At his latest restaurant, Eike, celebrity chef Bertus Basson serves traditional South African fare with a quirky, contemporary touch – food that revives tastes of who we are.
Tucked away in Dorp Street in the leafy university town of Stellenbosch is a restaurant where you’ll be transported down an edible memory lane. It’s here that TV personality Bertus Basson – known for his success with fine-dining restaurant Overture on the Hidden Valley wine estate, burger joint De Vrije Burger and the character-filled Spek & Bone – illustrates his roots and spends most of his time. Always devoted to using what’s local, his garden in nearby Jamestown is where the chefs from his restaurants vie for the freshest produce daily, watched over by Spek, his famous pig, and some chickens.
“Eike’s been a dream for a long time. For the past couple of years, we’ve been focusing on modern South African cuisine at Overture, but Eike’s more nostalgic,” says Bertus. “It took almost a year from finding the building to opening. Eike is the most ‘considered’ project we’ve done, because we used the space as an office for a while, so we had time to get to know the location. Cooking South African food in this way was always with us and this building suits it perfectly. The premises became available in September 2017 and then the dream started to come true.”
“Eike’s been a dream for a long time. For the past couple of years, we’ve been focusing on modern South African cuisine at Overture, but Eike’s more nostalgic.” – Bertus Basson
Inspiration for the decor – and the name – was drawn from the eikeboom (oak tree). Heritage and leafy greens with touches of gold are the tones that welcome you into the intimate venue after you sip a welcome cocktail, gin or glass of bubbles on the stoep overlooking Papegaai Street. You hear a mixture of international accents and local vernacular, as Eike has been well supported by locals, delighted that their heritage has been done justice.
The interior is stylish, understated and classy, the wall of green tiles forming the perfect backdrop for an antique dresser, a Basson family heirloom. Bertus and his team worked closely with Nina du Plessis from Studio-N to create the decor. Most of the crockery is by ceramicist Diana Ferreira. There’s a lot of oak, like the wooden tables, which are spaced well enough to prevent your exclamations from being overheard.
The formal welcome by waitresses attired in black and crisp white with black ties slowly gives way to engaging, superior service that’s well-informed and personal, interspersed with excellent wine advice. Bertus and David Cope from Publik compiled the list, a selection of South African icons with several interesting wines. Bafana Zondo, the wine steward, was one of the staff who came from Overture. The team is capably led by Colette Deg, who hails from Ireland and spent more than four years working in the Winelands at Terroir. “When I heard Bertus and [his wife] Mareli explain their vision for this restaurant, I got goosebumps and knew this was where I had to be,” she smiles.
“Not many chefs truly celebrate being South African. We have an identity crisis: we’re very diverse, but don’t know who we are. Here, we verbalise and show the guests [who we are] through food. The menu is always changing,” says Bertus. That multi-course menu could feature maize and chakalaka to start, then simple spanspek transformed with garlic, bottarga (cured fish roe) and fennel flowers – delicate, but still distinct in flavour. The good ol’ fashioned prawn cocktail that was de rigueur at any ’70s dinner party is reignited. A thin slice of smoked hake cheesecake with Hanepoot and grapes provides a true taste sensation.
“Not many chefs truly celebrate being South African. We have an identity crisis: we’re very diverse, but don’t know who we are. Here, we verbalise and show the guests [who we are] through food. The menu is always changing.” – Bertus Basson
During service, Bertus and his team regale diners with stories, explain techniques like dehydration (an age-old preserving method used by our forefathers) and share their inspiration for dishes like opsitkers, the beef tallow candle served with braaibroodjie and sourdough ciabatta. During the Voortrekker era, these candles were lit when a boy came to court a girl at her home. When the candle flame died, it was time for him to leave. If her father thought the boy had merit, it would be a long candle. If he wasn’t very approving, it would be a short one. As the candle melts, you dip your delicious bread into the softening beef dripping. The bazaar pudding reminds you of the flavours that Ouma made for the church bazaar. Peach, just peachy, is brought to the table with a “cloche” of a Koo peach tin. When lifted, a perfectly round apple awaits. Tap the white chocolate casing open and you find a mousse reminiscent of the Cremora tart you may have devoured in your youth. By the time the selection of local cheeses is presented on a trolley beautifully crafted by Bertus’s father, your conversation will have been peppered with nostalgic childhood anecdotes.
“We need to establish food memory in the home. All great cultures establish their culture around food, from generation to generation. We need to engage with where we come from.” – Bertus Basson
On the other side of the culinary fence, what are Bertus’s thoughts on the plant-based dishes? “There’s less emphasis on protein in the way we’re eating. It’s a sign of maturity that we’re going back to eating less protein and more vegetables. Many guests ask for no fish or shellfish, and there are many more vegetarians. We cater for vegans and vegetarians on request.”
And Mareli’s role in the restaurant? “Mareli’s my everything – my partner in crime,” says Bertus. “She keeps it all together so I can play. Her office is here so that she can keep her finger on the pulse. It’s busy. It’s a tough industry. We need to establish food memory in the home. All great cultures establish their culture around food, from generation to generation. We need to engage with where we come from.”
Here, all senses are engaged. The first stirring you feel is in your heart. The last comes with a pack of home-made breakfast muesli, presented as you leave, no doubt to dream about days gone by, heritage and memorable flavours.
50 DORP STREET, STELLENBOSCH; 021-007-4231; BERTUSBASSON.COM
By Jenny Handley
Photographs by Bruce Tuck