Beneath the simplicity of the seasonally inspired menu from executive chef Michael Cooke hides one of the most enjoyable culinary adventures in the Cape winelands. The restaurant climbed to number six in the Top 10 in 2017.
You’ll know you’re in for a treat when the meal begins with an entire experience built around bread. On a winter’s visit that means butter infused with fennel pollen, presented at the table then drizzled with lavender honey harvested on the estate. Spread it liberally on either the lavender brioche or gluten-free seed loaf; both are delicious.
Before the first course arrives, an amuse-bouche sets the scene for the creativity to come. Here the ‘cheese and wine pairing’ offers a delightful interplay of texture and flavour, courtesy of a gruyère-custard cupcake, crispy croquette of cream cheese and a pillow of pecorino. To top it all off? Homemade ‘Niknaks’ that put the moreish originals in their place. Paired with a complimentary taste of the Reserve Chardonnay, it’s a superb introduction to the menu.
The menu is divided into four courses, with a clever design that aligns each dish on a flavour spectrum moving from ‘light and delicate’ to ‘full and richer’.
While the menu changes with the seasons, hold thumbs for the simply titled ‘Free-Range Pork’. Humble on the menu, the plate delivers a delicious ‘sausage’ of ham hock and pork loin embraced by pancetta. Plated with candied baby beetroot, horseradish cream and pear purée, and topped by feather-light crackling, it’s a superb contrast between salty and sweet.
Other first and second courses delve into authentic South African flavours, the likes of which include Malay-pickled kabeljou with amasi and sultanas. Cooke incorporates that local inspiration into the mains offerings too: think coffee-roasted springbok with on-trend celeriac, or East Coast hake with piquant piccalilli. The standout, though, is the duck: the breast is cured and dry-aged, its flesh roasted perfectly pink and its fine-diced skin suitably crisped. On the side come delicious duck sausage, caramelised shallots and a hint of salt from the parsnip chips.
Desserts are just as creative. It’s hard to pass up the chocolate offering here, with a mousse of Ethiopian chocolate paired with sweet potato ice cream and cubes of sweet potato poached in sugar syrup. Malva pudding and a peanut crumble complete the dish.
These are just the highlights; if you have the time and appetite, the 10-course ‘Tour’ offers a taste of all that the kitchen can conjure up.
There’s certainly no shortage of skill and creativity on the plate at Camphors, but perhaps most memorable is that this inspired take on fine dining is done without resorting to parlour tricks: no foams or gelatinous orbs; no smoke and mirrors. In their place are simply intense flavours, the finest produce and a deft touch of artistry on the plate.
Limited to wines from the Vergelegen estate, but with an impressive library of vintages dating back more than a decade. Wine-tasting notes are in-depth and informative, although sommelier and restaurant manager Christo Deyzel is usually on hand to assist with pairings anyhow. One vintage of each release is available by the glass and, happily, even the youngest wines are poured into delicate Luigi Bormioli stemware. Don’t miss out on a glass of the delicious straw wine with dessert.
Expect impeccable service from smartly turned-out wait staff. Formal yet friendly, waiters are adept at explaining the finer points of the edible artistry flowing from the kitchen.
This is a restaurant of two faces. On a fine day the relaxed terrace tables look over the estate’s remarkable gardens and the eponymous 300-year-old camphor trees. Indoors, a brace of fireplaces warm the decidedly formal L-shaped dining room where velvet banquettes and deep couches frame the larger tables.
Remember that all visitors, even those with restaurant bookings, are charged a nominal R10 fee, payable in cash, to enter the Vergelegen estate.
Eat Out critics dine unannounced and pay their own way. Read our full editorial policy here.
The Tour menu at Camphors showcases chef Michael Cooke’s way with farm-fresh ingredients. Incorporating ingredients from the surrounding Vergelegen farm wherever possible, he delights diners with seasonal dishes that are playfully plated and expertly paired with the estate’s fine wines. Homemade breads and interesting butters are served as a precursor, with highlights of mini braaibroodjies and scones, wine-infused butter and a delightful malted cream cheese.
To follow, there’s the cheese-and-wine course, which is as heavenly as it sounds. The playful cheese dish is presented in different textures and tastes: a crunchy pastry pillow stuffed with pecorino, a golden croquette of cream cheese and paprika, and a miniature cupcake made up of creamy gruyère custard and slightly sweet brittle are brought together by home-made Niknaks, toasted cheese dust and port caviar. Served with the chardonnay reserve, the dish works beautifully with the buttery notes of the wine.
The wonderfully textured green sunflower-seed-and-sunchoke risotto follows, which is inventively made with an entire sunflower. The Jerusalem-artichoke purée and a bright taste of quince lift the sunny dish to new heights.
On the seafood front, a potjie is given a French twist and served in a miniature cocotte with a heavenly velouté. The pot is filled with a perfectly cooked piece of kingklip, mussel and scallop, and lifted with the addition of succulent samphire and salty nori. It’s magic when paired with the G.V.B. Flagship White.
A venison dish comes in the form of springbok tataki. Plated beautifully, the meat leaves a salty finish that's offset by the sweet rainbow beetroot accompaniments.
Then a wonderful palate cleanser plays on sweet ice wine, refreshing the taste buds with glorious pops of frozen grapes. Following this is the Forest Floor, a stylishly plated dish comprised of beautifully cooked quail, ham and an earthy umami broth. It’s quirkily served with a chestnut plant with perfect bites of bitterballen-like quail bites that are made to look like chestnuts.
The main meat dish is the Karoo lamb. This intensely colourful dish boasts perfectly cooked lamb, golden crumbed sweetbreads and a succulent piece of lamb neck that is unctuous in every bite. The richness is balanced by salt-baked onions and delicate fynbos. The three-wine flight to pair with this is interesting and delivers in bold flavours.
For pre-dessert, there’s a dish that will transport you back to childhood, with Horlicks flavours and comforting textures. The drops of lemon verbena and flurry of fennel pollen brighten the malt-like dehydrated milk and honeycomb. It’s served with homemade honey mead and it’s completely satisfying.
To round off the Tour menu, there’s a vibrant and rich take on cheesecake with apricot, praline and a cacao crumb. The tonka-bean cheesecake mixture is enrobed in a gleaming orange coating that transforms its appearance into a juicy apricot. Served alongside it are cinnamon churros and a fresh apricot sorbet that has a velvety mouthfeel. It’s a dessert that sings.
The Vergelegen wine list offers an abundance of varietals and vintages – 11 pages, to be exact. Novices may feel overwhelmed, but sommelier Christo Deyzel is more than happy to suggest pairings. For wine lovers, the wine list is a dream: tasting notes and winemaker’s comments make this a pleasure for pairing with food. For the indecisive, there’s a selection of flights, which offer diners a chance to taste small portions of several Vergelegen wines with different varietals and styles.
The service here is swift, knowledgeable and friendly. The sommelier pays special attention to the wines, while wait staff are at the ready to fill water glasses and expertly explain the dishes.
On warmer days, nab a spot on the sunned patio that’s surrounded by camphor trees and peacocks. In cooler weather, fireplaces are lit and the elegant interior offers a warm and luxurious place to enjoy a special lunch.
The experience is completed by wine gums made from Vergelegen wines and a box of cherry-tobacco tempered chocolates.
Eat Out critics dine anonymously and pay for their meals in full. Read our editorial policy here.