The camphor trees at Vergelegen were planted 310 years ago, and are our country’s oldest trees.  Five of these trees have been declared National Monuments, and are expected to live another 150 – 200 years, the estate’s website predicts.  With history surrounding the restaurant, its interior design, and food and wine offering are classic yet state of the art!

There were two reasons why trying out new restaurant Camphors at Vergelegen was a must: its interior design was done by Christo Barnard, who also did the striking interior of Pierneef à La Motte, and its new award-winning Chef PJ Vadas.  Lunch yesterday at Camphors at Vergelegen, to celebrate my dad’s 97th birthday two days prior, was a perfect choice for this special occasion.

Previously the Lady Phillip’s restaurant popular amongst Somerset West residents for a light lunch and teas, Camphors at Vergelegen has been completely renovated and upgraded, with the thatch roof redone, the floor tiled in high gloss black tiles, curtains in grey/white/black stripes added, couch seating in silver/grey in addition to black-framed chairs with white fabric, crystal chandeliers, Persian carpets, and framed mirrors give the restaurant interior a stylish look, and a lovely romantic smell of thatch. The terrace outside has been extended, and a roof cover protects the tables from rain and wind in part, with a cooling spray, the gusty south-easter playing havoc with our menus and threatening to blow over our glasses yesterday. The outside tables are stylish square glass-top, at which white chairs in a net fabric with silver frames and legs are extremely comfortable, as if one is sitting on soft leather.  The glassware is by Bormioli, and the sparkling wine glasses in particular are elegant.  Cutlery is by Hepp Exclusiv, still shiny new. A black net weave place mat, and a side plate with a material serviette finish off the table decor, without any flowers. The Peugeot salt and pepper grinders are only brought out when the starters arrive. Sixty guests can be seated inside and outside. One looks out onto a massive camphor tree, with an owl nesting in it, Chef PJ said, some palms, and very old oak trees.  Peacocks prance through the garden.

Chef PJ Vadas joined The Roundhouse when it opened four years ago, and the restaurant made the Eat Out Top 10 list twice in this period.  Having qualified at Warwick’s Chef School in Hermanus, and a dad owning Pembury’s in Knysna, Chef PJ headed to London, in search of employment at the restaurants of his chef hero Gordon Ramsay, whom he had seen on a TV cooking show.   He was given an opportunity to start at the bottom at Ramsay’s Petrus restaurant, and also spent time at the Connaught Hotel in London, and at Moulin de Mougins, working with Chef Roger Vergé on the French Riviera. He worked for a Ramsay restaurant in New York,  and returned to Cape Town four years ago.  I met Chef PJ for the first time about a month ago at Burrata, as I have never been to The Roundhouse on principle, due to the owner’s arrogance.  It was a delight therefore that Chef PJ came out of the kitchen, with pencil on his ear, to welcome us, to tell us about the herb garden and his kitchen, and about his menu.  Even more exciting was the invitation to visit his kitchen, an extremely organised and neat space, well kitted out in equipment, and spacious enough for the team of six. Founder of the SA Chefs’ Association Garth Stroebel was appointed earlier this year as a consultant to Vergelegen for its new restaurants, The Stables having opened a few months ago, and he dictated the kitchen design. The kitchen has a chef’s table which will soon be available for eight guests at a time.  Over the table is an unusual chandelier made from cooking spoons. Chef PJ is focusing on sourcing supplies locally, but said that condiments such as soy sauce are still imported. He does not use imported foie gras nor scallops. He sources meat and eggs from Farmer Angus, and herbs and vegetables from Steve the Magic Man.

Christo Dyzel is the Restaurant Manager, having moved across from Indochine to join the new restaurant. The staff is new, and Tony and a colleague moved with Chef PJ from The Roundhouse.  Their staff is generally well-trained, being the home of service training company Let’s Sell Lobster, and winning the Eat Out Best Service Award in 2011.   Christo came to check that all was to our satisfaction every few minutes, and brought complimentary glasses of Vergelegen Brut MMV 2007 (R200 per bottle) to the table, a blend of 40% Pinot Noir and 60% Chardonnay, all grapes grown on the wine estate. Of the 5000 bottles produced, 1000 are released annually, giving the balance of the bottles a longer time on the lees, the 2007 having had 24 months.

The menu is a paper one, which will be placed in classy soft black leather covers as soon as they arrive, as will be the winelist.  The menu choice is simple: choose two courses for R250, and three courses for R350. A six-course tasting menu costs R550, and a 6-course tasting menu paired with wines R750. Tony brought Portuguese-style Bacalao fritters on a saffron sauce on a slate plate to the table as an amuse bouche, unusual in its content and striking in its colour, with ciabatta and baguette presented in a wooden box.  I tried the starter of asparagus and watercress velouté, with a Farmer Angus egg slow-poached at 64°C for 8 minutes, and a parmesan crisp and pea shoots, served in a most beautiful black ceramic bowl by ceramicist Diana Ferreira.  Other starter options are steak tartare with smoked bone marrow and avocado purée; lamb tongue carpaccio with braised lamb belly; pork hock and chicken terrine; miso-cured yellow tail with sweetbread; and Buffalo Ridge mozzarella with aubergine purée, and elderflowers.

Main courses are Panga with chorizo, octopus and caper butter; beautifully plated Trout, oysters, cauliflower and pickled cucumber, which my dad proclaimed to be the best he had ever tasted in his 97 years! (right); porcini risotto with goat’s cheese; grass-fed beef sirloin and tongue; slow roasted pork belly; and duck breast smoked in hay, confit leg, pea purée and braised lettuce, which came with a portion of chips fried in duck fat (left).

A surprise pre-dessert was served in an oval glass, with refreshing layers of chopped pineapple, yoghurt, and pineapple granite, with a coconut tuile.  My dad’s dessert plate of Swiss Felchlin chocolate and crispy coconut dacquoise with chocolate ice cream, was decorated with a birthday message.  My mother enjoyed her refreshing Rose and blackberry mille-feuille with mulberries.  Other dessert options are Nectarine and almond tart; raspberry soufflé; and South African cheese toasties with preserved and pickles.  The dry cappuccino request was perfectly executed, and it was accompanied with mini chocolate and nut muffins.

The 6-course Tasting Menu has smaller tasting portions of a number of the items on the A la Carte menu, paired with Vergelegen wines.  The wine list only offers Vergelegen wines, with a choice of the Premium range (very reasonably priced R33 – R37 per glass/R100 – R110 per bottle), the Reserve range (R60/R180 – R77/R230), and the Flagship Range (by the bottle only, R260 – R360, and R900 for the Vergelegen ‘V’ 2008).

Christo was at great pains to emphasise that the restaurant is less than a month old, and that they will only officially launch in February.  The service generally was very good, and the food excellent.  The cost of the food (yet including three surprise extra small courses), and being restricted to a choice of two, three, six, or seven courses, may make Camphors at Vergelegen a special celebration restaurant.  With Chef PJ Vadas at the helm in the kitchen, the service, reasonable prices for the award-winning Vergelegen wines, and classy interior, the restaurant is sure to become an Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant contender.  Paying an entrance fee to the estate seems very old-fashioned, and this income surely is not needed by its owners Anglo American! It may be a deterrent, as the security staff do not explain that it allows one to see all the estate’s facilities, only offering a map brochure if one asks for it.

Camphors at Vergelegen, off Lourensford Road, Somerset West.  Tel (021) 847-1334. www.vergelegen.co.za Lunch Wednesday – Sunday, Dinner Friday and Saturday.  Twitter: @PJVadas  R10 entrance fee to Vergelegen.

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