It’s a bit like having lunch with the Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey. You wonder if the staff must get into huddles of confusion and consternation somewhere in the wings as they try desperately not to embarrass her ladyship while she’s entertaining guests for lunch.
But this is not the Yorkshire pile where television’s marvellous Edwardian shenannigans unfold for our bewitched entertainment. This is a pile much closer to home – the Cellars-Hohenort Hotel in mink-and-grapes Constantia, where hotelier Liz McGrath has reigned for something like two decades and where everything runs like the clocks summoning the servants in the downstairs Downton Abbey kitchen, despite the inestimable chances of something, anything going wrong.
There’s a sense of imperviousness about the Cellars-Hohenort, as if the outside world can do what it may but nothing will ruffle these refined feathers. It’s a style and an attitude that comes from Liz McGrath, who rules with genteel reserve and a charm that comes from a life steeped in fine things. More than this, an appreciation of what fine things mean, so that you can walk into her hotels (she also has The Marine in Hermanus and The Plettenberg) and enter a world removed. You feel you’re in another place, even another time.
But make no mistake, none of this merely happens. Everything in this hotel today is as spick and span as it was a decade ago and years before that. Maintenance here must be a fright – it’s two old piles transformed into one, with vast, perfectly groomed grounds, and keeping everything perfectly shipshape is a never-ending task.
Not content with merely having all this and sitting back and enjoying it, McGrath has always striven to make her restaurants among the best there are in the region, and the various incarnations of the property’s (now two) eateries have won many awards.
The Greenhouse, which is far better known, is where executive chef Peter Tempelhoff shows off his exquisite exactness for flavour, texture and plated-up style. But nearby, in the premises that were once the hotel’s main restaurant, is a similarly lovely venue called the Conservatory where chef Ryan Josten has a chance to shine. And the meal we enjoyed there as a guest of Liz McGrath last week was sublime in every way.
You might think, okay, well he would go to the enth degree, wouldn’t he, given that the boss is sitting right there, and it would be only human to step things up a little, but the likelier scenario would be completely falling apart in the kitchen and much clattering of plates and juddering of teeth going on.
The poor guy had to actually come out and chat to us, more than once, and he seemed remarkably calm and collected. But McGrath has that effect on people too.
Ever chintzy, with hints of garden everywhere in the interior, this hotel is an oasis. Even in Constantia, other grand houses in the vicinity seem to pale somewhat in its presence. There are roses everywhere, camphors, camellias and clivias, and a bit of Constantia comes into the restaurant, notably in the presence of a magnificent three-century-old oak that has its own room in the Conservatory, spreading itself abundantly above the rafters as if to remind us of how fleeting our time here will be in the greater scheme of things.
We were being shown the new winter a la carte menu at the Conservatory, and first up was a silky soup of Jerusalem artichoke with braised beef tortellini, a luxurious amouse bouche. You knew instantly that this was going to be no shadow of what was going on up at the Greenhouse, and that venue, under Tempelhoff, I consider to be the best restaurant at the Cape. So no pressure or anything, chef Josten.
Says Liz as we savour the amouse bouche: “Ryan is very special. They all aspire to be Peter Tempelhoffs – these dishes creep in and you have to slap them down. But Ryan is bringing out his own style and his own identity. He’s not sitting in the shadow of Peter Tempelhoff.”
And there’s the key to what is going on at today’s lunch: The man has proven himself and been given his lead to show his own true colours. And nothing flags from them on.
Soufflé – it’s something I am nervous of doing as a cook, at least for guests, and it’s a brave chef who brings one out with this kind of pressure. Never mind me, no less than gourmet guru Michael Olivier is sitting to Liz’s left, and he’s an award-winning restaurateur as well as, latterly, a genial and watchful observer of and commentator on the culinary scene. The soufflé is double-baked Underberg cheese, his signature, and is topped with Parmesan shavings. It comes with a beautiful little jug of cheese-kirsch sauce and is divine. Sure, double-baked means less likely to flop, but if that bothers you, it doesn’t me. It’s the outcome that counts.
I did not taste the octopous carpaccio but Liz’s looked so lovely that I photographed it. Next came the catch of the day, which was white stumpnose, and just look at it in the picture. Little romanesco cauliflower florets looking like tiny Machu Picchus blanched bright green, a bisque packed to the hilt with flavours of the sea, and fish perfectly cooked.
The alternative main course was Martha’s Cape Malay beef bobotie and Liz gave me a taste of hers, served in a Le Creuset-like cocotte (a faux one, fraction of the price, she happily pointed out), and easily the most delicious bobotie I’ve tasted.
I did stay for a serving of French-style apple tart – thinnest-possible slivers of caramelised apples with puff pastry and marzipan and Cognac ice cream. Gorgeous, the only slight hiccup being the stringiness of the slivers of peel on them, which looked nice but were awkward to eat.
The alternative was a milk, honey and almond parfait which, when I saw it, I immediately regretted not having ordered.
Lunch with her ladyship ends too soon but, like the shadows scurrying in the wings like so many scullery maids and kitchen boys at Downton Abbey, for some of us, work was calling.
The Conservatory, Cellars-Hohenort Hotel, Brommersvlei Road, Constantia 021 794 2137
First published in The Sunday Independent July 2012