Elephants, lions and rhinos waited while we went on safari at the Bascule Bar of the Cape Grace hotel in Cape Town, South Africa.
In a quiet corner of the marina-side saloon, the manager, Soma Dennis, guided us through an exotic array of tastings unlike any we'd had before: "Try this 15-year-old Glenfiddich Solera Reserve. Do you taste the sweet raisins? Now try it along with a chocolate truffle, because I believe it brings out the whole Christmas fruitcake. Now, here's a 12-year-old Glenlivet from the River Livet, which is filled with salmon, so I'm going to ask you to try it with a little salmon. But this 17-year-old Ardbeg from Islay goes especially well with our Winelands bleu cheese, which you'll also see we've placed right before you. And I know you're still going to eat dinner upstairs, but when you come back down later you might want to taste this Dalmore Cigar Malt a second time with your cigar." Unable to say no, we tried eight whiskys in all out of the 467 available before it was time for dinner, including a local South African blend, the five-year-old Three Ships.
Opened in December 2000, Bascule Bar claims it has the greatest collection of whiskys in the Southern Hemisphere, many of them as rare as the animals my wife and I hoped to see as we explored the rest of the country (although we'd already seen plenty of ostriches and baboons on a leisurely drive from the Cape of Good Hope that morning). The bar's pride is a 50-year-old Glenfiddich that it sells for $2,484 a "tot" (at 6.12 rand to the dollar, and 25 milliliters to the tot) to patrons who don't mind having their credit cards charged first. By comparison, the 20-year-old Rosebank, 25-year-old Talisker and 30-year-old Bowmore are steals at a mere $123, $106 and $105 each. A portion of sales from these higher-priced single malts goes to Nazareth House, a hospice in Cape Town for children with AIDS. But there are also plenty of less astoundingly priced offerings at the bar, such as the innocuous Three Ships that anchors in at just over $2.
Built with a nautical theme of red jarrah wood, steel portholes, and walls of cement mixed with crushed seashells and sand, Bascule attracts Cape Grace hotel guests by day for drinks and leisurely lunches before surrendering to Capetonians at night. On typical Wednesday or Friday evenings when a live marimba band performs or a DJ spins records, a thousand or more patrons fill Bascule, squeezing past its display cases of rare single malts and Cognacs, through its 9,000-bottle wine cellar, and then spilling out onto the pier at the foot of Table Mountain, beneath the stars and waterfront lights. Some of its most regular customers are members of Bascule's "Whisky Club." For fees starting around $310 per year, the bar stores club members' individual bottles and personalized cut-crystal tumblers in private cabinets. Many of them are also private collectors who help stock the bar with the hardest-to-find single malts they unearth on globe-trotting trips.
Paula and I had just arrived in South Africa, so right now we didn't want to continue anywhere but upstairs for a bite to eat. We followed Bascule Bar's steps into Cape Grace's restaurant, one.waterfront, where our safari would continue. Taupe and chocolate accents filled the warm open room, where the few bright hints of color came from an arrangement of Birds of Paradise -- a flower first discovered in South Africa's Eastern Cape. In lodges and reserves throughout Africa, chefs are hesitant to prepare game entrées because of the awkwardness in serving filets of the local tourist attraction. But for now we were in a city restaurant, and the South African chef, Bruce Robertson, had left his game lodge days behind him. Robertson opened one.waterfront in August 2002 after cooking at the Singita Private Game Reserve in Kruger National Park, and South African magazines have been calling the chef and his new restaurant the best in their country ever since.
First, I ordered a springbok (African antelope) consommé with poached quail eggs, springbok cubes and deep-fried foie gras ice cream, which came served in a puff pastry shell spiked by a porcupine quill. Equally delicious as it was difficult to deconstruct, I splattered myself like a wild hyena. Then after a Champagne and gooseberry palate cleanser -- something the hyenas don't usually bother with -- I moved on to a roasted turbotine wrapped in warthog carpaccio in an oxtail casserole with a white bean cream. Paula started with grilled Cape Malay scallops in a warm roe salsa, with cucumber and goat cheese samosas, and then deliberated over the roasted guinea fowl, braised rabbit and milk-poached kingklip, a prehistoric-looking white fish that was offered here with curried risotto, honeyed lentils and deep-fried egg. But like any good predator, she'd picked up on the scent of red meat when I ordered my appetizer, and she promptly ordered a springbok venison slab…rare. To accompany our plates, we picked two local wines, a 2002 Delheim Merlot from Stellenbosch (for me) and a 2003 Groote Post Pinot Noir from Swartland (for her). Both were splendid. For dessert we shared a chocolate fondant, which arrived in a crystallized-sugar cage, topped by 18-carat gold-leaf white chocolate ice cream, layered into the form of a rose.
After dinner, we'd planned to heed Dennis's advice and end with cigars and more Scotch back in the bar, but we looked at each other with the glazed eyes of diners who were already properly full. So we chose bed -- although I'll admit to trying a glass of the sherry put out for guests in the hotel's library before turning in -- with plans to return to the bar the following evening.
To make sure we'd be well relaxed for the appointment, we visited the Cape Grace's spa that afternoon. I had a "Thaba Treatment," in which Amanda and Bella worked me simultaneously with a pair of knob-headed Zulu walking sticks, while Paula submitted to an African Cape Massage, wherein Irena slathered her with African shea butter oil, also to my great delight.
Then when evening came, we went downstairs to Bascule. We ate light fare off the three-page bar menu before focusing more seriously on the 22-page whisky list. After much consideration, Paula chose a 20-year-old Bunnahabhain and I picked a 22-year-old Largiemeanoch, both from Islay. But we weren't ready to start drinking yet, because there remained one last order of business: a visit to the humidor. Along with the whiskys and wines, Bascule keeps a very substantial stock of cigars, all of them Cuban. So we eyed the Montecristos, Romeo y Julietas, Punches, Hoyos de Monterrey, Bolivars and Partagas, before settling on Cohibas. I chose a Siglo II, while Paula opted for a panetela. Then we sipped from our Scotches, noting how Paula's single malt had the same brownish color as impalas, while mine was more traditionally like lions, and we took our time drinking and smoking and taking in Cape Town because Dennis had told us Bascule never closes until its last patron leaves.
Bascule Bar and one.waterfront
West Quay, Victoria & Alfred Waterfront
Cape Town 8002