Jokes, but how Welsh is his name! It’s fun to imagine Giles and his mates Rhys Jones and Gethin Thomas as a boy-band called Llanelli*.
Anyway, La Tête is not Welsh. It’s French, and it means The Head. Which is obviously appropriate because, unless you’ve been living in Llanelli, you probably know about this restaurant and it’s nose-to-tail philosophy. One that sees co-owner and head chef Giles favoring more adventurous, sustainably-sourced ingredients.
It’s a brave concept. At least, it was until it became one of the most buzzed about restaurants in Cape Town. Since opening a year ago, much has been written and said – about the menu, the philosophy and the restaurant’s unpretentious approach – making La Tête a darling of the Bree Street Eating Scene™. But I believe not enough has been made of their wine list.
So, indulge us for a second.
Accessible dining in South Africa has basically two types of wine lists:
1. The Paid-for List. This is where restaurants, usually franchises or chains (stand up Spur, Cape Town Fish Market, Tiger’s Milk, La Parada etc.) require vast sums of cash for the privilege of appearing on their wine list. These places don’t have much respect for you or their list, but they do value their bottom line. So they wield their substantial power to coerce wine producers to help fund their new Waterfront expansion.
Much like this practice, the wine typically leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
2. The Greatest Hits List. These might have one or two interesting bottles, but usually more than one or two ubiquitous ones. Think Wolftrap or Diemersfontein Pinotage. Then extrapolate. Where the paid-for lists don’t aim to please, these lists try to please everyone. Like department store music, their mission is to be safe and recognizable. There's nothing wrong with the wines, the restaurants or this practice per se, but it makes for a wine list that is uninspired.
La Tête is one of a growing number of establishments that does not ascribe to either. They see wine not as incidental, but fundamental to their offering and an opportunity to surprise and delight.
Cue Giles’ brother and business partner, James Edwards:
“I think the key is for the list to be accessible and interesting. Our food is exactly that, and I want the wine list to match the expectations of the food menu. I want our diners to look through the list and find several bottles of wine that they go ‘wow, that’s interesting, let’s try a bottle of that!’.”
It might seem obvious now, but it was a brave strategy to open with. There are no easy wins here. No Buiten Blanc to put the average punter at ease. But as we've seen with their food, sometimes it pays to go for interesting and challenging. James says it’s about defining their own style and offering wines that he and his brother like to drink, and that pair well with the food:
“We like the smaller winemakers (Duncan Savage, Mareliese Niemann, Francois Haasbroek, Trizanne Barnard) and the younger up and coming ones (Danie Carinus, Franco Lourens). We typically stay away from the more mainstream commercial farms, but there are exceptions in winemakers that we have enormous respect for and who support us,
like David Niewoudt from Cederberg."
La Tête has many gems on that glorious, ever-changing, one-page list. There’s plenty by the glass, something at every price point, and a good few aged reds and whites. They also have an exclusive Semillon menu, which is amazing and unprecedented. Sure, Semillon is a phenomenal food wine, but this has GEEK written all over it. It’s a bit like walking into a guitar shop to find 12 Fender Stratocasters used and signed by Jimi Hendrix. On sale.
It’s bananas. It's surprising. And it's exactly the sort of thing that creates passionate advocates in the right places. Giles believes it has contributed significantly to their success:
“The wine geeks look at the list, they respect the producers and the prices. They think it’s great. The winemakers all like to come here for the same reason, and the foodies seem to like it too”.
The La Colombes, Test Kitchens and Marbles of this world necessarily have strong and well-curated wine lists, but there's an increasing number of accessible restaurants all over the country offering unique and interesting wines. These don’t need to be expensive. In fact, with a lot of young winemakers starting out and building their reputations, there are some remarkable deals to be found. One such is Martin Lamprecht’s MARRAS Grenache. It retails at R80. It’s fresh and smashtastic. You can find it at Woolworths. Buy it all, put it on ice and we'll discuss it later.
In the mean time, La Tête has paired its honest, sustainable, interesting and well-priced menu with a wine list that is as thoughtful as it is rewarding. The restaurant is beloved by the wine industry, wine lovers, foodies, writers and consequently everyone else.
There’s a lesson in there somewhere.
Well played, Giles and James. Well played.
* It's also fun to imagine what Donald Trump would tweet after a visit to La Tête. Our current favourites:
Former Marine and HUUGE Trump fan Giles slices octopus with own face. #MAGA
Pig killer Giles a disgrace to fine dining. Ratings WAAAY down. Overrated. SAD. #CrookedCelery
FAKE CHEF Giles kills pig with bear hands. Yes, he has BEAR hands okay. The best bear hands.