Prospective diners will be pleasantly surprised by a visit to the newly revamped De Volkskombuis, while patrons remembering it from the 1970s might end up a little startled. It is not affordable to the “volk” – the buildings once were “volkshuise” (staff housing) – and is everything but a “kombuis”. (In current usage, the word volk is regarded as pejorative.) When we went there for dinner on 12 April 2018 – being among those who used to frequent the venue way back then, and remembering it well as a retro place for its classic South African dishes, such as tamatiebredie (tomato stew) – the new venue caught us unawares.
The recently revamped De Volkskombuis has retained some of the signature dishes, such as oxtail stew, on its new menu – and added something totally foreign to the idea of classic South African cuisine: scrumptious gourmet pizzas! The venue has been redesigned, while keeping to the style of Cape Dutch with gables and green windows/doors/shutters. Suitable for summer, there are several patios specially for eating outside. In winter, it will be cosy when the fireplaces are all in action. Today, it’s classic South African dining, with a modern twist and a bit of fusion, in this newly-added-to-an-already-extensive-list-of-eateries restaurant in the Boland town of Stellenbosch. This venue is highly suitable for tourists wanting a South African experience, and South Africans trying to avoid a touristy venue! Its pricing is reasonable for both.
A diner recently writing about the experience explained the good food and wine, and described the venue as a complete dining experience, opulent, homely and styled. In between our conversation around the table, on the night we visited, I managed to get some shots that capture this opulent yet homely style, by looking more closely at the furnishing and construction of the venue through the eye of the lens.
It’s hard to disagree: it’s certainly quite opulent and well styled, and obviously those tasked with the redesign of the place have thought of virtually everything – from the careful and subtle lighting to the small, unobtrusive check pattern on the cloth of the cushions of the seats.
The décor and furniture, not only in the main areas of the restaurant, but also extending into cosy nooks and spaces specifically designed for diners to retire after the meal, are all specially designed to promote lively conversation. Right down to important features such as the incredible yellowwood floors and well sculpted ceilings to absorb noise levels, everything shows just how hard the architects have been at work to bring the place up to the level of a superior venue for the lover of Cape/Italian fusion food.
All the descriptions about the place are important, but never as important as what’s on the menu. There was a lot of speculation at our table on the topic of whether some of the former dishes that we remembered from the old De Volkskombuis should not perhaps still feature on the menu – such as tomato casserole and the classic waterblommetjiebredie (a water lily stew accompanied by braised prize cuts of mutton). Our table spent a good 20 minutes or so discussing, debating, while the incredibly well accomplished staff and manager spent time taking our questions, patiently listening to our arguments: Why this fusion between Italian and classic South African? Is it to make the place somewhat international? Something markedly different, a break with the past? Yet, two out of the four from our dining party went for the pizzas! After the orders were placed, all questions dried up as we set off on our path to dine in style.
We decided to give starters a miss, instead settling on beginning with some home-baked bread from the basket: tasty layers of textured, rough brown bread with pumpkin pips, made for crispy bites as a way to start, in between sips of some excellent claret – for instance, the Ou Hoofgebou red, a wine named after one of the university buildings of the town. Many who went to the University of Stellenbosch and studied at Die Ou Hoofgebou will remember it as the law faculty, others for their Latin and some for their political philosophy and anthropology. Stellenbosch University and the University of Cape Town each received full university status exactly a hundred years ago, in 1918. Today, the diner can think back to the harrowing task of completing assignments, part of that immense paper chase, and, while so doing, take a sip of the nice claret to relax (Stellenbosch Reserve’s Ou Hoofgebou cabernet sauvignon is described as showing “lovely underlying dark fruit and cedar notes on the nose backed up by hints of cigar box and lead pencil that create a beautifully intriguing aroma” (www.milesforstyle.com)).
Some of the dishes we had included lamb chops, particularly enjoyed by my Karoo-born friend, and my own choice of oxtail stew – braised to perfection, with deeply concentrated tastes. It felt like it had taken all day to cook – tender and rich; however, a visible absence of adjuncts such as braised onions and parsnips and carrots? Perhaps, it’s a new way of making it, to go with the new venue.
As part of our final assessment, we all agreed that it was a superior dining experience in a fabulous setting. We were there when the fires were not yet lit – still too warm for that – but imagined this would be an added feature. And we definitely missed the tamatiebredie – puzzling why it’s not included – and the waterblommetjiebredie, for that matter.
As we left, while we gave it all a huge thumbs up for food, friendliness and venue, I could not help but think back to my Latin classes in the Ou Hoofgebou: “O Tempora O Mores” (O the Times, O the Customs) – how things can change.
Address: Aan-De-Wagen St, Stellenbosch Central, Stellenbosch, 7600
Phone: 021 741 0980
Unless otherwise stated, all photographs are by the writer.Buro: LE