It’s hard keeping your eyes on your plate at Tokara.
Not because the furniture makes you want to flat pack a chair and stuff it in your handbag, or the interior is done by the hippest décor maven the Mother City can offer up on brocaded silk. If anything, the décor at Tokara Restaurant is largely forgettable. But those views! What chef would pit his cooking against those panoramas of vineyard and ocean?
And yet, I very quickly find myself sated by the view and returning my gaze to the plate. Colourful, creative cooking that shows chef Richard Carstens has most certainly shuffled off the “albatross” – his words, not mine – of molecular gastronomy that has long been the buzzword associated with his cooking.
“Every year is really an evolution of my own cooking styles. I spend every day in the kitchen, cooking with my team,” says Richard over coffee during lunchtime prep. “Yes, there’s certainly a modernist approach in my cooking, but nowadays I’m moving towards complexity in the simplicity: so what seems like a fairly straightforward dish actually has a lot to it, with layers of flavours and textures.”
Mushroom ravioli with a mustard velouté; Beef tartar with 62˚C poached egg; Pan fried springbok with parsnip purée… a quick look at the menu confirms the spheres and foams have gradually given way to more classical techniques, but there’s still plenty of playfulness here in both colour and texture.
“Absolutely, I still have a lot of colour in my menu, even in winter. I’ve very much into bringing some art to the plate, and colour is one of my main aspects on the plate. Even if it’s winter you shouldn’t be eating brown food!”
And with the grey days of winter slowly drifting away to let spring in the door, Carstens is looking ahead to a revamped summer menu.
“We switch our menus between winter and summer, but in between we have a lot of specials on the menu around seasonal produce. If someone brings me fresh porcini, for example, then we’ll incorporate those ingredients. As the spring produce comes in we’ll have more new dishes.”
In the winelands meat dishes are never far from the menu, but Carstens is one of the few top-drawer chefs in the Cape ensuring vegetarians are well looked after.
“Cooking creatively with vegetables is very important to me, and by just using seasonal vegetables we can bring a lot of vibrancy to the plate. I also like to play with layers of textures within the same plate, often even working with the same ingredient. We roast orange jewel sweet potato in a salt crust so that they get almost a nice marrow texture, then we’ll roast some separately to add different textures on the same vegetable.
“We also blanche rocket leaves, then dry them and brush them with oil; or use yellow and red peppers for sauces and emulsions. I like to work with beetroot too: perhaps slow cooked, then sliced paper-thin and wrapped around crayfish.”
Despite the chilly late-winter weather, Richard gives me a sneak preview of a broccoli dish that epitomises how green veg can be – no really, I promise – exciting.
To describe it is to do it an injustice, but here goes: blanched tender stem broccoli, tossed with micro greens and artichokes pickled in garlic. There’s a delicate dollop or three of yoghurt for acidity and creaminess beneath nutty Parmesan that appears as shavings, crisps and a fondue sauce enriched with egg. On the side, a saffron and mustard dressing with rice wine vinegar; all topped off with a scatter of pine nuts. It’s a dish the brassicas growing in my garden should fantasise about becoming.
While Carstens continues to pluck away the feathers of his molecular gastronomy albatross, his love of Asian cuisine remains undimmed. One of the dishes on the upcoming summer menu is a perfect combination of his love for both Asian and innovative vegetarian cuisine.
Perfect grains of sushi rice are scattered in a loose pile, with ponzu sauce, pickled ginger – “we make it ourselves,” says Richard – and a wasabi dressing adding plenty of umami and zing. On top; slivers of abalone.
Except it’s not abalone, explains Richard: “We slice eringi mushrooms, press and vacuum pack them and cook them sous vide. They come out with a lovely meaty abalone texture. It’s a bit unexpected.”
Complexity in the simplicity… suddenly, it all makes a lot of sense.
Helshoogte Pass, Stellenbosch
021 885 2550
Starters R75-R85, Mains R130-R155
Lunch Tuesdays to Sundays, Dinner Tuesdays to Saturdays