In 1899, war came to the Cape when, that October, troops began disembarking from great ships that had come from England to sort out the little Boer problem. They weren’t going to be here for long, they felt sure, and anyway, their officers could look forward to idling in the city’s grand new hotel when matters of battle weren’t entirely pressing. Or at least en route home a few weeks later. But the war, once reality had bitten, was to churn on until 1902.
More than a century later, the Nellie, as we who know and love her do call her, still resides in pink splendour at the top end of the Company’s Garden. The Pink Lady was the toast of the town right from the start, and has always attracted the well-heeled and the famous. Even in the early Boer War years, the young Winston Churchill took a room there where he wrote war reports for the Morning Star, decades before his greater fame was to come to him and to the world.
Comfort, grace, fuss, bomhomie, wine, food … and the Nellie has always played a key role in the kind of table you could set before a king, right here in the colonies. Princes and queens have always known a thing or two about style and how things should be done, and such arbiters of the best cuisine have always been seen in the hotel’s corridors and dining halls. For decades, the Mount Nelson Grill Room - the ‘Nellie Grill’ – was the pinnacle of fine dining in the Mother City.
For the posher strata of Cape Town, the Nellie Grill was where your anniversaries and landmark birthdays would be celebrated with oysters and Champagne, Chateaubriand and claret, Pears Belle Helene and Constantia noble rot, and dancing till the early hours.
It is a way of living which almost inevitably had to change as we passed through the dark apartheid years, through the furnace and into the light. Perhaps the hands of time and fate imposed a death sentence on the old Nellie Grill, but by the mid-Nineties it had closed its doors to be replaced, in another oart of the hotel, by the Cape Colony, a simpler yet still gracious restaurant that tried to retain a sense of class and timelessness whle also being a more modern space with a menu and slightly less fussy style to appeal to a new generation.
Makeovers always worry me. They happen for a reason. And that reason, usually, is that whatever there was before hasn’t been working all that well, and the management has decided to chuck everything out and started again. It worried me when I first visited the Cape Colony in 1994, before it even opened. I was invited by then MD Nick Seewer and executive chef Garth Stroebel to interview the British artist Simon Brady, who was busy painting the trompe l’oeil of a colonial Table Mountain scene, and to tuck into many lunch courses showing off Garth’s intended menu. The artwork was as magnificent as Stroebel’s food. The Cape Colony went on to win an entire Fleur de Lie-clad wall full of awards and acclaim throughout the cuisine-conscious world.
But time has moved on again, and here we are back at the dear old Nellie for another meal in another new restaurant. The Planet bears the same name as the successful Planet Bar adjacent to it. It is in the same space as the Cape Colony, Brady’s mural having been moved into the adjacent function room where delegates and secretaries will think it to be some relic of the hotel’s earlier days. One day, when the old dear has become the Protea Mount Nelson Resort Hotel & Wellness Centre, they will paint a scene of vines and cherubs over it and put it in the pool room.
I do sometimes wish the Nellie management had taken a longer view and kept the old Grill while modernising it, rather than chuck it out entirely. The Pink Lady is almost expected to lead the way, having for so long boasted the city’s premier dining establishment. It’s understandable that the management must somewhat ruefully have watched
in the past two decades as all manner of upstarts elsewhere in the city have taken the baton and run with it, creating ever fancier and trendier restaurants that win all the awards until the next upstart happens along and becomes flavour of the year.
So the Nellie resorted to revamps and relaunches, just like the common people. The Cape Colony did seem to have slipped down the rankings a little in recent years, so it is understandable that the management felt they’d better do something about it. Adjacent is the new Planet, which has been a singular success, becoming both trendy and famous and attracting posh people, movie stars and even princes, just like the old Grill once did. So yes, why not stick with the theme, so that now as you approach the restaurant there are stars above you and beneath your feet, and the effect does create an instant sense of occasion.
Then you walk into the former Cape Colony space and some of that effect dissipates just a ittle, for they could not bring themselves to put a starscape on the ornate ceiling, other than in the smaller bay room. This is the Nellie after all. One does not want to be seen to be gauche or gaudy.
In the end, it all comes down to the food and the chef, so whether stars spangle and dangle about your head or for that matter geishas or dervishes whirl between the tables, it’s what’s on the plate that counts. And chef Rudi Liebenberg is just the kind of chef that the Nellie needs right now. Many chefs can create dishes that sound wonderful in their menu descriptions and look pretty on the plate, but Liebenberg is one of those whose food, once you put fork to mouth, is
even better than its looks and menu claims suggest. And I don’t doubt that, come awards time, the gongs will strike at the Nellie once again.
With topdrawer service and a splendidly keen sommelier fussing over us, we were treated to a sublime meal with wines that demanded fabulous flavours and textures. The terrine of quail and duck was firmly compacted, rich in flavour, delicate in texture. I did not try the slow-cooked free range egg with local cured ham, mature gouda and a pinotage reduction, having become jaundiced to the notion of the sous vide method being applied to an egg, but I might try that next time around.
The pork cheeks and belly was glorious. Great to see cheeks on a menu when the entire world has gone pork belly mad. The flame-grilled beef fillet came with wonderful mini fondant potatoes that you might have mistaken for melting bone marrow.
And desserts … one is called simply ‘Chocolate..……’, followed by precisely eight dots. There’s nothing more to be said – just look at the picture. Chocolate multiplied in many ways. My dessert was ‘the nutty one’, and equally good.
There are various menu options, including a gourmet ‘journey’ and even a pre-arranged chef’s table in the kitchen, and most of all there is the exceptional wine sense and charm of sommelier Carl Habel, whose expertise and humour added significantly to a lovely evening at the Nellie.
The stars of stage and screen will surely continue to grace the old girl and her new Planet restaurant, until such time as the gongs fade again and the celebrated actors who go there now have been relegated to guest spots on cooking shows. But may that take many years.
Planet restaurant, Mount Nelson Hotel
Orange Street, Gardens 021 483 1000
First pubished in The Sunday Independent, February 2011