Turbine Hotel Reception Whale CottageYesterday I had to be present as the claimant in a court case relating to housebreaking and theft of my house in Plettenberg Bay ten months ago.   My 24 hours in the town were a huge disappointment in more ways than one, the lowlight being dinner at the Island Café at The Turbine Hotel & Spa on Thesen Island in Knysna, a most unprofessionally run 5-star hotel.

I had wanted to stay at The Turbine Hotel for my short visit to Knysna, and had tried to make a booking with the gentleman answering the phone.  He told me that the hotel cannot take bookings on a Sunday, and that I would have to be called back the following day.  Millicent Jack from Reservations dutifully called the next day, and described her colleague as having been ‘lazy’ in not taking my reservation the day before! I could not stay there, fortunately in retrospect, as the Knysna Court advised that I could only stay at Tonquani Lodge in the Knysna Forest outside of town.  An offer to pay in the difference was rejected, this being a Department of Justice directive, I was told. But that is a different story to come, the 5-star Tourism Grading Council of South Africa grading for the lodge being completely inappropriate.

As there was no cellphone reception at Tonquani Lodge, I had to drive to the town centre, to find a restaurant for dinner, and to pay the PAYE due on Tuesday, requiring a pin code sent by sms.  I headed for the Knysna The Waterfront (a misnomer, no comparison to ours in Cape Town), and started my WiFi search at The Dry Dock Co.  I especially asked for a manager, as I had limited battery power left in my laptop, and I had to do the payment before midnight. He promised that someone would look after me, but that someone never came to my assistance, and the WiFi would not work.  I left and headed to 34 Degrees South, also specialised in fish, and here too I was promised WiFi. It had to be switched off and then on again to make it work, but after an hour of frustration, the WiFi finally worked and the payment was done.  I ordered a simple dish of hake, which I could have with Basmati rice according to the waitress, as I did not want savoury rice,  When it did finally arrive, the plate had savoury rice on it.  I then had a 10 minute battle with the waitress and manager about the rice on my plate being ordinary savoury rice, and not Basmati rice as I had been offered.  I only use Basmati rice at home, and am very familiar with its taste and appearance.  It was blatantly dishonest to try and convince me that I do not know my rice! There was no senior management nor any owners at the restaurant, the supervisor telling me proudly that they were all at home!  I then decided to leave, not only the restaurant, but also The Waterfront, and headed for Thesen Island.

I wasn’t sure where I was heading on Thesen Island, and saw a collection of restaurants including a Tapas restaurant, Col’Cacchio, and a sign to Siroccio.  In that collection was The Turbine Hotel, so I decided to stop there, to have a look at what I was missing out on in not being able to stay there, and have dinner there.  I entered via the bar, which was closest to where I had parked, but could not see where the restaurant was nor the reception.  A friendly barman guided me vaguely as to where to go, past all the turbines which are still in the building (the hotel was built on the old turbine station supplying power to Knysna in days gone by), with tables set up in-between the turbine machines on a platform.  One has to venture down some very tiny precarious steps towards what looked like another bar Turbine Restaurant pictures Whale Cottagecounter behind which two staff were deep in conversation, with their backs to the counter.  I carried on walking, and found the Island Café restaurant, a long rectangular space in which about 16 tables had been set up.  Nothing about the decor reflected ‘Island‘ at all, and there was no view onto the water surrounding Thesen Island.  The four-seater wood-top Turbine Island Cafe restaurant interior Whale Cottagetables had a mixed collection of chairs. Each table had a material serviette.  One wall had a collection of pictures of people bought from a second-hand shop, not reflecting the theme either.

No one reacted to my presence, so I walked back and kept walking, to arrive at Reception, past quirky furniture and more turbines forming part of the decor.  I found Candice Malgraaf, and she apologised for the lack of service, coming with me, to seat me and hand me a menu.  I asked her who the chef is, and she told me that the junior chef Warwick Muller was on duty, the acting Executive Chef John de Meyer having the day off.  It appears that the previous Executive Chef Andrew Odendaal had left suddenly recently.  I didn’t know any of the chef names.

Having seen such a focus on seafood at The Waterfront, I was surprised that there were so few fish dishes on the menu. The Dinner Menu has a subtitle which I have never seen on a menu before: ‘prepared by our well qualified chefs‘!   ITurbine Pork Belly Whale Cottage chose the slow roasted sage and mustard pork belly with braised red cabbage, garlic mash, mustard sauce, and poached pears (R125).   Waitress Vuvu was sweet and gentle, bringing butter to the table, followed after some time by two slices of bread, of which she did not know the name initially, but then remembered that it was ciabatta.  The dish was brought to me, and I asked that it be placed on a table with better light, so that I could photograph it.  One of the two slices of belly had fallen on its side on its journey from the kitchen, so we tried to lift it up, but it was determined to lie on its side.  The waitress wanted to try her hand at the plating, but I requested her to send it back to the chef to fix it, which he did, so that the photograph could be taken.  Candice brought the plate back, but had not been present when I tried to photograph it initially. I walked back to my table after taking the photograph, and she asked me if she should bring the plate of food to my table, a most astounding question, I thought! My reply made her burst out laughing at me in the full view of the other patrons, and was completely uncalled for and unprofessional.  The menu I had asked to be kept at the table had been removed, and I asked her where the red cabbage was, finding it hidden underneath all the other ingredients. a shame, as all the other element were yellow and cream in colour, so that the red cabbage colour was lost to the plating.  For me the plate looked like a pastry, with the squiggly white lines of sauce on top.  It was a weird combination of ingredients, and the sage, mustard, and the garlic in the mash could not be tasted!

Other main courses include sun-dried tomato and cream cheese chicken surprise (R115), beef fillet ‘bernaise‘ (sic) (R185), fresh grilled line-fish with asparagus and tempura prawns (R145), Karoo lamb chops (R155), grilled slow aged beef sirloin (R135), and slow roasted Peking Duck (R185).  Starters offered include oysters (R23 each); a soup of the day; spicy baby calamari and chorizo; a creamy Parmesan and pesto white wine mussel pot;  smoked springbok and Parmesan carpaccio; pear, Parma ham and gorgonzola salad;  and four other salads, none of the starters costing more than R85.  Desserts mostly cost R55, and I liked the description of the Dutch apple bake. Granadilla pulp panna cotta, a fynbos honey crème brûlée, a summer sorbet selection, and chocolate brownie are also available.

I spoke to Candice afterwards, and asked her why she had laughed at me, and she apologised with words to the effect that she was sorry if it offended me.  I told her that it was uncalled for.  She said that she was smiling at me with the other patrons sitting close by!  She then became worried, returning to ask if she could get me something else, perhaps implying on the house, but that is not my style, and it was odd, given that she had not admitted to making an error. I asked Candice for a senior duty manager, but she told me that she was the most senior person on duty!   I decided to skip the dessert, and asked Vuvu for the bill, the payment going smoothly.  Vuvu opened a side door of the restaurant for me to let me out closest to my car.

The following morning I called the hotel GM Peter Dale, who was not available immediately, but he returned my call half an hour later.  I shared the incident with Candice with him, and then I received the response all hotel managers seem to use for complaints: Candice is the most praised staff member amongst guests, she is their Food & Beverage Manager (her colleague told me last night that she is only a F&B supervisor, just like he is, and that she also looks after Housekeeping, not being a Restaurant Manager at all, there clearly being none), and that she had called him on the evening when I was there to ask him for advice of what to do to make me happy! He then turned things around, saying that he had been warned about me as a blogger (yet the hotel would have accepted my accommodation booking)! Surely if his 5-star hotel was so perfect, he would have had nothing to fear!  I was most unimpressed with Dale’s interaction with me, blaming me for Candice laughing at me, and not apologising at all on behalf of the hotel! When I told him that I had a reaction to the dinner, running to the loo a number of times during the night, he laughed, saying that no guest had ever complained about their food in the two years that he has been at the hotel!

The name Island Café is a misnomer, not denoting that it serves light meals, the usual definition of a Café.  The staff service is not supervised, the food is over-ambitious in its combination of ingredients, and amateurish in its presentation.  It does offer value for money however.  It appears that its only patrons are in-house hotel guests! The Turbine Hotel & Spa does not appear to value walk-in restaurant guests, acting like a hotel and not having regard for its restaurant and its patrons!

 Island Café, The Turbine Hotel & Spa, 36 Sawtooth Lane, Thesen Island, Knsyna.  Tel (044) 302-5745.  www.turbinehotel.co.za.  Twitter: @TheTurbineHotel

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com  Tel (021) 433-2100, Twitter:@WhaleCottage  Facebook:  click here