Occasionally, very occasionally, you stop chewing, lay down your fork, look around and think, “Can this get any better?” (Think of succulent apricot tart and golden Vin de Constance in Ian Shapiro’s The Restaurant in Sea Point; braised lamb shank in the potted-palm and red velvet splendour of the Royal Grill in Durban.)
It happened to me again on a Thursday night in Stellenbosch, at a restaurant called Mana. Mana’s owners, husband and wife team Heather and Jon Taylor, opened for business in 2005 after moving to South Africa from the United Kingdom, where Jon worked at the Michelin-starred Grosvenor Hotel in Chester.
Heather told me that they immediately fell in love with the property, and it’s easy to see why: the road winds through the green vineyards and woods of the Devon Valley until you arrive at the gates of the J. C. Le Roux wine estate. Guests follow the track up to the thatched Cape Dutch building on top of the hill, and take a seat on the terrace overlooking Le Roux’s vines and the hazy, purple mountains in the distance, before looking through the menu.
And what a menu: it has clear modern British influences—tastes are fresh and light, with flavours from the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Far East—and makes great use of local produce. My companion chose to begin with salad of seared kudu venison fillet, pink and melting inside, tossed with palm sugar, lime and chilli. I started with smoky, pan-fried mushrooms on black olive tapenade toast, followed by kabeljou on a creamy Parmesan, pea and chive risotto—flaky, perfectly-cooked fish on a bed of green-flecked risotto studded with peas, all topped with a light tarragon cream sauce. My companion enjoyed a golden confit of duck: slow-cooked until tender, with a crisp skin. This came served with sweet potato mash enhanced with a hint of chilli, and spinach flavoured with Indian masala spices.
The pudding menu is short but carefully composed: I selected an intensely flavoured warm almond and prune tart, while my companion chose Eton mess, made with mixed berry compote, and washed it down with a fragrant white port, Spirit of Chenin, from the nearby Asara estate.
Our bill came to R694 (about £60) for three courses, wine and coffee but, to be fair, we did choose the most expensive wine on the list—a R255 bottle of Meerlust Pinot Noir, packed with flavours of mint and cherries. Our charming waitress—all the staff are local residents, recruited and trained by Heather and Jon—had pointed out on arrival that we could choose from the à la carte menu or from the light supper menu, which offers dishes like sausage and mash, steak sandwich and steamed mussels for between R45 and R60 (£4 to £6 approx).
A friendly welcome; sausage and mash cooked by a Michelin-starred chef; and a view of the mountains; all for under R60. You know what? It can’t get any better than this.
J. C. Le Roux Estate
Telephone: +27 (0)21 865 2662