After a closure of a few months for a complete make-over, the old Cape Colony at the Mount Nelson Hotel is no more, and what has arisen in its space is the new Planet Restaurant, based on an extension of the planetary theme of the Planet Bar, opening about three weeks ago.  It gives the restaurant, and the hotel with it, a modern feel worthy of the quality of Chef Rudi Liebenberg’s culinary skills.

For a new restaurant to have so much money thrown at it is unusual, with ads in the Sunday Times costing a fortune, even if they are in black and white, and obviously the decor changes were expensive too.  Therefore it was a surprise that when we tried to make the booking a few days prior to our dinner, it was such a struggle to make it with Emmanuel, one of the Maître d’hôtel.   Chef Rudi has been at the hotel for two years now, but the restaurant staff is refreshingly new.  Restaurant Manager Andreas van Breda moved to Cape Town after a long stint at Claridges in London.   For the first time the restaurant has a sommelier, and they could not have appointed a nicer person than Carl Habel, whom I first met at Myoga, and who remembered my love for Shiraz when he came to say hello, even though he was off duty, a reflection of how good he is at customer service.   He enthused about his new job, and his respect for Chef Rudi, whose focus is on quality produce, and on sourcing local ingredients, which makes it easy for him to pair the Planet Restaurant’s food and wine.   It is hard to believe that the Mount Nelson, one of Cape Town’s top hotels, has never had a sommelier before!   It was lovely to receive the warm welcome at the entrance to the hotel from Osnat Gropper, the concierge, and a Twitter friend.

The interior design was done by DHK Interiors, and they have used a less-is-more decor approach, removing the piano and the old-fashioned Capescape mural (excellent decisions).   As one walks down the passage from the Planet Bar, one notices the panels of strings of blue and clear glass balls, representing the planetary theme, interspersed with massive mirrors with illustrations representing the signs of the zodiac, which is carried into the restaurant itself.   Unfortunately not all twelve signs are represented, so I was disappointed to not see Sagittarius on one of the mirrors, having come for a birthday celebration.  The new restaurant is a clean crisp white space, with a central chandelier and new carpet that echo the planetary theme.  The furniture has been replaced, with brown tables, and velvet-covered cream chairs.  In the centre the seating is leather couches. The tables are covered with boring placemats (for the stature of the restaurant and the hotel it could do with a good quality tablecloth), beautiful cutlery from Hepp Exclusive, good light glassware, and a set of modern salt and pepper grinders from Peugeot, which I had also seen a few days earlier at the restaurant at Delaire Graff.  The planetary theme is extended into the sparkly covers of the winelist, the menu and the billfold, as well as on the inside first pages of the menu and winelist.  

The menu is extravagant, running to many pages, with a few items per page. It is printed on a good quality cream board.  It has an introductory statement by Chef Rudi, and is signed by him, stating: “Our kitchen is all about a journey, a journey with many new and sometimes unexpected variables and it is for this reason that we come back inspired and motivated every day. ….The foundation of our process starts with respect, respect for the ingredient, respect for the process, respect for the end product and respect for the guest.   The majority of our ingredients are sourced locally and prepared using a wide range of modern as well as classical cooking methods”.   An insert offers the “Chef’s Suggestions”.    Two tasting menu options are available, strangely a “Vegan Journey” one listed first, followed by the “Journey”, a non-vegan one, both charged at R380 per person for a minimum of two persons to order, and consisting of six courses each.   Each wine recommendation for the tasting menu is priced separately.  Thereafter the menu has a la carte menu options.   Commendably items on the menu are specially marked with a symbol, reflecting them being vegetarian, vegan and containing nuts, where relevant.

Before we could think of choosing anything,  complimentary glasses of Genevieve MCC were brought to the table, as was a small plate of canapés (duck rillette, salmon and feta, as well as ostrich tartare).  If an amuse bouche is a first presentation of the skills of the chef, then this plateful was a disappointment.   We had to ask for the bread.   Three bread options were offered – ciabatta, country bread (the waiter could not explain exactly what this bread contained) and garlic bread.  Starter options range in price from R65 for a “tomato variation, jelly, cloud, sorbet, greens, basil”, not easy to imagine what exactly is served; to R165 for crayfish ceviche and Namibian red crab remoulade.  Duck and quail terrine, smoked salmon trout, and oysters are also available.  One can also order soup and salads, including a crocodile salad (R90), a menu item from the old Cape Colony menu. 

I chose a cold asparagus soup (R85) as the starter, and it was a surprise to have the plate served with a tower of asparagus mousse topped with thin slices of cucumber.   I have seen ceremonious pouring of soup at a table, but the waiter pouring the soup out of the water glass brought from the kitchen by hand, without it being on a tray or in a prettier container, spoilt what I am sure the chef had intended for the presentation of the dish.  I found the dish very bland. It was served in an interesting soup bowl, with a hole in it for design effect.  The advertised egg yolk was left out of the dish, for no reason.   My partner had a slow-cooked free-range egg with local cured ham and mature gouda, served with a pinotage reduction, which he enjoyed, but commented on the runny egg white.   This dish was on the old Cape Colony menu too, and clearly is a hit, for it to have been retained.   For my main course I chose an extravagant abalone and crayfish dish (R295).   The abalone was tiny, making me feel guilty in having chosen something that was clearly undersized (or alternatively out of a can).   It was cut into two, cooked, coated with herbs and then sauteed in butter, but did not have a distinctive abalone taste at all, the herbs overpowering the usually distinctive taste.  A tiny crayfish tail (more guilt), as well as asparagus spears and sweet corn added colour and taste to the dish, but I missed the velouté advertised on the menu as being part of the dish.   No fish knife was served with this dish.   My partner’s flame-grilled beef fillet was butter soft, but the sautéed mushrooms, potato foam and mini fondants were so badly over-salted that he could not finish them (R170).  Other main course options are a pea risotto (R95); monkfish fillet, chicken, pork cheeks and belly, and mussels and calamari, all costing R150; Karoo lamb (R190); and springbok (R180).   For those able to eat more, there is a choice of six desserts, costing around R65, and two cheese options.   Friandises were served with the excellent foamy cappuccino (R20). 

The 24-page winelist specifies vintages and origin, and is introduced with a page of “Sommelier’s latest discoveries”, which were three Solms-Delta wines: Amalie (R60/R175), Langarm (R35/R155), and Hiervandaan (R70/R310), the serving by-the-glass specified at 175ml, making them expensive.   Five “Methode Cap Classique” 150ml wines-by-the-glass are listed, including Pierre Jourdan Brut (R45), Simonsig Brut Rosé (R50) and Genevieve Brut (R60), and surprisingly, the champagnes Billecart-Salmon Rosé (R320) and Veuve Cliquot (R210) were also listed under this heading!   Ten white and seven red wines-by-the glass, the former ranging from R35 – R65 per 175ml, and the latter ranging from R45 – R75 per glass, are offered.   I was disappointed at the small selection of red wines by the glass, and that none of them included a Shiraz.  The rest of the winelist separates white wines into “Crisp and refreshing”, Fragrant and Floral”, “Rich and Opulent” and “Signature and Cellar”.   Red wines are categorised into “Silky and Smooth”, “Elegant and Fresh”, “Rich and Concentrated”, and “The Great Reserve”.  Unique Vin de Constance and Hamilton Russell Pinot Noirvertical vintage selections are also available, but require big cheque books!   Shiraz options by the bottle include Groote Post Reserve (R270), Waterford Kevin Arnold (R430), Saronsberg (R475), Cirrus (R1020), Hartenberg Stork (R1020), Saxenberg Select (R4435), De Trafford (R760), and Fairview Beacon (R515).   Knowing my love for Shiraz, Carl recommended the Saronsberg 2007, a wine not usually available by the glass.  On tasting, it was acceptable, but it had a taste to it that I did not like, the more I drank of it.  We were not charged for the wine.

Having eaten at The Test Kitchen and Planet Restaurant on two consecutive nights, it is clear that the Planet Restaurant is more of a special occasion restaurant, with the staff smartly and professionally dressed befitting the five star status of the hotel, while the food at The Test Kitchen overall was better.  The service levels were on a par.   The Planet Restaurant still needs time to settle in, and for its quality to be consistent, whether Chef Rudi is on duty or not.  The advertising has not yet offered a return on its investment, as we were one of only five tables in what seemed to be a quiet hotel. Having been on the Eat Out top 20 restaurant shortlist whilst at The Saxon, it will be interesting to see if Chef Rudi can take the Planet Restaurant onto the star top 20 restaurant shortlist for 2011.

Planet Restaurant, Mount Nelson Hotel, 76 Orange Street, Gardens, Cape Town.  Tel (021) 483-1000 www.planetbarandrestaurant.co.za (No menu or winelist on the website, and disappointingly almost no food photographs in the Gallery).  Monday – Sunday dinner only.

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage   Twitter: @WhaleCottage