homes.

The tour takes you to different neighborhoods, each with "typical" foods that reflect the eclectic nature of Cape Town's ethnic foods. The Bo-Kaap neighborhood, an exclusively Muslim area during the Apartheid Era, features Cape Malay cuisine. The smells and the tastes are highly-reminiscent of Indian cuisine, but notably less spicy. As our tour guide and host noted, this was done purposefully as the Cape Malay people were brought to Cape Town, in order to accommodate the palettes of other groups in the area.

Samosas and daltjie
Cape Malay chicken with basmati rice and roti

You will also visit some of the Townships on the outskirts of the city, which were also reserved for non-White residents during the Apartheid Era. The view from the highway will likely be unsettling for first-time visitors, but it will also be one of the most memorable parts of your trip. Many tour groups provide a "Township Tour" which will take you to the Townships and show you the most downtrodden parts. It strikes me as more than a bit exploitative - playing into stereotypes, while letting you "experience" the Townships in a sanitized way. Coffeebeans does a great job of providing the historical context (which, to be fair, isn't exactly a heart-warming story), but they also talk at great length about the brighter sides of what life is like there - the sense of community, the modern amenities that many residents have (fancy cars and flat screen TVs), the fact that many national heroes (athletes, musicians) have come from these areas - and that many successful people choose to live in them voluntarily, the development efforts that are raising the standard of living, etc, etc. Sitting down to share a meal with a local family also provides perspective and context that you can't get from merely walking the streets and taking pictures. Oh, and the food is pretty great as well!

Our lunch: Free range chicken, steam bread, maize and spinach

Coffeebeans is a small operation, but business has picked up ever since they were featured in the NYTimes. In addition to the Cuisine Route, they have a number of other tours that provide a closer, richer experience than most other tour companies in Cape Town provide. I would highly recommend them - and if you do decide to book a tour, please say hi to Iain and Michael for me!

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