Where to drink one of the world’s oldest cocktails + a recipe
Aubergine Restaurant in Gardens
Fine dining in one of Cape Town’s most iconic eateries
“I knew I wanted to be a chef from age 11,” says Harald Bresselschmidt. His starched white chef’s jacket is seamless with the muted surroundings of Aubergine. I’ve managed to catch the owner-chef in the brief lull before dinner service (the restaurant also serves lunch).
Aubergine is something of a Cape Town icon. Hidden on narrow Barnet Street in Gardens, the fine dining restaurant is housed in a venerable old building said to date back to 1830, and the tall ceilings and thick, cool walls are evidence of this heritage. There’s a homespun elegance to the décor - it’s comfortable yet refined – and as the man at the helm is a collector of contemporary fine art, plenty of arresting paintings are positioned throughout the eatery. Harald points out one behind us: created by his friend and famed South African Neo-baroque artist Christo Coetzee, it’s an unusual composition of dentist tools paired with tactile baking references. “I had to have it,” he says. “My wife is a dentist, and well, I’m the cook!”
Harald was raised on a farm near the Belgian border, and over glasses of Charles Fox Méthode Cap Classique, he spins tales of his pastoral childhood. “I spent a lot of time with my grandmother in the kitchen. We had a special tart we baked with fruits from the garden and topped with homemade crumble.”
He also grew up slaughtering the farm’s animals and learnt how to use every part, so ‘nose-to-tail eating’ isn’t merely a trend for him, it’s a way of life. His relationship with the gastronomic world was all enveloping: from the knee of his grandmother to his time spent understanding what it takes to raise and prepare livestock and produce.
After finishing school at 14, he embarked on a three-year apprenticeship to become a chef. Harald then spent the following eight years travelling through Europe, gaining experience a year at a time at mostly Michelin-star restaurants, including the Savoy Hotel in London.
In 1991 he completed his masters in gastronomy from the Heidelberg Hotel Management School. A year later, Harald was headhunted for the head chef position at the Grand Roche Hotel in Paarl, and so began his love affair with the Cape. All the while, his ambition was to open his own restaurant.
“Ask any chef and he’ll tell you the most difficult part of opening a restaurant is finding the right spot. I got very lucky. I can see myself here for the rest of my life.”
And he’ll most likely be commanding the pass for perpetuity too. “I’ve asked my chef, but he never gives me a day off,” he says with a wink.
Creativity is born from authenticity
Outside night has fallen, like a soft navy blanket. We’re seated in the loft area of the restaurant. There’s space for only a few tables, and a sloping roof thatched with reeds adds to the intimacy of the setting. We watch the restaurant rapidly filling up down below. There’s a melody of crystal against crystal, the gentle salute of glasses. Wine is pivotal here. “That’s what’s different about Aubergine,” says Harald. “We don’t have all the ‘bold and beautiful’; we source our wines from smaller producers. The wine and the food must talk to each other.”
Reading the introductory letter in the menu, this paragraph jumps out: My culinary philosophy, passion and cuisine are an on-going dialogue with my past, interactions with my present and aspirations for the future. Warm, confident and creative, the mantra makes it easy to see Harald’s influence on the plates being placed before us.
The menu is a tribute to the South African ingredients, such as kabeljou, ostrich and springbok, that are woven together with Western and Eastern influences.
“We’re lucky in South Africa - we can freestyle,” says the chef. “If you cooked this kind of food in a small village in France, they would come and hit you with a pan!”
My pan-wielding hand doesn’t move an inch as we’re transported through a tasting menu that features balance, finesse and texture. There’s a lightness to the food that belies its studied complexity. We devour rabbit, cured tuna, delicate ravioli and lamb saddle ‘en chemise’ with a puff pastry coat
“Food without a glass of wine, I’m not interested”
Wine is an undeniable passion here; each course is thoughtfully paired with the right story as well as the right wine. Harald’s vinous flame was lit during his time as a young chef in Michelin-star restaurants. “All the chefs had their own cellars. I didn’t have money for extravagance, yet I still invested in wine.”
The habit persisted. And in 2009, Auslese, a food and wine pairing function venue, was born. “Every couple of years you have to do something big, and doing something different has the added benefit of rejuvenating your way of thinking.”
Situated in an historic building on Hope Street, Auslese is an interactive space created to showcase South African wines paired with tailor-made canapés. The venue is available for smaller lunches and dinners as well as for larger, more informal launches of up to 150 guests. And of course, the heart of the building houses a state-of-the-art maturation cellar.
My next course is a pillow-soft aubergine soufflé, and as I slice through the signature dish, I ponder the restaurant’s name. Brinjal, eggplant, aubergine —with its creamy-green flesh and midnight purple skin, it’s part of the deadly nightshade family. “The vegetable is striking when cut through,” says Harald. “And that’s what it’s all about: it is contrast that keeps food delicious, to the very last forkful.”
Tip: Want to experience a more casual side of Aubergine? Pop in for lunch (it's served between October and April) or enquire after the bistro menu (it’s available between May and September).
Bill: Fine food and quality ingredients come at a fine price. A three-course menu without wine pairing costs R465p/p and with wine pairing it costs R640p/p; a four-course menu rings in at R565p/p and with wine pairing it’s R790p/p; and a five-course menu will set you back R675p/p – it’s R950p/p with wine pairing.
Looking for a place to have a nightcap in the same area? Check out our guide to East City nightlife in Cape Town.
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