Chris Harvie tries out an eatery whose decor is as fearless as its menu
One of Graaff-Reinet’s many claims to fame, along with its numerous national monuments and its Pierneef Museum, is the fact that, until recently, it was the only place in the world outside Mexico to distil tequila. Of course, being from outside Mexico, it couldn’t be called tequila, and instead was named agave, after the blue agave plant from which the spirit is made.
I say “until recently” because the factory is now closed, but around the time of its closure a year or so ago, this unrelated restaurant of the same name popped up in one of the old town’s oldest buildings.
The said restaurant then promptly burnt down and was rapidly reconstructed. Such is Graaff-Reinet – everything has a complicated history – but now Agave is up and running and acquiring something of a reputation in the surrounding Karoo.
Bold is the word. Bold red window frames and doors in a town where everything is heritage green. Bold art on walls, floors and mantelpiece. Bold mirrors. Bold candleholders throwing bold shadows from high above the tables.
There’s a bold menu to match, at breakfast, lunch and dinner, with a rightly strong emphasis on gemsbok and other venison, lamb and roosterkoek, but that’s not to say that Agave is stuck in a Karoo lamb rut (if that’s not vulgar); the dinner menu also features Italian, Malay and even Tandoori dishes and some very fine steaks.
There’s a shady courtyard out back with huge loafing chairs for the daytime coffee-and-cake brigade, but we went for dinner.
I chose roasted veg and pesto spring rolls (R40) followed by the open Karoo lamb pie in a crisp pastry shell topped with minted pea mash (R80). The pie was deliciously rich and gluey and the “mashy peas” a triumph. Around the table, the lamb loin chops (R85) came in for heavy praise but the biggest hit was probably the chicken, cranberry and camembert parcel (R65). I thought parcels were passe but I was firmly corrected by a fellow diner, who tucked into this particular package with gusto.
The desserts on offer were cardamom-infused panna cotta with a berry coulis – admittedly on the trendy side – and a more traditional choice of malva pudding or mango and passion fruit mousse (R25).
From a limited but well priced wine list, we enjoyed a Weltevrede sauvignon blanc and a rather delicious Hermanuspietersfontein 1855 Posmeester. The name is a mouthful and the wine is not very highly rated, but I thought it was a treat for R120.
Without wine but with dessert, it came in at about R160 a head. Some of us got away with less. While not cheap, there’s no compromise on quality and the smiling service adds value to the red-and-white decor, the red and white wine, and the unusually comfortable chairs.
Quintinn van Rensburg is through-and-through Karoo – his father was even the town’s postmaster until recently – but he learnt his trade at Spier’s Institute of Culinary Arts and formed his style in some of the country’s top kitchens, including the renowned Samara Private Game Reserve. He is young, ambitious, confident and determined. Definitely a name to watch out for.
WHERE IT HAPPENED:
Agave, corner Somerset and Bourke streets, Graaff-Reinet.
Phone 0498910250 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Open Monday – Friday 8am to 4.30pm and 6pm to 9pm. Saturday 8am – 2pm; 6pm – 9pm. Closed Sunday.