Babel is set inside an old cow shed. But instead of finding cubicles with cows poking their heads through them and piles of hay, expect sleek interior design, contemporary glass walls and crisp, white-cloth tables reminiscent of some of Europe’s greatest eateries.
“Everything at Babel comes from the garden,” states chef Schalk Vlok with immense pride as he greets us. “Products and ingredients are either selected or picked from the gardens, cleaned and served in one fell swoop,” he carries on. “Offcuts go to the stockpot for soups and sauces, dried citrus peel makes delicious flavouring, carrot tops are blended into a paste for filling mushrooms or adding to soup.”
Making my way to our table, I reflect on what Schalk said and project myself back to Dr Crook’s chemistry class in the early 2000s. Admittedly, chemistry was not my forte, but one citation did stick: “Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed.” This is a quote from Antoine Lavoisier, who, in 1774, discovered that the total mass of matter remains the same even after a chemical reaction, and I could not think of a fitter description to describe the guiding principles that Babel and Babylobstoren adhere to.
The menu changes with every passing season, and garden availability decides its structure. One thing remains unchanged throughout the year: simplicity. A welcomed change from the otherwise stuffy and unnecessarily complex work which can be found in other high-end restaurants in South Africa. According to the great Leonardo Da Vinci, simplicity is the ultimate sophistication anyway.
We take our seats, and as I cast an eye over the menu, I realise immediately that there is something unique about Babel. Aside from wonderfully crafted season-inspired dishes that make up the menu, I notice that some dishes feature buffalo-made dairy products, including butter, milk, mozzarella, yoghurt, and even gelatos – quite unique.
The menu is made up of three distinct acts: stirrings, progression and culmination, which is in line with chef Schalk’s philosophy, which is to make simple, fresh dishes using the garden and farm’s resources.
From where we’re sitting, we can see chef Vlock and his team in action and our senses are on high alert. Beautiful aromas emanate from the hob, and the pots and pans can be heard clanging subtly, which all serves to heighten the sense of intimacy, making us feel like we are part of the action.
“I want the ingredients and producers to do the talking through each plate offered to our guests,” says chef Vlock to me as I take a peek behind the counter that separates the kitchen from the dining room. And it’s not only the talking they do; it’s also the walking, too, as I am about to discover.
I begin my culinary experience with the steak tartare, for which chef Schalk uses a special breed of Italian cow, Chianinas, known to be the largest in the world. The finely hand-chopped steak – no industrial mincing here – is paired with a fresh hen’s egg, fragranced with pickled mustard and freshly foraged herbs and seasoned with the usual suspects.
As it’s impossible for me to sample all of the menu’s offerings, I tend to spy on my neighbour’s table to get a fuller picture of the menu. Suddenly, a colourful, craftily concocted plate catches my attention: the stark contrast between the crisp-white bone china plate and the carpaccio of bloody, crimson-red beetroot served with hangop cheese, made onsite by Alta the cheesemonger. It’s mouth-wateringly delicious.
I progress to la pièce de résistance, which for me is the flame-grilled, dry-aged Chianinas beef, the “protein”, accompanied by a perfectly rounded hasselback sweet potato that comes with buffalo yoghurt and cumin sauce.
The wine list is mainly made up of wines that the farm produces. Indeed Babylonstoren sits at the heart of South Africa’s wine country, with the beautiful Simonsberg mountain range as a backdrop. Over the years, the farm has invested heavily in its wine-making capabilities and now produces a range of ten wines across red, white and rose. We’re recommended to pair our mains with a great bottle of Nebukadnesar, the farm’s flagship Bordeaux which goes beautifully with my meat.
It’s easy to see why Babel and Babylonstoren as a whole are quickly gaining such international recognition amongst the travel journalism community and winning a plethora of awards. Its majestic gardens, quaffable wines, exquisite cuisine, scenic backdrops and elegant, luxurious accommodation have put it firmly on the map for food and wine lovers.