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Tasting (and eating) the stars with Dom Pérignon

Vibrant

The idea of an extensive tasting menu with Champagne to wash it down all the way was more than daunting. And I was only too relieved that I didn’t have to pay for it, at R3800 for two, even if some of the courses were being shared.

But once that price was broken down, and more to the point once we had enjoyed a magnificent seven-course dinner matched with no less than Dom Pérignon, a bit of mental arithmetic did make the price seem a tad more palatable.

But wait, there’s more, as the infomercials voice-over man likes to say. Dom Pérignon retails for about R1400 (ouch, I know) a bottle. A top restaurant such as the Greenhouse, where we were for a long, lovely evening last week, would normally times that price by three. Yikes, I know. With that in mind, R3800 for two – which halves to R1900 for one – seems, if not exactly cheap, not quite as frightening a financial hurdle to climb mentally while you’re trying to focus on your foie gras and tiradito.

But wait – and there’s the voiceover man again – there really is more, or rather, less. Because Cellars-Hohenort GM Tony Romer-Lee emailed us all the following day to say that, having picked up our slight discombobulation about the price, they’d had a conflab, negotiated a lower price per bottle with Dom Pérignon, and had decided to lob a course, making it a six-course splurge, and drop the price down by R600 to R3200 for two. Which, at R1600 a couple including a bottle of Dom P, given that R1400 retail price just for one bottle, is starting to look like an eminently good deal for a very special occasion – for most of us, the kind you save up for for some time, but for the lucky few, just something you decde to do, because you can. (Or become a food writer.)

Sensual

There’s a very big factor here that we haven’t yet mentioned. This is not just any meal, but six fine courses of the food of the man who in my opinion is the finest chef working at the Cape at the moment. Peter Tempelhoff can put as much flavour in one tiny sliver of food as some chefs cannot quite manage to get in an entire hog on the spit. His modest, softspoken demeanour belies a skill that few chefs possess, even at this level, and quite frankly it was the Dom Pérignon that was having to hold up to the excellence of almost every morsel that was sent out.

This is a dining event for somebody with a generous spirit and something, and somebody, worth celebrating and making a great fuss of. It’s extravagance on a plate, and it’s worth taking time over.

The menu is called The Virtues of Dom Pérignon, which are given as: precise, vibrant, sensual, seamless, complex, fresh, and rhythmic. (More on “fresh” later.) Some of the courses are served individually, on your own plate, while others are served on a plate for you and a partner to share. Therefore, it can only be booked in multiples of two, either for two of you at your own romantic candle-lit table or you and other couples at a longer table. And if you can get your head and pocket around that, it’s one hell of a way to splurge, trust me.

A rundown of those courses:

Seamless

Precise: this was three separate tastes on one plate – langoustine with peach and peas; abalone with yuzu (a tart Asian citrus) and furikake, a fishy Japanese condiment packed with umami, that spike of flavour any great chef seeks; and asparagus with a goat’s butter hollandaise which was undoubtedly the finest hollandaise I’ve yet tasted. Most of all, I adored the abalone and my first taste of furikake, as far as I can remember.

Vibrant: simply described as “essence of summer tomatoes, white asparagus”, I had thought that the part of this two-pronged course that came in a glass was the most delicious thing served all night. Utterly sublime, like the finest chilled consommé full of all sorts of nuances and surprises, including an edible “lime bubble”. The other half, served on a long plate to share, was the dish that changed my mind about the tomato and asparagus. This was kabeljou tiradito (a Peruvian dish similar to sushi but in a spiced sauce) with sweet potato and coriander. Much like the fare you find at Nobu, this was just so decicious that it renders words almost obsolete. If you love fine food, you have to taste this.

Complex

Sensual: Second best combo of the night for me, this was an eggshell filled with a scrummy crayfish custard and an accompaniment of oyster, tuna and soya snow. Mrs M (owner Liz McGrath) happened to mention at ths point that she couldn’t eat oysters, and before I could blink she’d passed hers over to me. You don’t argue with Mrs M.

By now, it needs to be said, a good deal of Dom Perignon had gone down, and if we weren’t yet seeing the stars we were certainly tasting them. The bubbly had matched every morsel perfectly, and perhaps part of the reason for that is that Tempelhoff’s flavours are so refined that such fine Champagne is a natural match.

Seamless: A morsel of warm foie gras on apple with green rooibos and duck stock. (Unfortunately I do eat foie gras,” says Mrs M. “This is mine!”)

Complex: This was the most ordinary of the courses, in a way, but also one of the most delicious. Beautifully cooked roast quail in a surprisingly generous portion, with bacon, parnips and grapes. Complex? Each element was very different, and that’s all it means really.

Fresh: Billed simply as “coconut, lime, vanilla”, this was pure Tempelhoff. Elegant spikes of deliciously fresh flavours and textures contained in a dish that was pure elegance. A half coconut shell, or facsimile thereof, lined inside with a sweetly satisfying pale-as-snow custard, a curl of lime sorbet. That said, this is the dish that they selected to be culled from the now six-course menu, in favour of…

Rhythmic: The trick here is the wooden cheeseboard containing a whole Camembert. Only it isn’t. The Greenhouse’s signature dish, this is in fact a cheesecake, with a pinenut biscotti wafer and pineapple. I’ve had it there before, and I’ll have it again.

I cannot arrange for Mrs M to be seated next to you when you do go, so you’ll have to charm whoever is to your right, although frankly there is quite enough to eat wthout having to sponge off your neighbour.

The Greenhouse is at the Cellars-Hohenort Hotel, Constantia. Call 021 794 2137, e-mailrestaurantres@cellars-hohenort.co.za

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