I haven’t eaten there for a while so, finding ourselves in Stellenbosch one evening without plans, we decided to go and see how new-ish chef, Adrian Buchanan is faring against a host of rigorous regulars, all with their personal favourites and no desire to change.
I think that owners Ken and Alan Forrester like to call the interior ‘winelands chic’ which mostly means comfortable, mismatched furniture dotted haphazardly round three dining spaces, each with a fireplace to keep the guests warm. The walls are covered with Gauguin-esque art and signed photos of winemakers reminding you – if you needed it – that more wine deals are done over these tables than most other restaurants in the winelands. If only ice buckets could talk….
You know when you have that one dish that you really like and order every time you go to a place even though you promise yourself that this time, you’ll be a bit more adventurous and try that other dish which also sounds good and smells divine? I suspect there would be riots in the streets if they ever took the crispy pork belly with chilli tomato jam off the menu and rather sensibly, nothing has been done to change it. A touch more chilli in the jam would do it no harm at all though. The dish is a lipsmacking, savoury starter. Other starters include mussels in Chenin (very good, although I suspect they were frozen mussels. Which is okay if needs must, but not as good as fresh) and a cheese soufflé which would have been my second choice if, indeed, I had a second choice.
The mains are mainly meaty and feature steaks from Ken’s Wagyu herd of cattle over the road from the restaurant. They charge by the 100g and also offer other dry-aged meat from a hand-picked butcher who has supplied the restaurant for many years. The steaks are caveman-sized – you could use them to fell a woolly mammoth – and many people wisely choose to share. Other options include a new dish of ‘best end’ of lamb which comes with a rich lentil stew and fatty lamb sausage. Signature dishes of duck and cherry pie and Hollandse beef fillet flambéed in brandy at your table, remain popular staples, consistent and always satisfying. I always enjoy the sides of hand cut chips (you can ‘posh’ them up with truffle oil and parmesan if you prefer) and tempura veggies – crunchy chunks of baby marrow and mushrooms - yum.
We didn’t make desserts. I wanted to – I really did, because they offer a taster plate which puts me into seventh heaven from the start. But by this time, we were lolling ungracefully in our seats and I was a gnat’s hair away from taking off my shoes, unbuttoning my trousers to ease my straining waistband and settling down for the night, so thought it might be time to head home.
It’s good to see a wine farm-owned restaurant still has a comprehensive wine list covering lots of excellent local wines, and more than a smattering of imported lines as well. It’s also good to see that mark-ups on said wine farm’s own products remain modest and sensible and that there are plenty of options by the glass as well. Also craft beers and some very good whiskies - you won’t go thirsty at 96.
Even though it’s been some time since I ate at 96, I still recognised quite a few of the wait staff and I heard several tables greet their server as if they were old friends – and vice versa. Service isn’t posh but it’s slick, it’s warm, the waiters are chatty and know their stuff and it all adds up to a relaxing night.
If you haven’t been to 96 for a while, it’s time to go back. If you’re the kind of person who wants nothing to change, you’ll be happy. But if you like a frisson of novelty intermixed with your familiarity, then there are some small tweaks which will impress and satisfy you too. I hope that Adrian gets to put his chocolate fondant on the menu soon – my friend still talks about it after tasting it 4 years ago – but in the meantime, he is doing a great job, continuing the tradition of good, hearty, well-made country fare, making everyone’s tummies a little happier and a heck of a lot fuller after a meal at 96.
Food24 dined unannounced and paid the bill in full.
- Cathy Marston