The Chef’s Table experience is a celebration of South African flavours in a unique setting that will thrill even the most jaded restaurant goer. Seated at a handful of tables inside the cavernous kitchen of the iconic Belmond Mount Nelson hotel, guests are treated to a culinary display second to none. Unlike at other fine-dining establishments, where the pristine open kitchen is practically a design element, here it feels like you’re catching an illicit look at how kitchens really are, not simply watching a performance. And you have centre stage.
The gourmet marathon, designed by executive chef Rudi Liebenberg and his right-hand man Dion Vengatass, begins with beautiful breads, salted butter, hummus and smoky black-bean purée, before the five-course set menu comes into play. The approachable first course, ‘Transforming the bits of pieces of grass-fed beef’, packs a punch, with ribbons of shiraz-marinated bresaola, seared fillet and roasted marrow served in a pastry-wrapped bone with the tiniest spoon, gorgeously flavoursome oxtail croquettes and deep-fried tendons that deliver a fatty crackle and pop in the mouth.
The second course, ‘Oyster erupting’, changes tack completely, and is delivered with a flourish on a landscape of crushed ice. A transportive experience, each mouthful will take you to a rocky seaside shore, with clever little touches like the warmth of chilli in the freezing oyster snow, zingy devilled kumquat, and a kick of lime in the ceviche ‘air’ floating on a fresh oyster.
Dion, also known as chef D, who has become a star in his own right on the SA Culinary Olympic Team – is everywhere at once, chirping with colourful language, charming diners and even clearing plates. With disarming candour he shares a childhood memory when presenting his prawn curry dish, a very special plate balanced in spiciness, sweetness, sourness, gentle heat and the tart bitterness of atchar.
Poached kingklip again reflects chef D’s Indian heritage with earthy flavours lent by cumin potatoes, lentil oil and poppadum shards.
Next, veal sweetbreads with seasonal broad beans and black garlic (ask for a replacement dish ahead of time if this is not quite up your street) make way for grilled springbok loin, which is expertly cooked and speaks in Mzansi’s multi-cultural tongues with nasturtium petals and leaves, morogo purée and chakalaka soil.
The culinary adventure culminates in the playfully named ‘Pineapple express to Asia’, a delight of tropical flavours and thin slivers of coriander- and lemongrass-infused pineapple, coconut panna cotta, curried Malibu spheres and Cape Malay koesister. Like a holiday on a plate, this light dish lifts the end of the meal to end on a high note.
The serious wine list has 14 chapters for categories like sustainable wines, fragrant and floral white wines, and silky and smooth red wines, as well as symbols to indicate when a bottle is vegan, organic, garagiste or boutique. Making a decision is really rather difficult, so if you’re not doing the pairing, be guided by the suggested wine on the menu, or ask for advice. Be warned, this is the Mount Nelson, after all, so don’t be surprised if one glass costs over R100.
A series of friendly faces will escort you from the front desk of the hotel through to the reception area for Planet restaurant, and then through a labyrinth of swinging side doors and passages until you emerge into the action of the kitchen. But just because you’re behind the veil doesn’t mean service isn’t five star. Your coat will be carefully hung up, chair pushed in, water topped up – all with genuine care and hospitality. Different chefs will come forward to present their dishes, beaming with palpable pride.
All is calm in this little alcove in the belly of the beast of the Nellie, but just a few steps away there’s the flash of flame, hissing steam, and white-clad chefs who keep it all under control. The closeness of tables means that if you’re in the mood to chat to your neighbour – who is, in all likelihood, a well-heeled international guest of the hotel – you can. It’s a working kitchen, so enjoy seeing the trolleys of dishes, fine knife skills and hard prep work taking place.
If you have time and inclination after what is likely to be at least a three-hour experience, accept the invitation to a tour of the kitchen by one of the young chefs.
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