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Cape Town may be filled with gourmet tastings, cosmopolitan, fusion meals and food and wine shows, but South Africans are far behind when it comes to offering satisfying vegetarian dishes that are not bland, boring or, more commonly, an afterthought or measly side dish. Compare this to our UK counterparts, where Stella McCartney invented the now-popular Meat-Free Mondays and you can’t help feeling a little left out.
That’s why, when I was invited to check out Catharina’s Restaurant in Steenberg to sample their Meat-Free Mondays menu, my tummy did a little skip and my mouth immediately started salivating. I’m excited. But, I’m also nervous, as it’s not every day you get to sample an entire menu of vegetarian food! I couldn’t help wondering whether chef Garth Almazan would be able to dazzle for the duration of a vegetarian only 3-course gourmet meal, while maintaining Catherina’s renowned high standards and still providing good value for money.
I find myself unwinding in the comfort of my upholstered chair, soaking in the relaxing ambiance and enjoying the attention from our waitrons. But, the restaurant is a bit too quiet for my busy mind. (Perhaps a crackling fire from the empty fireplace would help or even some music?) I do wonder why Meat-Free Mondays are not better attended, but it could be that as the campaign was introduced much earlier this year, the novelty may have worn off. Chef Almazan in fact told us that the menu has been simplified to reduce food wastage (glad to hear that food isn’t going to waste!), but that they expect the traffic to pick up as the busy summer season gets into full swing.
This is where Catharina’s performs at its best. On seeing the menu, all my senses tingled with anticipation for the delights I knew were on their way.
For a starter, you could choose between cream of cauliflower soup or wild mushroom and goat’s cheese phyllo tart with slow baked rosa tomatoes, basil oil and baby salad leaves. Mains offered up an aubergine terrine with tomato and lentil purée, sweet pepper and tomato tart, olive tapenade, aged balsamic butter sauce, pomme maxim or an asparagus, broad bean and pea risotto with mushrooms, parsley oil and goat’s cheese. While I don’t think this is highly original as far as vegetarian cuisine goes, I could instantly imagine the sensation as the textures and tastes collide.
As a taste-adventurer, the real proof of the evening’s success would lie in the pudding as the two options were far from conventional: either a strawberry and black peppercorn tart with meringue, vanilla mascarpone ice cream and granadilla puree or an Amarula brulee.
I settled on the cauliflower soup, the risotto and the strawberry and black peppercorn tart.Each meal choice came paired with a specially selected wine to enhance and complement each flavour. The first wine, the Avondale The Weir Chardonnay, came before the soup, with the chef’s complimentary taster: A trio of fig, mozzarella and rocket beautifully served with a balsamic reduction, and yes, the picture does live up to its taste – an explosion of peppery watercress flavour toned down by mozzarella, ending with a sweet zing from the balsamic glaze. And what a fine effort in serving your customer a complimentary dish – I felt all special and fuzzy inside!
Then the soup was whisked in… A real treat, but be warned: the soup is rich with gorgonzola and is very filling. Soup-starter-die-hard fans will fall in love with its perfect consistency, but might get bored of the taste towards the last few spoonfuls, as it offers no more surprises. Coupled with the wine though, the full flavour that the soup presents is well-balanced. The editor (Laura) had the mushroom and goat’s cheese phyllo tart, which looks as good as it tastes, I can assure you!
Next came the main, and I was bowled over by the risotto. I was pleasantly surprised by the chef’s ability to keep the fresh, green taste of the broad beans and peas while ensuring the asparagus was not overwhelmed by the delicious sauce. I am sure many would trade their herb gardens, for a second helping! The Reyneke Sauvignon Blanc’s grassy notes worked extremely well in bringing out the asparagus.
By this stage, I was ready to throw in the towel, as I was truly bursting at the seams with delicious morsels and couldn’t imagine eating dessert. But in true veggie-foodie spirit, I soldiered on and scooped into a pudding of meringue, black peppercorn and ice cream. Not too sure about this masala of flavourings, I was amazed at how well these subtle tastes worked together – especially the pepper. And true to form, the Avondale Muscat Blanc paired with the dessert, passed the pudding test with flying colours. Although the Ed enjoyed her Amarula Brulee, it is my dessert that comes out number 1 in this final chapter.
Well rounded evening
Chef Almazan met us at the table. He’s friendly, down-to-earth and has full confidence in the value of offering a Meat-Free Monday menu. As he says, it’s “a wonderful opportunity to inspire meat lovers to explore and experiment a little with vegetarian food, while dispelling the myth that ‘eating vegetarian’ limits one to a boring salad or a sandwich.” Chef’s Almazan’s veggie creations met my expectations, and succeeded in dazzling my tastebuds.
I am so glad that Chef Almazan is setting a precedent in the SA food and beverage industry by localising international food trends, and I hope that other restaurants, that see themselves as gourmet and forward-thinking, follow in his footsteps. As an article in Get It put it, “Catharina’s is very much a forerunner of the new ‘green’ consciousness among South African restaurants”
At only R240 with wine pairing, this is the perfect choice for meat-eaters, veggies, birthday folk, anniversary couples and anyone in the mood for celebrating with dazzling gourmet food at a decent price. They also regularly update their menu, sometimes twice a month, so patrons shouldn’t get bored.
If you are looking for the all-round perfect dining experience with a beautiful setting and exceptional service, I can heartily recommend Catharina’s Meat-Free Monday menu. It is a mouth-watering experience which is a credit to their great reputation.
Also, if you’re a veggie-in-training and still eat meat, perhaps you would like to try their Free-Range Fridays – a menu that only uses organic and free range ingredients. The popular blogger,JamieWho, says of Free Range Fridays: “The food was sensational. Honestly, some of the richest, deepest dishes I have enjoyed for a long time.”
This is a fantastic initiative from Chef Almazan and Steenberg that makes a sensational foodie statement. Give Catharina’s a call to make a booking for an exceptional, mouth-smacking dining experience.
Tel: + 27 (0)21 713 2222