Category Archives: Constantia

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.)

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5 Rooms Review

I wimped out on my Salty Cracker choice this month: I’d just returned from overseas, I was catching up and rushing around, and inspiration was signally failing to strike. Fortunately, jo&stv had thought up 5 Rooms in a vague and forward-thinking sort of way as a future possible choice, and they graciously ceded it to me. Which was, in the event, a Win.

5 Rooms is at the Alphen Hotel in Constantia, one of those upmarket boutiquey sort of hotels in a lovely setting, and which has recently undergone renovations; apparently jo&stv have had drinks there back in the days when it was merely a pub. Now it’s a restaurant comprising a number of smallish rooms (presumably 5, I didn’t count) opening out of a bar area, and serving truly excellent up-market cuisine. The vibe is a little weird, though: the pub, on a Friday night, was noisy and crowded, and it feels a bit odd to thread your way through casual, shouting guests to reach the smaller dining area. It’s rather fancy, with wall-to-wall carpeted floors and immaculate white linen; the chairs were plush and comfy, although the overall aesthetic was a bit, to our mind, Joburgy, in the sense of overly modern and marginally lacking in character, by which no insult to Joburg is intended and you are perfectly free to read “not really our scene”. (Interesting pictures, though, old-fashioned and with a lot of gilt frames, and their periodicity swearing slightly at the modern carpet). The music from the bar was at an acceptable level when we arrived, but escalated to “too loud” about fifteen minutes in, which was something of a pain and made conversation rather less than intimate. I prefer to think of fine dining as something slightly more hushed and reserved. They did turn it down on request, but not enough.

Our waiters were lovely, friendly guys who quickly picked up the usual slightly hilarious Salty Cracker vibe, and were amused but helpful in the face of Jo’s chronic menu indecision. The menu is extensive, the wine quite pricey but with a good selection; they had a winter special, with a slightly reduced menu covering two or three courses at a vastly reduced price. A strategic enquiry, however, revealed that the special featured smaller servings than the à la carte, and we abandoned it posthaste. We eat heartily at Salty Cracker. We are unabashed about it. We would, on the whole, also have been happier if the courses had come out rather more quickly than they did – the whole meal moved just a little too slowly, with minor glitches like the bread (which was lovely and seedy) arriving for only three out of four of us and with about a ten minute wait with Steve doing mournful-puppy eyes before the last portion turned up.

by max barners
Beef medallions, saffron parsnip purée, whole-grain mustard
The decor and atmosphere were forgiveable, though, because the food was really very, very good. I won on the starter: beef medallions, rare and tender, with a bitey mustard/balsamic reduction and a parsnip purée with saffron. Truly excellent. Jo had the spiced artichokes, which I tasted and liked without actually realising it was artichoke – again, a marvellous flavour balance. Steve and Eckie had the salmon, a beautifully nouvelle sort of presentation with layers of avocado and crème fraîche and a sprinkle of caviar. I don’t like either caviar or avocado very much, but I loved this – an amazingly salmony mouthful.
 
by max barners
Salmon Tian, avocado, caviar, creme fraiche


by max barners
Fillet steak, wild mushrooms, smoked bacon, creamed potatoes with chives
I remain true to my epic gastronomic quest, to sample and rank the duck in every duck-conscious restaurant in Cape Town. 5 Rooms is certainly in the top five, its braised duck, Asian greens and chilli/lime reduction tender and piquant. I particularly enjoy Asian flavours with duck, and this was a lovely example. The winner here, though, was Eckie’s springbok loin with cranberry chutney and something they call “smoke surprise”, which the waiter declined to explain, but which turned out to be intensely smoky, and very good indeed. Steve’s fillet with wild mushrooms and smoked bacon was also good. Jo had something off the specials, a chunk of prime rib with chips, which, while being a pleasingly substantial chunk of meat and a beautiful example of good steak steakhouse-style, lost a bit in comparison to the interesting and delicate flavour combinations of the other dishes in this course.


We actually had dessert, which is rare with these meals. I couldn’t resist chocolate fondant (I can never resist chocolate fondant. I must learn how to make it.) and it was a worthy example of the breed, rich and properly molten inside and served with chocolate ice cream and (a nice touch) a tiny Nachtmusik cappuccino. Eckie and Steve went for the crême brûlée, which I didn’t taste, but which came with a rather disconcertingly shocking pink mesh of spun sugar which looked as though it would have been rather more at home at a children’s birthday party, or possibly a baby shower. I should also add that the restaurant’s rather firm adherence to the whole French/nouvelle/fine dining thing is demonstrated rather neatly by the number of times in this post I’ve had to format circumflexes and accents and what have you, not to mention the brief tussle with WordPress’s spellcheck, which was rendering me more than somewhat insecure by refusing to recognise “caviar” as correctly spelled. “Crême brûlée in HTML looks completely bizarre).
 

by max barners
Shocking pink spun sugar garnish to the creme brulee.

This was a great evening, with really excellent food in an atmosphere which, while not perfect, was at least warm and welcoming. I would definitely visit again, although I’d be inclined to try for a week-night in the hopes that it was less crowded and noisy.

Photos are, of course, by Max Barners.

On the Patented Jo Scale:

Bistro 1682

Due to a scheduling car-wreck, I ended up with a lunch slot for the August Cracker (it was that or have August Cracker in mid September…). Bistro 1682, where I have only been for breakfast until then, is not open for dinner, so it was the perfect opportunity and there we went.

Bistro 1682 is a beautiful beautiful place, all modern and tall and shiny and splendid. The glass-fruit chandelier in the bar and the awesome “alien creatures grazing” statues on the grounds of the Steenberg estate are notable standouts. It was a sunny day but just a smidgen too cold to actually sit outside, which is a pity as they have great outside – shallow pools and geometry.

Their winelist is quite reasonable is you stick to their own stuff, so we had sparkles to start (as we meant to carry on). The menu is a mix of fine cuisine and lunchtime favourites (the steak roll with fries next to veal sous vide, that sort of thing. Starters I remember in this time-delayed review are Eckhart’s beef tataki, the white risotto, and the fish brandade. The tatake is kind of a signature dish – when they took part in Taste of Cape Town, the recipe was published in a magazine and I have it cut out at home. It is fantastic. I chose the risotto which was delicate but did not quite hit the spot – the trouble was tasting everyone else’s meal and spoiling my palette, I suspect! Jess and Stv had the fish brandade which they enjoyed, as I recall.

I chose the veal sous vide from the impossible menu – so many options, all sounding too good. It was probably the weakest choice. Jess’s pork belly with asian, sweet and sour flavours was brilliant and unusual, Eckie’s steak and chip roll looked divine. Steve’s charcuterie was impressive but the flavours weren’t quite different enough and the truffle sauce had a slightly odd texture, like cold mashed potato.

Either their portions are small (but they really are not) or because it was lunchtime and we stretched the meal out more, we all, for a change, had desert. There was something with a chocolate nemesis and cherry jelly, and another with toffee themed things (that was mine). I found the deserts a little too bitty and nouveau – too many tiny portions of various flavours, rather than an indulgent composition in itself. But desert, so not my thing.

The service was lovely – a waiter with a sense of humour, always good. They did forget to make Steve’s charcuterie which was a problem  it took only 5 minutes to prepare but that’s 5 minutes of him sitting hungry while our food arrived (no, we didn’t wait… we did feed him though!).

Nanobots: 111!!!!eleven/10

Wasabi Review

Woo!

The slightly last minute choice to do Cracker at all this month, and the choice of venue, seemed to work out well. Wasabi (official site, @ eat out, @ dining-out) in Constantia Village was great. I’m trying to keep Japanese-ish themes for my picks and not (just) sushi joints as I realise that not all the Crackers love sushi as much as I do :-). We also had a special guest star: Jess Ma!

We had a great waiter – Darren, IIRC – who employed Surfer Zen to deal with the a-bit-mad shenanigans of our table with dignity and aplomb. He was pleasant, attentive, and friendly without being intrusive – a difficult combo to get right. Also, he said Bru a lot, which was schweet :). We gave a healthy tip on the bill, which he richly deserved.

The restaurant is technically in a mall, but it’s not in the main building. There’s a satellite mini-mall thing with a few shops and a few restaurants, with much of it open to the sky (a la Willowbridge, my favourite shopping centre that’s nothing like a shopping centre, where Jo and I often go and nosh when I’m at her offices). The place was bustling but not crowded, and it felt like we had our own space, despite the fact there were a couple of table around us.

For starters, we shared a bunch of Dim Sum and related type things – lamb gyoza, chicken siu mai, prawn har gau, duck spring rolls, some tempura prawns and a Thai beef salad. The actual dim sum ones were well made (and all aufentic and stuff), and were pleasant enough, but not massively tasty. The lamb gyoza were tasty, but unlike any other gyoza I’ve had before – bit dry. The duck spring rolls were great, but the winner for me was the Thai beef salad – the sweet chilli and stuff sauce was divine and the beef was just cooked enough.

The food was a bit slow between starters and mains, but our waiter was good with the wine refills (and the jugs of tap water), so it wasn’t too bad.

For main course the table had Tuna Steak (Jo (seared (the Tuna, no the Jo) and Eck), Crispy Duck (Jess), Grilled Linefish [panga] (Jill), Steamed Salmon (me). Jo’s Tuna came out cooked, not seared, so she sent it back. No questioning from the staff, no quibbling, just apologies and a quick turn around for the replacement choona, which was fantastic. The duck was, as expected, superb – crunchy, crispy, pancakey. The Panga was very tasty – good fish! Winner for me was my salmon (tra la la) which was soft, tasty, and had a delicious delicate sauce – salty, slightly sweet.

Somehow dessert was managed by some of the table. Eck had the restaurant’s signature Peppermint Zen (a big glass of layered peppermint and caramel bits), Jess had Three Lindt Ball Eruption (no sniggering at the back!), Jo had the Sorbet Threesome (no sniggering at the back!) which Jill and I kindly helped with (no sni- um …). The Zen was great, but large – Eck fought bravely, though, and made it to the end. The Balls were good – chocolatey and appropriately messy. The sorbet was very refreshing and unusually flavoured.

I only took a flying glance at their sushi menu as I didn’t want to be tempted, but it looks like they’ve got some interesting stuff, so Jo and I will be returning for raw fish and rice soon.

Using the work-in-progress Salty Cracker Scores On The Doors Restaurant Ranking System ™ (or SCSOTDRRS for short):

Atmosphere: 7 / 10
Staff: 9 / 10
Service: 7 / 10
Food: 7 / 10
Value for money: 6 / 10