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A scintillating spicy spread

The splendid curry buffet at the Ocean Terrace, Oyster Box Hotel, Umhlanga

Travelling all the way from Cape Town to dive into the splendid curry buffet at the Oyster Box may seem an extravagance, but if that’s what it takes to find the most superb such spicy spread I’ve encountered anywhere, I swear I’d do it again.

In truth, that’s not why we headed to Umhlanga. We were on a holiday that also included Hilton, Durban’s North Beach and Ballito in KZN, Port Elizabeth and Plettenberg Bay, and had not even planned to try the curry buffet there, only the elegant and deservedly celerated Grill Room. But my search for the best in curries in a country that has very many Indian restaurants but far too few worth writing home about had finally found a place that seriously pressed all the right buttons, even the button that says ‘more please’ because this is the kind of buffet where you can well and truly stuff yourself.

It had to be hundreds of kilometres from home, which if nothing else gives me plenty to bang a drum about endlessly until someone at the Cape follows suit. Maybe the Red Carnation group’s Cape hotel, the Twelve Apostles, would care to bring us this delicious slice of Durban spice?

But first, the Grill Room. This was surprisingly smaller than I had expected and, like every nook and cranny of this glorious hotel, gorgeously decorated and furnished. It’s about as five-star as a five-star venue can get, and both of its restaurants are out of the top drawer.

The Grill Room offers a posh menu to pease a well-travelled palate, from oysters Rockefeller, kataifi prawns, Mozambican crayfish and prawn Nacional or Spanish baby squid to Etude de Canard, snails or an hors d’oeuvres trolley of cold starters from their vintage carousel. How delectably old-fashioned is that.

For the main event, there’s tea-smoked Norwegian salmon, owner Bea Tollman’s famous prawn Stroganoff (a delight), grilled langoustines, plain grilled or pistachio-dusted crayfish, lemon roasted chicken supreme, duck ‘a la peach’, pork ‘hemel en aarde’, springbok loin, rack of lamb with a herb crust and lamb’s kidney, braised oxtail and a classic sirloin Cafe de Paris. It’s your old-time grill room menu with a slew of updates but nevertheless respect for the old traditions of a good hotel kitchen.

We started with a wild mushroom tarte tatin with sauteed mushrooms and beetroot mousse, and Mozambique prawns wrapped in kataifi pastry, both good if not ‘wow’ dishes. Our main course choices of the duck a la peach and the fillet Bearnaise were excellent, the fillet supremely tender and perfectly sauced. The duck was confit leg and seared breast dusted with fivespice and served with a roasted peach and honey sauce, not overly sweet and a good complement to that lovely Chinese spice blend.

With some disappointment we decided to eschew desserts, which was a tough call given that an expert waiter was deftly making crepes Suzette at a trolley at a nearby table. They offer, for the record, Bea’s famous cheesecake, gingerbread and butter pudding, a lemon curd parfait, creamy rice pudding and that classic Suzette. I still regret nor having ordered it – it wouldn’t have killed me.

Still, maybe that was one reason why there was so much space for curry the following night. The Ocean Terrace is the most beautiful room, long, wide and buttressed with white-painted lattice and wicker, making this a wonderfully colonial room, and before you knock that as elitist, this only means a colonial style of architecture and decor introduced by British immigrants in places such as India, South Africa and Kenya. Whatever ills Victoria’s empire can be blamed for, and they are manifold, this kind of style is not one of them, and we ought to cherish it. (Imagine Cape Town without broekie lace…)

This is a place where you can take a group of hungry friends or family for a special celebration or just to chill out having a fabulously spicy old time. The buffet is set up at one end of this vast space, in gleaming tureens which spill aromatic odours as you pile on plate after plate. Ideally, take small portions each time, or otherwise do what most customers do and try three or four tidbits of different curries all on one plate.

There are all the requisite chutneys, atchars and sambals and plenty more, some of them less common than others. This is not a place for the squeamish of palate or those who cannot handle a bit of heat. This is for the rest of us, those who cringe when the spice-shy moan about anything that remotely singes their tender tongues.

It’s all set along the beautiful coast with its red-and-white garlanded lighthouse that’s still in operation. Before your dinner, or afterwards, do not miss the fabulous Lighthouse Bar on the top floor, all decked out in browns and reds to mirror the lighthouse out of the window.

The only thing I do not adore about this hotel and its wonderful restaurants is that it is where it is, and not on my own doorstep. They say KZN has no good restaurants? They need their heads read. Its criminal that at least one of these venues never seems to make the annual restaurant awards. Me, I’d opt for the Ocean Terrace and that killer buffet.

The Grill Room and The Ocean Terrace, Oyster Box Hotel, Umhlanga 031 514 5000

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