The Greenhouse review

I may or may not have a thing for really expensive, high-end dining, she says, looking shifty. I blame decades of impecunious grad student existence. While my love of good food can easily be contented by, well, good food, in any setting from shabby/ethnic through intimate/hearty to warm/steakhouse, every now and then the yen for something precise and pretentious and rarified arises and cannot be denied. And for that, praise the culinary deities, there are places like The Greenhouse.

The Greenhouse is attached to the Cellars Hohenort hotel in Constantia, which is a lovely setting and also includes The Cape Malay Restaurant, which I am noting significantly for future reference. Greenhouse gains serious points before you’ve even arrived, because the phone lady enquires seriously about your food allergies or other dietary requirements, and they reinforce it with another enquiry when you are ushered to your table. (I can’t eat dessicated coconut, for some reason it makes me seriously nauseous, and they were very graceful about their willingness to swap out desserts from other menus to accommodate me. They were also horribly embarrassed when they forgot to make the substitution at the end of the meal, and whisked away the offending coconut bavarois, to replace it with a series of apologies from various staff which culminated in one of the actual chefs coming out to assure me he was very sorry and the rosemary/honeybush cream/jelly replacement was truly on its way. Which it was, and was delectable enough that I completely forgot I’d promised to share it with Jo until a few spoonfuls from the end).

The staff, if it’s not clear from the above, are lovely; the waiter was only slightly portentous in describing the meal, with enough good humour to undercut it, and the sommelier managed to be deeply serious about the wine without subscribing to the Pretentious Dickery end of wine language and attitude. The actual physical setting manages the same tricky blend of fine dining formality (lots of white linen and chandeliers) with a slightly quirky edge which renders it luxuriously welcoming rather than snooty. It does to perfection what an expensive dining experience absolutely must do in order to be worth it: gives you the impression that your comfort and enjoyment is the most important thing in the world.

They have set menus rather than an à la carte; either a three-course winter menu, which I looked at wistfully on account of the pork belly, or a choice of seven-course tasting menus, chef’s or fish or vegetarian. For some reason everyone felt like splashing out on the full seven-course menu with wine pairing, which kicks in at around R800 per person. This is the extremely high end of our dining range, something we don’t do often (I think the Roundhouse was the last one), and I hasten to say up front that the food and the experience as a whole were utterly worth it. Steve, Eckie and I had the chef’s menu, and Jo went for the fish; both were a lush, imaginative array of ingredients and flavours, and the contrast was very interesting. (The day Salty Cracker doesn’t pass forkfuls of food around the table is the day we’ve all been replaced by alien pod people and should be terminated with extreme prejudice.) I also have to say that the wine pairing was superbly chosen, not a disappointing wine in the selection, and some absolutely inspired taste combinations. (In other news, I’ve met a dessert wine I actually like. They serve Vin de Constance, which is both marvellous, and perfectly appropriate to the setting).

I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow of the fourteen dishes, because there were simply too many of them, even if my usual procrastination hadn’t delayed this review by several weeks and blurred everything in my mind to a sort of delicious, drunken mélange. High points, though: the game fish tataki and yuzu snow, which somehow managed to make the abalone and oyster it accompanied palatable to my non-shellfish-fancying proclivities. That sort of sweetcorn/garlic mousse thing that came with Jo’s crayfish custard. Having the top of my head blown off, in a good way, by a completely unexpected and astonishingly good chestnut-vanilla purée with the rabbit ballotine, and by the tea-smoked duck breast in the following course. Black olive jam on Jo’s pan roasted cob. Seared foie gras with, of all things, granola, a bizarrely successful combination. The way the jus from the lamb soaked into the barley risotto. Cheese cake served in a wedge imitating Camembert, with pine nut biscotti and something with roast pineapple.

If there was a problem with this meal (which there wasn’t), it was that it was too good, certainly too generous. We were practically in a group food coma by the end of it, forcing the dessert down because it was too good not to, in a spirit of debauched, determined, prescient regret. Partially that was our fault, because we went through their beautiful bread basket like a ravening wind. It would have been a crime not to. I don’t think I’ve had better bread, or a more imaginative selection, at any restaurant ever. They do those really crispy, salty, thin things like a sort of more flaky and substantial poppadom, and amazing onion bread, and a sort of cheesy ciabatta we actually fought over. But I think the seven courses is slightly too much, or else the portions are slightly too generous. (Or else we’re far too greedy).

I’m not going to do the Patented Jo Scale, because it’s going to be ridiculously repetitive. Instead, I’m going to do what we’ve been threatening to do for months, and revert to a purer, simpler code. This was a five star experience. In every category. Chew on that.

(Photos, as usual, by Max Barners; there are more on Flickr.)