I’m a complete sucker for any kind of themed event – I find the predictability proffered by a defined set of parameters strangely comforting, as it caters nicely to my control freak tendencies. So whether it’s an ‘80’s roller disco evening or a Halloween party, you can expect me to be in attendance – fully clad in requisite regalia and an embarrassing amount of enthusiasm.
So you can imagine my excitement when I found out about Sotano’s Mediterranean-themed fortnights, whereby each of my favourite ocean’s countries are allocated 2 weeks to show off their respective cuisines. I was particularly excited to try out their Egyptian menu (I mean have you ever thought about what Egyptians actually eat? Yes they build pyramids and empires, but how do they sustain these efforts?!), but was sadly slow off the mark and had to ‘settle’ for an evening entirely dedicated to the culinary stylings of France.
Sotano, part of the Caveau group, is one of my favourite places in Cape Town – on a summer’s day there is nowhere better to enjoy a gentle sea breeze and a stiff drink or two. I’ve only ever experienced the charming Greek taverna-style outdoor section, but thanks to an unseasonal South-Easter bollocking its way through the city, this particular trip led us indoors – an area of the restaurant I’d only ever seen in the distance through a cocktail-soaked haze.
I can report that the interior is every bit as attractive as its outdoor counterpart, boasting a host of really unusual and stylish fittings, as well as a most awesome feature fireplace, which is more aesthetic than functional but really who cares.
It’s not like we live in Siberia.
And so to the main point of the evening – the gastronomie francaise. I’ve never been what you’d call a fan of French food – I sometimes find it a little too delicate and fussy for my liking, and I’m immediately suspicious of a culture that prizes fare like aspic and frog’s legs so highly. I also feel that many restaurateurs in this country have come to believe that the inherent ‘Frenchness’ of food somehow makes it more fancy, and use this as an excuse to serve outrageously small portions – at such exorbitant rates that you may as well book a flight to Paris and try out the real thing.
Reservations aside, at a glance the menu had me salivating, so we dove in without further ado. The deal on offer is amazing – 3 courses for just R110 – so we opted to share all 5 available dishes. A wise move indeed, given that I feel my life would be infinitely poorer for having missed out on any one of them.
Starter number 1 arrived in double quick time – a deep fried camembert, served atop a toasted brioche. Whilst it looked an awful lot like an oversized fish finger, once it hit the taste buds, the similarities to processed seafood vanished swiftly. I’ve gotta hand it to the French (and Sotano’s chef) – they really can do a lot with very little, and this unassuming dish hit all the right marks – oozing cheesy decadence and indulgent bready chewiness combining to form a powerhouse combination of flavour that won’t soon be forgotten. Viva la France!
Next up – a heavenly tarte flambée, another example of a simple concept executed with flair and skill. Although it sounds ridiculously extravagant – a result of its French labelling (something I will excuse given the obvious thematic relevance) – it essentially amounted to a pizza-esque flatbread, topped with caramelised onions, crème fraiche and pork lardons. I only found out what ‘lardons’ are later, and I’m quite relieved, given that Wikipedia has revealed to me that they are in fact small cubes of pork fat. Nonetheless, I didn’t know it at the time, so no harm, no foul. This was a perfect starter dish – light and tasty, with a hint of meaty goodness (in my mind it was ham). Another score for team France.
Our two main courses took me into somewhat unfamiliar, but very welcome territory. First up was braised rabbit, served with mushrooms and tomatoes and the most sensational boulangère potatoes I ever did taste. The first time I ate rabbit I could practically see it hopping off my plate, with nothing left to the imagination in terms of its anatomy. It was just a pot full of legs, and I found the whole experience just a little bit too….visceral. This particular bunny was served in a far more civilised manner, sensitively chopped so as to minimise resemblance to any kind of cute household pet. That having been said, I would have eaten this bad boy irrespective of its appearance – it was absolutely splendid! Well cooked, tender, and akin to a slightly more complex and robust form of chicken. God bless the French for being willing to eat just about anything – discoveries like this are the fruits of their labours.
A sensational Bouillabaisse was the next stop on our tour de France. I’ve never really ordered this dish in the past, simply due to the fact that it’s a ridiculously hard word to pronounce, and I feel stupid just pointing at things on the menu and sheepishly saying “I’ll have that, the um, buee..bueee…yes that one, thank you”. After this, I’ll make a point of perfecting my pronunciation, because seriously, what’s not to love? A ridiculously tasty fish stew, with a variety of textures and flavours contained therein – I was in heaven. The ecstatic groaning from the other end of the table confirmed that the verdict was unanimous – my frostiness toward the French had now thawed quite dramatically.
The night was capped with a perfect vanilla crème brulée – crisp on the outside (but not so crisp you have to take a hammer to it just to get the bastard to break), and creamy and custardy on the inside, with a whiff of sweet vanilla to seal the deal. Magnifique indeed!
I’m now utterly confused, and unsure of whether to direct my affection solely towards Sotano’s exceptional chef, or to relax my slightly harsh attitude towards French cuisine as a whole. Either way, I’m definitely heading back to Sotano regularly over the course of their Mediterranean exploration – the food is exceptional and you’ll be hard pressed to find better value for money during the Winter season. Plus, who doesn’t love a good theme evening?!
Sotano is currently serving Portuguese cuisine as part of their special, and it looks every bit as yummy as the French menu. For updates as to where they are travelling next, follow Sotano on Twitter @SotanoCT.
Sotano is open 7 days a week for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For reservations, call (021) 433 1757