It takes The Greenhouse at the Cellars-Hohenort Hotel in lush Constantia to cap three years of rediscovering the restaurants of my old home town. Strange how much things change in just a few years. Restaurants come and go, and you find that many have gone. Of those that remain, few are the same. And even at hotelier supreme Lix McGrath’s fine property, I find that much is changed.
Where the old main restaurant was is The Conservatory, so they have to redirect us when we arrive there for dinner and discover that The Greenhouse is in the main building, if the old homestead that used to be the Hohenort Hotel can be called that. This was where we first stayed nearly three decades ago, when fey people belonging to an obscure sect had commandeered the place so that it seemed more like you were renting a room in a fuzzy commune than staying in an hotel.
Then Liz MacGrath took over the Cellars, later added the adjacent Hohenort, melded the properties and redeveloped the Hohenort. While we were away, evidently much revamping went on, and The Conservatory is now a super-light, vast multiple dining room overlooking the paved patio and deeply wooded gardens. So aptly named, and so right for McGrath, who is as English as snowdrops and bluebells and as stylish as a beloved Sanderson sofa.
But now we’re over at The Greenhouse and I am about to discover why Peter Tempelhoff has made such waves since taking the helm of McGrath’s five restaurants. It transpires that Tempelhoff is away at Plettenberg Bay and his head chef, Gerald van der Walt, has been left in charge. I discover next morning that Tempelhoff has been checking on dishes and presentation from afar, using social media to check that the dish looks just so before saying it’s OK to go.
We enjoyed four courses – that is the way here, unless you’re doing the seven-course tasting menus – and when I say that every mouthful was sensational, I am in no way exaggerating. Make no mistake, this is super-world class cuisine and The Greenhouse deserves to be in the annual San Pellegrino world top hundred restaurants, let alone our local national top 10.
Here’s how The Greenhouse works, which is typical of how other eateries in this league at the Cape now work, such as Le Quartier Francais and Rust en Vrede. There are two tasting menus, the Chef’s menu for R575 with an additional R275 a head for paired wines, and the Fish Tasting Menu at R495 a head plus R230 with paired wines. Or go the route we chose, which is to select a dish each from four sections – lightly chilled, somewhat cooked, medium to rare (the main courses) and something sweet. Each section has four choices, and you pay R450 a head. A further two pages of the menu are given to the white and red wines you may choose to pair with your choices.
Before any of our four courses arrived we were pampered with morsels. First, a verdant pot from which two ‘lollipops’ stood proud. They were goat’s cheese lollipops with cranberry jelly, a delicious pop of flavour. Then, a little plate of ballotine of rabbit on brioche, and slivers of pork crackling with carrot spuma. (All the rage, Daisy – a sort of foamy, moussy thing which one day will define our present cuisine as ‘old-fashioned’ in the way that sauce Marie-Rose is Seau Seventies, doll).
The bread basket was a wonder in itself, all manner of things bready, with a clay pot containing spinach and basil mousse and another of gorgeous little crudite, including the cutest carrots you ever did see. Not content to have given us two distinct amuses bouche, Tempelhoff had them send out a third: impeccable decapitaed egg shells containing langoustine in a celeriac custard. I wrote down for the first of several times during the evening: ’10 stars’.
Julie Andrews, in Victor Victoria, would at this point have made an unseen departure having had plenty to eat, but the actual food awaited. My God. Here’s an oblong sliver of artichoke and Parmesan panna cotta surrounded by many tiny morsels. Garlic beignets. Pickled shiitake and enokii mushrooms. Old Brown Sherry jelly (Yes! Obies at the Cellars. Love it.) Our brilliant wine fundi Ashley Thomas asked me how well the Graham beck viognier 2008 went with this and I had to say I had hardly noticed as I was too captivated with the flavours of the food. Di’s prawn and avocado roll came with ‘ponzu snow’, a glorious foaming of liquid nitrogen bringing that Ferran Adria touch. Got to try that at home (imagine your guests’ faces – WTF!)
Vin de Hohenort, a classy noble wine, accompanies the Assiette of Foie Gras, and I am now having to rate things higher than 10 out of 10. It’s roasted with sweet onion, it’s the finest possible mousse, it’s a sliver of terrine with mandarin, and there’s a gorgeous honey-miso glazed brioche and a Vin de Constanc gelee.
Barley malted duck breast is unquestionably the best duck breast I have eaten anywhere, and I often order duck in restaurants. There’s a pastilla of confit leg, a Moroccan-style cylindrical meat pie, cherries, roasted celeriac, cepe puree and a tapioca and lime sauce. With this, Yardstick pinot noir, an independent label made by Tempelhoff with Klein Constantia winemaker Adam Mason. Beautiful wine and yes, pinot noir is great with duck. I had a morsel of Di’s ‘Karan beef head to tail’ which was easily a match for the standard of my duck dish.
Only one of us could manage dessert and I chose the smoked chocolate and peanut gateaux, which earned renewed raptures, but enough gushing already.
The Greenhouse, Cellars-Hohenort Hotel, Brommersvlei Road, Constantia 021 794 2137