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The great escape

Published 3 March 1996
Style Magazine
139th article

Making friends: Vanessa Perry at Boulders beach, Simon's Town (Arnold Crust)

It's very rare I go anywhere ahead of anyone else. I've not yet been to Quaglino's, let alone L'Odeon or Mezzo. I can't think of any places I want to visit less. I never go to restaurant openings, even though Antony Worrall Thompson, who once put up posters saying I wasn't welcome, now kindly invites me to all of his! So it's a miracle that I have recently been to the new "in" place, Constantia and its surrounding areas, including Cape Town in South Africa. There were leafy roads, pompous houses with flashy grounds, burglar-alarm displays and guard-dog shows. I was so impressed that when the actor Christopher Lee took me to The Cellars, a lovely country house hotel with "breathtaking views across Constantia to False Bay", I couldn't remember anything I ate for dinner! This is not good for someone meant to be giving an opinion of the food! I vaguely recall it was pleasant, but unexceptional. Table Mountain looked impressive.

I remember in detail what I ate at two other restaurants in the area. The first is Constantia Uitsig, a spectacular wine farm on the slopes of Constantiaberg, the first wine-producing area of South Africa. To get there we drove along the Atlantic coast through pleasant, but highly unspectacular, seaside towns, greatly exaggerated by our driver as "the most beautiful route in the world!" Simon's Town was great, it had a beach full of penguins that took no notice of anyone! Noordhoek, a wide sandy beach sweeping along the coast, was, our guide said proudly, "where David Lean filmed Ryan's Daughter". Inch Beach on Ireland's west coast also advertises itself as the home of Ryan's Daughter. In fact, both can claim the movie: Lean started in Ireland and, when the sun ran out, he switched to South Africa to an amazingly identical land and seascape.

After the Cape of Good Hope (boring but a photo is essential) we turned inland to Constantia, where, at the Uitsig, the chef turned out to be from England, where he'd worked at the Connaught in London. Frank Swainston, bearded, bespectacled and cheerful, did a classically good, creamy bread-and-butter pudding. However, he absolutely refused to serve Vanessa wild strawberries with ordinary strawberries! I always thought the Connaught was a bad influence. But the local lobsters were good. We watched butterflies flitting over the flowers and a rabbit running right to left. I greatly enjoyed the penne with olive oil, garlic and parsley - and hated the Muzak.

The next day another odd driver recommended by the Mount Nelson Hotel (Margaret Rutherford in drag) left me standing too long in the middle of Cape Town, so we changed her for the hotel's own, splendid, dignified black chauffeur, Thomas Malebo. Why didn't they give me their Rolls in the first place? It had raced alongside the private jet to meet me when we landed. "I don't know the way to the wine country," said Thomas. "Don't worry, I'm terrific with maps." I replied. Off we went in style, and 45 minutes out of Cape Town on the N1 we turned right. There we entered the most beautiful area. A smaller scale Switzerland with large hills (or small mountains), a few 18th-century houses set in vineyards and no cranes hovering, vulture-like, as the forerunners of devouring concrete. Just outside Franschhoek we turned left at the Huguenot Memorial to find the restaurant, La Petite Ferme, with amazing gardens of roses and other flowers, lawns sloping down to a wooden-railed fence and then valleys with pine trees and, in the background. the mountains. Sadly, Julie Andrews was off that day, but the owner, John Dendy-Young, managed the terrace, and the hot peppered mackerel was memorable. The Hunter's Choice was springbok. Not as good as impala, but okay. The brandy tartlet was spongy and exquisite. The views are breathtaking, but all I could think was: "Give it three years and this will be housing estates." I've seen it happen to the south of France; in fact, I've seen it happen to the world.

On the way back I asked Thomas to tum into L'Omiarins, the valley's first vineyard. But it was closed. The guard said: "Do you have an appointment?" "Yes, we do," I invented, sliding down the back window. We drove through to wander round the gardens of the exquisite 1811 Dutch house and checked out the deserted wine-pressing areas. On the way out, the guard rushed to stop us. "Bit of flimflam needed here," I thought. "Mr Anthonij Rupert was sorry he missed you. Would you like to go back?" asked the guard. "Another time." I said, waving cheerfully as we sped back to the Mount Nelson. A jolly nice day out, really. Beats Surrey, I can tell you.


I hope that I do not sound patronising to Mr Winner if I say that his columns provide a genuine social service. Most people who visit restaurants are not merchant bankers from Fulham. They are folk who have saved up for a treat. A pretentious and plain bad restaurant spoils the occasion. On the subject of pretentious, expensive, uncomfortable there are always the Tate Gallery restaurants. May I recommend a fine-weather treat? A good old cuppa from the van outside, on the steps, watching dear old pa Thames not those imbecile Whistler murals.
Barbara Dorf, London W11

Recently we failed to get a table at our favourite Friday night eaterie, The Egerton Arms, in Ashworth Valley, near Rochdale. So we went to the locally acclaimed Domenico's. Ghastly. We suffered ordinary first courses and then came our duck, with apricots and oranges. Apricots are orange and furry, not red and bald, but this hardly matters. The duck was tough and tasteless and so were the vegetables. When we complained quietly and discreetly, we were told nobody else had complained either that night or previously. We were charged £44.60. The next week we booked the Egerton Arms earlier. I asked for differently shaped wine glasses and an unbent fork. We were told "No problem, of course" and everything was done with such grace and good humour. The fixed-price menu is wonderful and the wine list is fun. Wine, liqueurs, three courses and coffee came to £41. At the Egerton they tell me that if they don't listen to customers they don't learn. Wouldn't it be lovely if all restaurateurs learnt that principle first?
Lesley A Young, Rochdale

I write further to Sandra Swerdlow's letter published in last week's Restaurant Watch column. She should not have been charged an extra £1 to transform a tomato juice into a Virgin Mary! I would like to thank her for pointing this out, and can assure her that we have made the necessary change.
David Loewi, General manager, Mezzo, London