Wine and Dine at The Planet, Mount Nelson

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.

Gypsy Cafe Review

What with new jobs and overseas trips and product launches and things, arranging a date and venue for this month’s Cracker (October’s, that is) was a bit of a last minute affair. I was struggling to think of somewhere, so when Jo suggested Gypsy Cafe I grabbed it. Jo and I went there a few weeks ago and had a lovely, relaxed, delicious meal. On top of that, I like supporting small businesses (having been one myself for many years), and local businesses. Unfortunately, our Cracker experience there last night was not so great.

The restaurant has a Gypsy theme in its decor and menu: the specials on the menu change regularly, and a pin in a map on the wall shows where they are this week. Last night we were in Germany: one of the starters was a lovely vienna salad, and one of the mains was roast beef with sauerkraut, the other was beef schnitzel. The other starter we had (three of us had the salad) was the chicken livers in a spicy coconut curry-like sauce, which was delicious. For other main courses, we had the Venison (Ostrich), and the Two Tarts.

Here’s a wodge of pictures:

The food was all great, except I wasn’t happy with my ostrich. It came a little too rare for my tastes (I like medium rare, can do rare, but don’t do bleu), and I asked for it to be cooked a bit more. The chef generously, and quickly, brought me a whole new one. Unfortunately, it was pretty much as rare as the first one.

A much bigger problem was the really bad service we had. We arrived at 8 p.m., and the joint was jumping. It took us a little while to get drinks (first rule of restaurant club, people: get people their drinks immediately. Then they’ll be much happier waiting for other stuff.), but the kitchen was so busy that we couldn’t (and not for lack of trying) place our food order until 9.30. By about 9, after several pesterings of the waitress, we asked if we could have some more bread for the table to tide us over. She went away and came back and, apologetically and nicely, told us that the kitchen was too busy to even do that. We were not happy bunnies. When he eventually came over, the chef apologised briefly for the wait, but after waiting an hour and a half, it would have nicer to have a “bigger” apology. The food came out quite quickly after that, but most other guests had eaten and left by then.

We had a nice night out anyway, because we’re four friends who enjoy chatting and drinking, but it was not a great dining experience at all. If there had been another waiter, maybe things would have gone a bit more smoothly. Time for the scores on the doors.

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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:

The table 1

The Table at De Meye

I’m all fascinated by this trend to serve just one meal. We cook it, you eat it. It seems to fit in with my musings on how difficult is must be to run a restaurant with a big menu – how do you know how much of what to buy? How do you know whether everything is still fresh? How do you decide what to order and how sad are you when the other people are eating something tastier? all this makes me warm and fuzzy at the thought of a single, set menu, which is what The Table does. REALLY WELL.

Their system is thus: only open for lunch on Saturday and Sunday. Devise a mouth-watering menu and publish it on your website a week in advance. Take advance bookings and require a 50% upfront deposit (to discourage last minute cancellations).  When people arrive, feed them wonderful, food served on big help-yourself-there’s-more-in-the-kitchen platters from which the whole table dishes up and stuffs themselves. all ingredients are fresh, locally sourced and everything seems to be made in-house, down to the marmalade and the bread. And for drinking, all the De Meye wines are available at a tiny mark up from cellar prices – lovely and very reasonable.

We booked for Saturday 28 July and turned out to be the only guests there (which seems an unusual thing and appears correlated to the rugbies or whatever sport seems to be happening right now) (in fact it seems that for the next 2 weeks they are not open on Saturday to account for this). We loved being there by ourselves though. The place is beautiful, and the weather was perfect, chill in the air but sunny and bright. Our menu was wonderful – have a look – I absolutely stuffed myself and we didn’t manage to finish everything. It was rich, warm, fresh and delicious winter food. I loved the pork belly and the duck pate, but ended up stuffed on carrots, cabbage and marmalade, they were so good.

After main course, we went for a walk waddle around to create the requisite space for the chocolate cake. We basked in the sun and generally fell about until they asked if we wanted some blankets, and proceeded to serve us desert on the lawn under the trees in sheer bucolic trance. I felt like I was in a Hollywood Indian Summer montage, complete with lens-flares and overexposure. Oh, and the cake was good too.

Heaven. Please go there. Lots.

keenwa

Keenwa Review

Quinoa! (Or Keenwa, as you say).

A bit of a branch out, in terms of food geography, for the Crackernauts this month (wherein “this month” is the March Cracker happening in April due to *cough* scheduling conflicts.) as we braved the on-and-off downpours to head into town to Keenwa for some home-style Peruvian cooking. The vibe as you walk in is friendly and candlelight-y, but as you open the menu to check out what’s the what, you realise that it’s dark. As in break-out-the-torch-what-does-that-even-say dark:

Thankfully, the food all sounded interesting and tasty and different, and we squinted our way to making an order.

Starters

I had the Ceviche Keenwa [1], Jo and Eckhard both had papa a la huancaina con anticuchos [2], and Jess had the trio de causas [3]. All were excellent! The portions were definitely on the generous side for starters. The presentation was great, and a lot more fancy than the “home-style cooking” suggests. The flavours in each dish were fresh: a different set of herbs and spices (and the balancing thereof means) that It Can Haz A Flavour that’s different and distinct.

Mains

I had the Tacu tacu [1], Eckhard had the Lomo Saltado [2], Jess the Adi de gallina [3], and Jo the tallarin con salsa huancaina [4].

The portions here were also pretty big, and neither Jo or I managed to finish our meals. I can confirm that our dishes reheat well and make an excellent brunch! Roughly speaking, the food all seemed kind of familiar (fried rice, stir fry, chicken in a creamy sauce), but with a new twist on the flavours. The tastes were also more subtle and delicate than the starters which were quite punchy by comparison. The general concensus was that the mains were good, but the starters were excellent.

Desserts

Eckhard and I both had Picarones [1], Jo had the Alfajores [2].

The Picarones are butternut and sweet potato doughnut-y things, with a sugary syrup sauce and were nummy and super-crunchy. The Alfajores were soft, squishy, dusty, and tasty. We were all a bit stuffed by then!

In conclusion, Your Honour

Interesting, different feeling and tasting, food.
Worth checking out, especially if you go when it’s still light out! (mutter, grumble, where are my reading spectacles, ooh, me back hurts, etc.)

The scores on the doors (remember, I mark harder than my compadres):

mr chan sign

Mr. Chan Review

photo by stvOh, dear, I keep forgetting to write this review. Not, I hasten to add, because it was a bad experience, but because I’m busy and disorganised, and possibly because a surfeit of duck is detrimental to the will. My choice was Mr. Chan in Sea Point, which was recommended to us by friends, who also waved under my nose the seductive possibility of crispy duck with pancakes, one of my favourite things in the multiverse. It would, I thought, also be an interesting comparison to Jewel Tavern, which is our favourite Chinese hang-out. In the event, Jewel Tavern still has it in the “favourite Chinese food” stakes, but I also don’t think it was an entirely fair comparison.

Mr. Chan has an air and ambience that just nicely balances on the edge of clean/plastic/cheery and warm/idiosyncratic/comfortable. It’s open and light, and some of the notes in the decor – the glittery Eastern-style cherubs on the walls, for example – are amusing. It’s also clearly more successful than Jewel Tavern simply in terms of number of tables filled – not all by a long chalk, it’s a big restaurant, but enough to be reassuring. As we arrived a giant drove of Chinese people were leaving, which suggests that it also passes the test of good ethnic cuisine, i.e. actual people of that culture eat there.

We did the usual thing with starters, which is for everyone to order one which we subsequently share, necessitating a certain amount of bargain and negotiation. Lots of crispy and seafood-flavoured things on the menu; the spring rolls were good, not exceptional – a bit pedestrian, perhaps; the prawn rolls were excellent, the chilli squid and crispy ribs were likewise delectable. A good batch of starters, all in all. But no dim sum buns or dumplings on the menu. Woe. I am fast developing an inelegant fondness for same.

photo by stvThe reason I don’t think we enabled a fair comparison with Jewel Tavern is because I’d pre-ordered the whole crispy duck with pancakes, which is in itself a giant meal and which precluded us trying a wider range of dishes. The duck was wonderful; they bring the whole thing out and dismember it for you, and in a most civilised fashion give you a plate of shredded meat and another plate of bones and bits that Jo and Eckie and I waded into while Stv, who doesn’t like to get his fingers greasy, laughed at us. It was rich and tasty and the skin was properly crispy; they’re very generous with their giant piles of pancakes, and the usual trimmings (spring onion and cucumber shreds, plum sauce) were plentiful and good. We ended up extremely full.

It was a good meal; it wasn’t, though, to my mind an exceptional meal. My overall feeling was that Jewel Tavern’s flavours were more interesting, although, as I say, we didn’t have a chance to compare main courses outside the duck experience. I am also now able to say with authority that I prefer Jewel Tavern’s szechuan crispy duck, which has the breading on the outside, to the non-breaded version. It was, however, a good meal and a pleasant evening, and I would not be at all averse to returning for a non-duck run at their main courses.

On the Jo scale:

Galloping gourmands gallivanting about Cape Town.