A leisurely lunch with renowned chef Lientjie Wessel lingers into a lazy late afternoon – the perfect daydream.
Chef Lientjie Wessel, formerly of the über-cool Li-bel Bistro in Pretoria, has set up shop at Albizia Restaurant in Cullinan. This tiny diamond mining town, approximately 100km from Johannesburg, is this season’s hot spot for cool people. There are now almost as many antique shops, artisanal food producers and shabby-chic guest houses as mineworkers in Cullinan. By next year the place will probably be cloyingly, unbearably hip, but for now it still feels like a deliciously hidden treasure.
Because Lientjie works in her restaurant on Saturday and Sunday, she regards Monday as her ‘weekend’, saying, “I like to spend that free time with people I love and find restful to be around. I am a glutton for punishment because instead of crashing in front of the TV and eating takeaways, I usually cook on those free days. Then we sit in the Albizia garden, under the shade of the oak trees and do the lingering lunch thing.”
The restaurant is located inside a 19th-century sandstone cottage but do not expect ye olde comfort kos or riempie stool-style interiors. As a former food and decor stylist, Lientjie is always effortlessly elegant and yet excitingly up to the minute. Her guests sit at tables and on chairs designed by the multi-talented chef herself. Twig, Lientjie’s furniture design company, uses cleared, invader wood and its eco-chic appeal has made it a favourite at Oppenheimer heiress Mary Slack’s Amaridian gallery in New York.
Today Lientjie is entertaining friends with an utterly idiosyncratic and yet deliciously accessible feast of flavours. As she kneads cumin-infused dough for flatbreads and grinds up an aromatic combination of coriander and cashew nuts for a dukkah dip, she explains, “I cook partly according to seasonal availability but also by mood. Sometimes I just wake up and I know it’s a nasturtium leaf-topped pork belly moment or the perfect time for liquorice root-set custard. Today just felt like a day for uncomplicated share-share, dip-dip kind of eating. It’s a day for eating skaapstertjies with your fingers and telling tall tales over endless glasses of good wine.” In matters related to good wine, Lientjie and her guests are particularly blessed because the chef’s uncle, winemaker Francois Naudé, has sent over several superb bottles of his three times Perold Trophy winning Pinotage (www.levindefrancois.co.za).
Lientjie sets her table with a glorious retro-chic Fougere fabric collection by Romo, distributed by Intertex (www. intertex.co.za) and a madly eclectic collection of vintage bric-a-brac, most of which she sourced from her friend Pieter Vosloo’s Rust in White Lifestyle & Interiors gallery (012-734-1583). The chef’s achingly handsome, utterly irrepressible, fall-off-your-chair-withlaughter entertaining husband, Robert Denton, is responsible for ensuring that wine glasses remain filled to the brim – a task he undertakes withebullient enthusiasm.
Guest Lowie Geenevasen, owner of the nearby super-luxurious Abloom Bush Lodge and Spa Retreat (www. abloom.co.za) chats with travel and food writer Gwynne Conlyn about the dramas and delights of her newly opened Apple Bistro, while artist and vegetarian Julius Bramley gently chides the guests as they tuck into the sheep’s tails. A table of cheerful carnivores eat on with oblivious relish. The rich,sweet generosity of the sheep’s tails is perfectly matched by the tart crunch of a pickled beetroot, red cabbage and walnut salad. The whipped feta, walnut and maple syrup dressing ensures that herbivorous Julius has plenty of fine flavours to tuck into.
As the sun stretches a leisurely path across the sky, the talk turns to heirloom vegetable gardens visited and chiropractors to avoid. Course after course and glass after glass of edibleand quaffable pleasure are put before the increasingly loqacious guests.
Carmen Geenevasen literally applauds the arrival of dessert while revealing, “I am such a pudding queen that you can wake me up for dessert at any time of the day or night!” Everyone agrees that Lientjie’s blueberry and white chocolate panna cotta would be the perfect gift to wake up to. But, as Gwynne Conlyn observes, “Why wake up when daydream deliciousness is this good?”
By ANNA TRAPIDO