Very quickly and quietly The Harbour House seafood restaurant at Constantia Nek has been transformed into a fine-dining The Restaurant at The Nek, now making it part of an interesting trio of fine-dining experiences at the pinnacle of Constantia, flanked by Eat Out Top 10 restaurants La Colombe and Chef’s Warehouse Beau Constantia.
As Constantia Nek is my favorite Sunday evening dancing home, my Parisian friend Aurélie Julien and I had a sneak preview recently as to the interior design changes which had been made to the space. Yesterday I was part of a Media Lunch, a coincidental date, as I had been invited by the restaurant’s Marketing Manager Sharlene Lawrence to try the restaurant and to bring a dining partner. I had invited Alex Müller, the owner of Constantia Nek, to join me, and then received an email from Sharlene to ask if it was in order to be part of the Media Lunch scheduled for the same day. It was perfect, all guests seated at tables of two or four.
It was a glorious sunny warm day, there was ample parking (compared to what I am used to on Sundays), and the Graham Beck Brut was waiting as a welcome drink. I was intrigued by the bubbly glasses, very unusual, by Chef & Sommelier, with very discreet branding on the stem of the glasses. The wine glasses are from the same company, as is the cutlery, which was even more surprising the first time ever that I have seen cutlery and glassware come from the same source. I took some photographs before the other guests arrived, and chatted to Sharlene, and Ian Manley, until Alex arrived.
Alex told me about the dinner-and-dance evenings hosted at Constantia Nek, the restaurant which his late parents bought in 1986, one of few good restaurants one dined at in those days, the Mount Nelson for example too. Interesting is that Constantia Nek has become the home of dancing again, to DJ René.
In the Harbour House a Blue Marlin was a decor accessory, but all the marine touches have been removed. I do not like the seating sections in the restaurant, in brown leather, not being contemporary in design, and only functional. The wood top tables too look less elegant, and not befitting a fine-dining restaurant, especially as they are visible without a tablecloth cover, a fine-dining requirement in my opinion. But there are material napkins, branded with the name of the restaurant. Glassware was on the table, with an interesting side plate, almost looking like a taco shell. The plastic woven place mats also do not suit the dining ambiance desired. Walls are covered by small pictures and decorative touches, including buck horns, and many flower and plant illustrations. One new addition is a flower/plant wallpaper section at the far end of the restaurant. Otherwise it retains its spacious white walls and glass doors on the side of the building facing Constantia. Here one can walk out to the herb and vegetable garden with a little fountain feature, and even sit outside, at far more attractive contemporary white tables. Sound-proof panels have been added on the ceiling, and a large carpet in the centre has been added to dampen the noise, which was a complaint of the previous restaurant. Chairs have a Fifties look, with a beige grey upholstery and a dark stained wood structure. A long table seems odd, for a fine-dining experience, unless it is booked by a bigger party. Outside signage still shows Harbour House restaurant name.
A five-course menu printed on very good quality board with gold and black print impressed, in its upmarket look and feel, and in its content. I was given copies of the eight course dinner menu (R820 per person, R1220 with wine pairing), and the three course lunch menu (R320 per person), so I could see that the five course menu we were to be served was a condensed version of the Dinner menu. There is only a tasting menu option for lunch and dinner, with no à la carte option at all, not different to its fine-dining restaurant neighbours. Our additional dining companion was a Praying Mantis.
We were welcomed by Ian, and then by Sharlene, and told about the decor and sound-proofing changes. Chef Dylan said a few words, and then rushed back to the kitchen. I had not ever heard of Chef Dylan before the invitation to attend the lunch arrived. The Manley Communications media statement states that he has worked at Aubergine and at The Roundhouse previously, and in Michelin star restaurants in London, but these are not named. We did not see him again, not even after the meal.
We met the Sommelier Justine, with a Cape Wine Academy and WSET level two qualifications, and she told us that in addition to the Graham Beck sparkling wine, they were serving Zevenwacht Chenin Blanc 2017 and Doran Vineyards Shiraz 2015, both excellent wines. Our designated waitress was Janine, friendly and service-orientated, who had been with the Harbour House Group (now called Life and Brand we were told) for a while, and proud that she had worked her way up in the restaurant industry. She did something no waiter has done before, in apologising each time she needed to ask or say something, as we were inevitably talking. I did find that Janine, and her two male colleagues, still appeared shaky with the menu descriptions when they brought the plates to our table, and for the Beef Tartare dish the descriptions by two waiters for the same dish were quite different. Waitron staff wear a white shirt, black slacks and shoes, and a denim branded apron.
A soft roll (I could not get a better description of it than this) and piped butter (a more classic presentation, with a slight saltiness, good as there are no condiments on the table, my favorite being to add salt to butter) were brought to the table, good but with no fireworks. There is no Amuse Bouche as one might expect in a fine-dining restaurant. I was surprised that for this level of dining that dietary requirements were not requested. When I addressed this with Janine, she took notes, but my Beef Tartare came with tiny onion rings anyway.
Alex remembered a meal he once had at The Roundhouse, cooked for by Chef Dylan, and that it took a long time for the meal to finish. Our starter took about half an hour to be served after the bread had arrived, there being just short of twenty of us at the lunch. The starter was an interesting presentation, a bowl presented on a plate decorated with shells and wild flowers, perhaps picking up the wallpaper and picture decor. Inside the bowl it was hard to see what it was, but we found out that it was deep-fried ‘medium rare’ langoustine, kimchi (fermented cabbage), amazi (an African fermented milk), smoked salmon trout caviar, with Tom Yum jelly cubes, and sesame seeds. We did not get the link between the decoration on the plate alongside the bowl, and the hessian cloth underneath the bowl also did not make sense, unless it was to prevent the bowl from sliding on the plate. Not every ingredient in each dish is specified in the menu.
Interesting is that we alternated between meat and fish dishes, but it did not detract from the meal. It meant that we had a glass of the Chenin Blanc and the Shiraz on the table, and alternated in drinking these as per our served dish. I loved the Beef Tartare, with roughly ground Karan beef, in ‘Rooikrans coal oil’, this not being explained to us other than that it was all at the bottom underneath the beef. Puffed rice gave the dish a fabulous crunch and texture, and to it was added English mustard mayonnaise, sesame seeds, onion rings, lemon, and an interesting-sounding caper and apple jam, which may have been incorrect information from a waitron, this ingredient not being mentioned on the menu. I could not taste any caper. The dish presentation was very good.
Our third course was spiced hake (declared fresh by Janine, but Alex knows his fish and he believes that it may have been frozen), with Chermoula (a North African marinade and relish used to flavour and marinade seafood, Wikipedia informs), organic carrots (which we were told came from the garden outside but Alex told me that this is not correct), chopped cashew nuts, and carrot purée. It was topped with pea shoots, a very attractively presented dish. It had a strong salty taste, the only dish to taste over-salted. I missed fish cutlery for this course.
The fourth dish was Springbok loin, prepared medium rare, with baby beetroot, deep-fried kale, blue berries (Alex questioned the taste match of this fruit), turnip mash, and sprinkled with beetroot powder. The taste was excellent, but I found it difficult to photograph, with the dark meat and dark beetroot not giving any colour contrast on the plate. I used Alex’s photograph, giving a better definition and representation of the ingredients in the dish.
The piece de resistance for me was the dessert, Amarula and white chocolate mousse, feuillantine (a French biscuit), litchi snow brought to the table smoking, green tea soil, and a coconut sorbet, an all-white dish but perfect in being served in a black bowl, a dramatic and very tasty end to the meal, with which came coffees we had requested.
The eight-course dinner offers savoury vetkoek with a snoek and mackerel pâté, roasted cauliflower with grapes and capers, and a naartjie sorbet with walnuts and gooseberries in addition to our five-course meal described above.
The standard three-course Lunch Menu is very different, at R320 for the following courses, here a choice being offered:
# Starters: Pickled ox tongue, honey mustard, nasturtium, celeriac; butternut velouté, pumpkin seed pesto, spinach and smoked cheese samosa; or citrus-cured Trout, horseradish, dill, and a whole-wheat blini.
# Mains: Karoo lamb neck, green peas, confit tomato, black garlic and ‘kayangs’ (sic) crust; spiced hake, rainbow carrots, chermoula, parsley, cashew nuts; or organic chicken, baby leeks, potato bake, and roasted chicken vinaigrette.
# Desserts: walnut, naartjie, cheesecake, gooseberry and basil; soufflé of the day; or local cheeses and preserves.
It is worth trying the new The Restaurant at The Nek, Constantia residents now having a new fine-dining experience to try. I found the furnishings to be incongruent with the fine-dining standard of Chef Dylan’s food, and the waitron staff needs far more training in terms of dish ingredient information. The menu could be more descriptive and request dietary requirement information, and present the chef’s philosophy on fresh ingredients, seasonality, and sourcing distance. Our three-hour lunch was an enjoyable experience, with good food, wines, and company.
The Restaurant at The Nek, 1 Hout Bay Road, Constantia Nek, Cape Town. Tel (021) 795-0688 www.constantianek.co.za Twitter:@AttheNek Instagram:@restaurantatthenek
Chris von Ulmenstein, WhaleTales Blog: www.chrisvonulmenstein.com/blog Tel +27 082 55 11 323 Twitter:@Ulmenstein Facebook: Chris von Ulmenstein Instagram: @Chris_Ulmenstein