I cannot remember when last I had been to the Cellars-Hohenhort Hotel, it was so long ago, for a dinner at their Cape Malay restaurant, which was previously located in the manor house, where The Greenhouse is now. I found The Greenhouse to be an oasis of freshness and modernity relative to the very dated and old-fashioned Cellars-Hohenhort Hotel, a total contradiction.
The Greenhouse has been operating in the current building for a year or so, having previously been in the space now called The Conservatory restaurant. It appears that the venue change sparked the creativity of Executive Chef Peter Tempelhoff, having moved there two years ago. It was seeing photographs of his work on Twitter earlier this year, Chef Peter being awarded Relais & Chateaux Grand Chef status (one of only two in South Africa), and the restaurant winning number one Eat Out Top 10 restaurant in November that led me to book a table for my birthday dinner last week, with very high expectations. Disappointing therefore was that booking a table was a problem, as the restaurant phone appeared to be ringing non-stop post 20 November, and so the hotel switchboard person asked me to wait longer or to call back, with arrogance. When I asked for GM Tony Romer-Lee, to see if he could assist with the booking, my booking was quickly made. I only gave my first name and cell number, yet Tony had worked out who the booking was for, and wrote an e-mail a few days ahead of the booking, apologising for his absence from the hotel on the evening of our booking. Despite this confirmation e-mail by Tony, an assistant called on the day of our dinner, to confirm the booking. I was surprised to receive the call, and was called by my surname, not pronounced correctly, and with the wrong title, so I invited her to call me Chris, which she clearly found difficult to do. She spoke a very high-level formal English, saying ‘we shall see you tonight’, and once again I felt a degree of arrogance in her exchange with me. I was therefore very nervous about the actual dinner, given these two annoying interactions.
It is difficult to find the hotel, and we came from the Hout Bay side, knowing we had to turn off somewhere on the road leading to Kirstenbosch. The hotel does not offer to send directions. None of its literature contains an address. It is hard to see the signage when it gets dark, and there are a number of turns to take to find it. The boom was closed and the very old security guard took his time to come to the car, seeming surprised about our arrival, and asking what we wanted! He let us in immediately when we said we had come for dinner, but had no name list to check, and we did not have to complete any form, so one wonders why there is security. We were not told by him where The Greenhouse is located, and we had to check the signage on the building. There was no staff in the parking area to guide one, surprisingly not alerted by the security guard. Inside the building a faux fire warmed up two staff who showed us the way to The Greenhouse. It was going to the bathroom later that alerted me to the contrast in modernity of the restaurant relative to the very old-fashioned English-style drapes and furnishings of the Hohenhort Manor House, forming part of the 53-room five star Relais & Chateaux The Cellars-Hohenhort hotel. Previously part of Klaasenbosch Farm, awarded to Hendrik Ten Damme by Simon van der Stel in 1693, the farm house was transformed by its owner Arnold Spilhaus into a manor house after buying the farm in 1906. Liz McGrath bought The Cellars in 1991, and turned the country guest house into the Relais & Chateaux hotel twenty years ago. Two years later she bought The Hohenhort Hotel, and united the two properties. Although one does not see it at night, the property is endowed with different gardens, the Herb Garden benefiting the kitchens. Four varieties of table grapes are also grown.
The restaurant space is relatively small, only seating about 45, and divided into two with mirrored pillars. As one enters the restaurant there is a lounge section, but we did not see anyone use it at all, feeling like a wasted space. An interesting decor touch is many ceramic rabbits on the windowsills, with the odd watering can, and small trees in pot plants, no doubt to create the greenhouse look, but the rabbits do not quite fit the theme. Walls are painted in a light grey inside the restaurant, with green fern wallpaper in the lounge, which pattern is replicated on the back of the comfortable grey upholstered chairs. The table has no salt or pepper, but there was a vase with a beautiful orange rose and greenery. The Greenhouse clearly is in part an addition to the manor house, with a glass roof, which does not add value for dining at night, and must be a nightmare to keep clean. It also adds heat to the restaurant during the day, and I had to ask for a window to be opened. The design of the addition has become the logo for the restaurant. A lamp stands at each table, a little American touch. A thick tablecloth is covered with a white one, and the table is laid with Eetrite cutlery. Tables are very close together, meaning that the restaurant has a cosy atmosphere, but one can overhear everyone else’s conversations in one’s section. The Relais & Chateaux affiliation dominates the restaurant, in that the staff name badges have the logo and they wear a pin too, the home-made butter has the logo, as do coasters and the menus.
Waiter Lwazi (who was quick to correct the spelling of his name which he saw in my notes!) brought us a complimentary glass of Constantia Brut 2009, a nice touch. I found him difficult to understand, and he had to repeat what he said a number of times. He tried to explain the three menus to us, contained in a cover with the Relais & Chateaux logo and the following introduction: “A beautiful plate of food is eaten with the eyes first”. I chose the 7-course Chef’s Tasting Menu at R575 (with R275 for ‘complimenting’ wines), and my son the 4-course Summer Menu at R450. One can also order a 6-course Sustainable Seafood Tasting Menu at R495 (with an additional R230 for ‘complimenting’ wines). I did not see the rule, but it must have been in the menu, that one may not order two different menus at one table, but the rule was waived on the understanding that my son would have to wait for his courses. The staff wear a tie with ducks, The Cellars-Hohenhort tie design, which they wear with black pants and a grey waistcoat, creating a smart impression. Lwazi was efficient in taking our order, but became relaxed during the evening, stretching in front of me to lay cutlery on two occasions towards the end of the meal, even though there was more than enough space to do so from the other side. I asked for a jug of water for the table, but this was removed after the first glassful was poured. Empty glasses at other tables were not replenished or removed. A delight was the Maitre’d Joshua Crowe, who shared interesting information about working at Reuben’s Franschhoek and at Beluga with me. He is a young gentleman with a bright future, exuding professionalism. He came to check on our table regularly, and seemed very at home in the restaurant, having only worked there for two months. Canapés were brought to the table, consisting of sesame seed crusted prawn toast served with goat’s cheese lollipops on a stick, presented in a glass dish with wheatgrass, the most colourful dish of the evening, as well as chicken and mushroom ballantine, pear chutney, truffle mayonnaise, and an Asian dipping sauce. A selection of breads (cheese rolls, lavosh, baguette, wheat, rye, and crostini) was served in a wooden bowl, with a nasturtium dip and edible soil in a terracotta flower pot, with carrots, pea shoots and mange tout, a further reinforcement of the greenhouse theme, and there it ended.
The Chef’s Tasting Menu started with pan-fried duck foie gras, melt in the mouth deliciousness, and the stand-out course for me, served with raspberry gel, onion marmalade, crispy Asian mushrooms and puy lentils. My son was spoilt with an amuse bouche of crayfish custard and warm celeriac mousse and chives, which was served in an egg shell, a creative presentation, while I had the first course. The second course was Madagascan prawn roulade, served on a beautiful glass plate with cling peach, fermented black bean dressing (too salty for my taste), rice paper tuile, and ponzu snow, a Chef Richard Carstens-like study in liquid nitrogen! I was not keen on the fynbos smoked ostrich tartar for the third course, and was allowed to choose a dish from the other two menus. The oven-roasted rare duck breast, and duck cherry jelly canneloni, was served with cherries poached in Pinot Noir, mash, savoy cabbage, and bergamot-lime jus (salty too). The fourth course was petit poussin served with langoustine, a bacon crisp, sautéed gem lettuce, Vin de Constance gel, enoki mushrooms, and mint pea pureé. The free-range Karoo lamb dish had the Sweet Breads excluded for me, and was served with wild mushroom agnolottio, brown beech mushrooms, pea shoots, broad beans, parmesan velouté, and a (salty) lamb juice.
By far the cleverest dish, and perhaps too clever for some, was the inverted Brûlée, served in the base of a glass filled with strawberry granité, Earl Grey espuma, with salt and green tea on the rim of the glass. One was not told to turn the glass around for the vanilla brûlée. As if this was not enough to chew on already, the seventh course was a ‘camembert’ shaped cheese cake, served on a wooden board with roast pineapple ice cream, pine nut biscotti melba, parmesan, maple crumble, lemon marmalade, and extra virgin olive oil. A final end to the evening was a cutely presented collection of friandise, including truffles, macaroons, and home-made nougat.
Chef Peter came to the table, a nice touch, and told us that he has a Canadian mother and an Afrikaans father, and he speaks with a Canadian accent. He is a gentle and more reserved person. He studied at the Institute of Culinary Arts in Cape Town, and started his career at the Grande Roche Hotel. He has also worked at Quo Vadis and Automat in London, and at Michelin-starred Hambleton Hall and Zafferano. It was at Grande Provence that he earned his first Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant Award, leaving for the McGrath Collection a month after winning the accolade. Chef Peter is proud of the garden on the property from which he can source his seasonal requirements, mainly being rhubarb and herbs. He sources his duck and Karoo lamb from Wild Peacock. He only has a staff of six, with trainees being a welcome addition, he said. He told us that he likes to travel overseas, to find food inspiration there. He also is responsible for Sand at The Plettenberg, and for the two restaurants at The Marine Hotel, and admitted that he has not paid as much attention to them as they deserve, focusing on getting The Greenhouse into the top league, work which clearly has paid off. Chef Peter is justifiably proud of his two achievements, both career highlights for him. One cannot help but feel that Chef Peter and The Greenhouse was short-changed by Eat Out, in winning Top Restaurant, but not Top Chef (the honour went to Luke Dale-Roberts of The Test Kitchen) and not Top Service (the honour went to The Roundhouse). More coverage of the Eat Out awards, in TASTE magazine as a start, also a New Media Publishing magazine, has gone to Chef Luke than to The Greenhouse. The Eat Out awards signal that The Greenhouse may be the best restaurant in the country, but does not have the best chef nor the best service, a contradiction, and the first time that the Top Restaurant has not also received recognition for Service and its Chef. Interesting is that Chef Luke came to dine at the restaurant a week after the Eat Out Awards, probably highlighting the competition between the two chefs.
I had ordered a glass of Groot Constantia Shiraz 2009 (R75), and it appeared fine on tasting it, but I had to return it when I tasted it after it had been poured. I chose The Yardstick instead, the only other red wine by the glass, a limited choice I felt. The Pinot Noir is a joint venture between Chef Peter and ex-Klein Constantia winemaker Adam Mason, we were told, and is a four-star Platter 2010 vintage, at R55 per glass.
I left with a feeling of contradiction about The Greenhouse, a relatively modern space within a terribly old and old-fashioned hotel, that does nothing for the restaurant, that has arrogant hotel staff taking calls and the bookings (this is due to change, Joshua told me, in that he and another restaurant staff member will be the only one staff taking The Greenhouse bookings), that has a waiter who is near-arrogant too and not well-trained, that has typing errors in its menu, that has a terribly old-fashioned bathroom, that does not have an exceptional interior design, and that is only open five nights a week. The food was excellent, except for the over-salted sauces, and the playfulness of the canapé and bread collection dishes lived up to the theme of The Greenhouse, but all other dishes could have been served at any other fine-dining restaurant.
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage