I’ve been trying to get us to one of the Wine and Dine evenings at the Mount Nelson for a while now – a once-a-month event where a 7 course wine and food pairing is designed around the wine. The idea is: select a set of wines – linked by cultivar or area – ours was the Constantia wine region – and then invent foods that go with it. This is done by Chef Rudy Liebenberg of the Planet restaurant, and the whole thing comes in at a very reasonable (for fine dining) cost of R395 per person.This ties in with why I have so long tried to do this with the Salty Crackerees and failed – when I get around to booking my dinner, generally no more than a week in advance, this function is reliably sold out. So the last time I called them (in June) and got turned down, I booked November there and then – four months in advance!
A word of warning – and a poor start to the experience: About a week before the actual event I got a very alarming email from them, saying that I have ignored their first email, have not paid the 100% deposit in advance, and unless I do so by end of the day, my reservation will be cancelled. This was annoying and poorly handled: I don’t know why I did not get the first email (spam filter ate it?), but following up with a second (final) warning via email as well, if email seems unreliable, is not very useful. If emails are not being answered, follow up by phone, please! Also, while I can handle and understand paying 100% in advance (it’s not great but I can deal with it), I think this is the sort of thing that should be clearly spelt out when making the reservation, not a week before. Whinge, complain, etc.
Moving on to the good things: wine. There is lots of it, lots and lotsedy lots. No nouvelle portions, no skimping, lots. The evening starts with drinks, where the winemakers have tasting stations and you can try three types of wine as many times as you possibly want. That is a fun way to get into the evening. The wines themselves were mostly great, although they tended to sauvignons, which are not my favourite white. But, you can chat to the winemakers and basically enjoy a very nice wine tasting. The drinks were served in one of the function rooms inside the hotel, next to the Planet, which was slightly unfortunate since the last time I was in that room I was telling a bunch of payroll practitioners all about pension reform, so the whole thing started feeling eerily like a conference. Other Crakeroos seemed to have a similar feeling, despite lack of prior experience, so I think the shape and carpeting level of the room are somehow to blame. I believe that on warmer evenings, the drinks are served by the fountain outside, which would be much more atmospheric.
The other strange part of this session was discovering that the other diners were in general much older than us – often the case, but the shimmer of blue hair was slightly more prominent this time around. It must the the Mount Nelson clientèle in general – again adding to that feeling that one is at a conference or function. Not bad, but a little weird.
The drinks were also individually paired with foods: the beginning of the actual problem with the evening. The food was generally lovely; the food/wine pairings were generally completely off. The three, fairly similar, whites – two sauvignons and a viogner – were paired with a roast lamb, a smoked crocodile, and a tom yum soup respectively. Nothing of this worked in any way – dry, light, grassy wines with rich food. When I approached one of the winetasting stations to get my mini-bowl of tom yum soup and glass of sauvignon, the winemaker _strongly_ encouraged me to have some wine first, because the soup was way too strong and I would not be able to taste the wine at all afterwards. Ouch! So it wasn’t just me…
After drinks, we moved into the actual restaurant for the meal. The Planet has thematically appropriate decor, with crystal stars, planetoid glass globes and a star-map carpet that caused Eckie and I to simultaneously exclaim “Star Control!”. It’s just like the game map. The effect is rather cute, although someone, somewhere must me able to tell me what it is with hotels and the need for carpeting… The seventies called, they want their rugs back.
The meal followed the pattern established by the pre-dinner drinks: ample alcohol with frequent, generous refills; good to excellent food very poorly matched to the wine; the continued feeling that you are gatecrashing a 50th anniversary function, with speeches (the chef, the winemakers, the sommelier) and that coordinated delivery of each course normally only observed at weddings. Whoosh, starter! Whoosh, main course! Whoosh!
Over the course of the speeches we did find out that Rudy (sporting a disturbingly fluffy moustache which was hopefully attributable to Movember) was overseas while the menu was designed, and while he endorsed and approved of his staff’s choices, he did not actually make up the food himself. This may be the reason for the food/wine disagreements we experienced, and could be a good justification to try this again another time.
The food itself, for those interested, was as follows:
Prawn and tomato salad with avocado and tomato vinagraitte (Steenberg Sauvignon Blanc Reserve 2011) – tasty but slightly meek – no wow factor
Oxtail and ox tongue terrine, crisp fried bone marrow, bean salsa (Buitenverwachting Christine, 2002) – the undisputed winner of the evening, both the terrine, which was delectable and well complemented by the beans, and the wine (note the year!) which was deep, rich and wonderful.
Kabeljou fish cake, sweetcorn, fennel and oyster veloute (Steenberg Semillon, 2011) – I cannot recall much about this dish
Pork Belly, smoked potato, white mushroom puree (Eagles Nest Vereaux, 2009) – The pork belly was wonderful, and the flavours of the sides really worked. Unfortunately, the Eagles Nest wines are just not very good, and could not keep pace with the food, and especially not with the other wines – after having the Christine two courses earlier, this was painfully apparent.
Gruyere, healey’s creme, lightly pickled squash (Eagles Nest Shiraz 2009) – Another poor wine, cannot recall the food.
Coconut sponge, lemon and line parfait, macerated fruits (Buitenverwachting Brut) – that was a lovely desert, very fresh, great mix of sweet and sour flavours, really intense – we just could not make the wine work with it, particularly after drinking all those heavy reds just before.
This was followed by tea and coffee. Careful counting suggests that the pre-dinner snack is one of the courses (to get to seven), but quantity of anything is not the issue with this evening. We hope that the wine pairing was off due to absence of chef, and will not recur. We had a fine time, but compared to our gold standard (Overture, which we had the fortune of going to two days later), the Planet does not live up.