• Richard Carstens is combining French and Asian influences with great success at Tokara.

    By Richard Holmes

    Call 021 885-2550 or visit www.tokara.co.za.

    In many ways, Tokara is a gourmet destination hiding in plain sight. Situated just off the Helshoogte Pass outside Stellenbosch, it’s easy to drive right past this stylish wine and olive farm en route to Franschhoek, your eyes perhaps mesmerised by the staggering mountains encircling the Banhoek Valley.

    And in more ways than one, Tokara – owned by banking baron GT Ferreira – isn’t what most people expect from one of the Cape’s top wineries. There’s no grandiose Cape-Dutch homestead, no avenue of oaks or over-achieving fountains. Instead you’ll find sleek architecture of steel and stone, framed by one of the best views in the country as the Winelands drop away to the distant blue waters of False Bay. And, for a little over 18 months, it’s also been home to the groundbreaking cuisine of chef Richard Carstens, who made his name at Bijoux in Franschhoek and KwaZulu-Natal’s Lynton Hall.

    “When I was running Bijoux I’d often drive past Tokara and think how I’d love to be cooking up there some day. The architecture is just timeless, and the building becomes part of the landscape,” recalls Richard, a slight chef whose initial quiet intensity quickly melts away to warm friendliness and an obvious passion for the kitchen. And while the sleek winery-restaurant is certainly attractive from the outside, it’s drop-dead gorgeous within.

    Artworks dot the entrance hall where floor-to-ceiling windows offer a peek into the cavernous cellar of acclaimed winemaker Miles Mossop. A few steps from the front door you’re confronted with your first decision of the day: left for a drop of wine tasting, or right into the restaurant.

    There’s certainly no harm in sampling the estate’s wines before lunch, and the wine-tasting room offers both airy modernity and a cosy farmhouse feel. In addition to the vineyards that surround the winery, Tokara also has vines in the cool-climate regions of Walker Bay and Elgin, adding new strings to Mossop’s bow. These vineyards produce perhaps their best Chardonnay, but the estate Chenin Blanc, Cabernet and Shiraz are outstanding too.

    The estate also has extensive olive groves, and the cultivars on offer are as varied as the wine: herbaceous and grassy Mission, the robust Frantoio and nutty Leccino are all available as extra virgin oils. While the wines lean towards France, and the oils towards Italy, the cuisine in Tokara Restaurant – voted in Eat Out’s top 20 restaurants last year – casts its gaze towards the east with a Japanese aesthetic on the plate and a palate full of umami.

    Like the rustle of a silk kimono in the Ginza, a Japanese thread runs through Richard’s menu: a fillet is marinated in miso sauce and dotted with shimeji mushrooms; beef sashimi is served with sushi rice, wasabi mayo and black sesame seeds; and even a sunflower seed ‘risotto’ offers up soy and honeyglazed aubergine with hints of lemon grass and ginger.

    “I’ve been cooking for 24 years now, and my dishes today are really an evolution of all my styles,” explains Richard. He has spent time in the kitchens of Asia and Australia, but always seems drawn back to the Cape Winelands. “It’s a fusion of Japanese and French cuisine, but in essence we’re just looking for pure flavours and then playing around with textures within those flavours.”

    Playing around is something Richard takes seriously, and in the loft office above the airy kitchen – surely one of the most attractive restaurant kitchens in the country – a sizeable reference library offers day-to-day inspiration. Everything from C Louis Leipoldt to Kook en Geniet makes an appearance, alongside the Japanese cuisine and molecular gastronomy tomes I was expecting.

    And while Richard is perhaps most famous for his dabblings in molecular gastronomy – he translated an entire elBulli cookbook, word by word, using a Spanish dictionary – it has become less of a defining feature in his style of cooking. “In society we grow with technology, and I think it should be the same in cooking,” explains Richard, as we head off to prep the herb crust for the trout. “On the plate, it’s just another ingredient. It may look modern, but everything we do here is still based on the classics; we make our stocks every day, prep everything from scratch.”

    Carstens also likes his menu to evolve through the year and says that Tokara is “driven by the seasons”, although there are a few popular items that regulars won’t let him take off the menu. “Our peppered springbok loin with parsnip purée, roasted beetroot and hibiscus jus is almost always on the menu,” smiles Richard, mentally ticking off the elements of his carefully crafted dish.

    It’s a delicate balance of flavours that requires the perfect partner in your wine glass, but – although the Tokara restaurant list boasts over 130 wines from South Africa and abroad – it’s “not always easy to pair wine with Richard’s food!” laughs sommelier Jaap-Henk Koelewijn. “Richard loves acidity, so I have to look for wines that have a bit more body; perhaps a touch of oak. When there’s acidity you move towards red wine as well, because there are tannins to balance it.

    “Springbok likes fruit and it likes spice, and the pepperiness of the springbok always complements red wines very well. The other nice thing about pepper in a sauce is that it breaks away the tannins in the red wine. “With a dish like that I’d usually recommend the Tokara Director’s Reserve: it’s a five-part Bordeaux blend, predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon, but also Petit Verdot, Malbec and Cabernet Franc. Another option is the Raats Cabernet Franc, which has the spiciness of a Shiraz and the body of a Cabernet, but without the aggression!”

    As Richard preps the seared trout and herb crust, slowly so that our photographer can keep up, I ask Jaap-Henk how he’d go about choosing a vinous partner for this particular dish. “I see wine as seasoning to a dish. With the rainbow trout dish I’d definitely look at a Chardonnay, which has lemon and lime notes as well as some acidity, and the oak gives a slight nuttiness, which works well with coconut milk.”

    They are familiar flavours re-imagined, and the element of comfort and surprise living happily on the same plate is perhaps the most striking signature of Richard’s cooking. Because alongside the unusual textures in everything from his raved-about ‘Fallen Apple’ dessert to the popular Salmon Baked Alaska, “there must always be a familiarity in the dish”, says Richard.

    “It should feel like that dish has always been around.” On the plate at Tokara there are always surprises in the comforting, and new experiences to be had in the oh-so-familiar. New taste sensations, hiding in plain sight. Not, I suppose, unlike Tokara itself. The Tokara Delicatessen on the estate offers a range of olives and olive oils, alongside free-range meats, imported cheese, charcuterie and preserves. The casual deli-restaurant is ideal for families.

    By Bruce Tuck