Pastis 10 Jan 06

“So who’s going to eat and who’s going to look?” The Caesar salad like a bed of lichens lay before us, but shredded and limp. This was a R40 salad, a fancy one. I had a predilection for ordering Caesar’s, since it was one of those dishes that was so simple and relied on such precise ingredients that most places got it only in name. And then added a sturdy price.

This was one such. Although the dressing was pretty good and accurate, the shredded leaves and generally flat and wet aspect of the plate was a tragedy. Caesar is a proud salad. It is all about textures, the cos lettuce one of the only that is robust enough to hold the thick dressing without wilting – if left in its whole leaf. Shredded, it is knee-capped. It should stand proud, the promise of crunch allied to the hidden slap of saltiness from anchovies and the brittle savouriness of well-fried bacon bits. You want to eat it lingeringly, then all at once, when it is in its full savoury, toothsome guise. You want to wash the salad down with cold sips of chardonnay. It flirts with the taste buds, it wakes them up and prepares you for pleasures ahead, yet it never sates you.

Our first meal of the year. We are both hungry, as usual, and I immediately feel that we are off to a compromised start on this hot summer’s day, eating at this bistro instead of a place where the attention is paid more to the food than the wealthy clientele of this leafy suburb. André’s stories of his summer holiday are filled with fresh fish and collected mussels, and here we are sharing a pallid salad. My choice, and there were some extenuating circumstances I guess. There always are. And so life passes by.

The wine list offers little succour. Only over-priced obvious wines with grand names and good marketing, or wines that would only be alcoholic. A middle of the road merlot, Fleur du Cap. At least the price is honest. Actually, I’ve always been happy with the quality that this label, from a faceless bureaucracy of a wine company, produces. It’s a little more old-fashioned, which they seem to understand better.

The waiting staff are young and enthusiastic, with a veneer of sophistication, which makes a pleasant change from the “I’m only here for the tips” surly-type. They don’t try to sell us bottled water, and I immediately warm to them, but perhaps its because I asked for tap before they could move into the rehearsed “still or sparkling” routine. Andre never requires water, “not today, thanks” his standard response. Claims to have drunk his fill of green tea in the morning, as if this hydrates. I have rarely known him to get up to go to the gents at a restaurant.

Pastis is a blatant pastiche of a French bistro, with chequered table cloths, those black and red posters from the 1920s and 30s, Edith Piaf and others on the waves. There is a delightful patio with a bit of shade, but when it really gets hot, you want to be inside again. The lounge and bar are surprisingly popular, the people around here can’t have very many places to hang out. Nothing wrong with it, little to commend. Maybe that’s it’s popularity?

Our last meal of 2005 had been an epic. At a new café in Stellenbosch, run by two young European women called Binelli’s we ate from the tapas menu, reordered our favourites, drank a bottle of Dalla Cia Giorgio, then multiple coffees (theirs are excellent) and grappas. It was, as they say, an expansive lunch, and the kind we like the most. At Pastis, the sense of time was far less magnanimous.

To prove me wrong, the seared tuna with new potatoes and pesto was good, as plain and elementally tasty as it should be. Tuna has been getting into some hot water recently (which would seem most unbecoming) – detractors claiming it has very high levels of heavy metals, like mercury, in it. The chicken of the sea a killer? One thing is sure – always double check if the tuna that’s called fresh is actually super fresh, as in caught yesterday, even better today. Much of the “fresh” tuna is in fact frozen, you can see this when the seared meat is grey/red instead of bright red. And watch out for any tingle in your mouth, that’s not a good thing.

Sirloin and chips, the bistro classic “steak frites” with béarnaise turned out ok, steak tender but without great flavour, sauce lacking subtlety or consistency. Which is a pity, because most steaks these days rely on the sauce to pull them through. The modern palate loves soft meat. We value fillet above any other cut for its melt-in-the-mouth quality, never mind the fact that it is the meat with the least flavour. So what’s the obvious solution a profit loving supplier reaches? Tenderise your other cuts. The problem then is, with the synthetic additions to meats to tenderise it, that customers become accustomed to this and they demand all meat to be tender. Tenderness is more important than taste. So what does your typical steakhouse do? It wants to serve tender and tasty meats – so it slaps on copious amounts of house-style basting sauce to hide the basic quality of the meat. When last did you ask for a properly naked piece of meat at your steakhouse? Try some rump with some sirloin – can you taste the difference?

Not bad chips, but certainly not stringy frites. Someone has to care for these names, and hold onto their meaning. First the frite goes, then duty and responsibility. Or have I got the order wrong?
The success of the menu turns out to be the walnut tart, loads of crunchy nuts gently held by syrup on a decent base. Pity about the coffee.