On substitutes

My Greek boyfriend’s mother was in the country, and I needed to impress.

It would be a romp across wine country, thought I, lubricated by copious amounts of chenin blanc, interspersed with sun-speckled lunches under 100-year-old trees, accompanied by light laughter and birdsong.

There was the charming sandwich lunch at Babylonstoren with greens from their garden, watercress vichyssoise and mildly-underseasoned-but-still-delicious antipasti under the plane leaves at Bread & Wine, riverside breakfasts by our little Franschhoek cottage of fresh croissants and sweet locally-smoked trout. All was going to plan.

Then, we went to Zevenwacht.

It was to be a strategic pit stop, a place to leave luggage and sleep en route to the city, departing so early, breakfast didn’t matter. But an afternoon nap was non-negotiable, I was told; a drive to Stellenbosch for dinner was out of the question. Cancel the booking at Makaron. Let’s eat here.

The Manor House sits on the lake, with its piped soundtrack of Blind Melon. Occasionally the waitstaff sing along. Its turn-of-the-19th-century walls are lined with black and white images of sad jacarandas, possibly reprinted from someone’s daughter’s high school photo project. Its menus are heavy, laminated in plastic, and contain such joys as R96 gourmet burgers with slap chips.

The grilled aubergine arrived in enormous undercooked slabs, slathered in a cream over-salted by the tears of anyone who tasted it. “Oh, the rocket is perfect!” exclaimed Effie, of the garnish. We poured her more merlot.

A mouthful of carpaccio was like licking the grease off a butcher’s chopping board, accompanied by deep fried capers and potato skins, cold and surreal in a corner.

Our fillets were chased from the kitchen by a waitress wielding a ramekin of pale liquid.

“Sauce au poivre! Lovely!” said optimistic Effie.

The brined green peppercorns, thin cream and raw egg yolk, turned my steak into a slice of elderly pensioner’s thigh; musty, lightly scented with talc.

There are happy substitutions: When it turns out the bowl of roadside noodles and cold Tiger was actually what you wanted, instead of tapas at the new bar that couldn’t find you a table. Or when the tender skate you ordered after the sole ran out, opened new fishy horizons.

Then, there are the days when the waitress at The Pot Luck Club Sunday brunch tells you the oysters on the salty platter have been substituted with blueberry flapjacks (“But flapjacks are breakfasty, right?”) and their Asian-style steak tartare has been substituted with a bowl of broccoli.

Days when you cancel a reservation to eat such earnestly terrible food that you feel the urge to either beat the chef about the head, or pour them a stiff glass of whisky and rub them soothingly on the back, telling them - and yourself - that everything will be all right, one day.

The Greenhouse at Babylonstoren, 021 863 3852, babylonstoren.com/farm-shop/green_house
Bread & Wine at Moreson, 021 876 3692, www.moreson.co.za/pages/bread-wine-vineyard-restaurant
The Manor House at Zevenwacht, 021 900 5800, http://zevenwacht.co.za/dining-and-picnics/
The Pot Luck Club, 021 447 0804, thepotluckclub.co.za