Gentlemen’s Arthouse has been a labour of love for Maira Koutsoudakis of the Life group of companies. Over three years she has transformed a neglected Edwardian building with fascinating details into an eccentric, special place for people who want a taste of cheeky outrageous splendour. All the food, astonishing drinks and décor are part of the absinthe-tinted fantasy.
You sign up for the four-course set menu (with extras) when you book. The two chefs, Jeanel Pieterse and Marc Proenca, must have had fantastic fun designing the menu and aligning Edwardian eccentricity and wonder with South African ingredients.
The menu will change seasonally, but at present it begins with a silver-and-copper table landscape of amusements like olives, truffled popcorn, a maypole arrangement of poppadoms, crispy lotus root, roasted red pepper, and a delicate chocolate orb that cracks dramatically to reveal a glossy selection of nuts.
The first course is a lavish amuse-bouche of three sesame cones in a silver holder. One contains a glistening combination of tuna ceviche, cucumber mousse and pomegranate rubies criss-crossed with crisply fried nori strips. The second contains a bright and spicy tartare of salmon, jalapeño, roasted garlic and creamy South African boursin cheese. The third is more delicious than seems likely, holding thin cured beef fillet pieces with a biltong pâté and a fantastic fig salsa. It’s followed by a course called ‘Civitate, fraternite, risque’, which arrives when the burlesque dancer makes her first appearance. It’s a beautiful plate of crocodile ceviche, perfect with bursting cells of sweet-tart pomelo carpaccio, arranged with mango, beetroot and caperberries.
The third course consists of a prawn on a lightly curried lentil ragout, served with a saffron-rice wafer and fresh-tasting butternut raita. The palate cleanser is a three-part combo of Bloody Mary with a dollop each of cucumber and apple-and-elderflower granita in glinting crystal. The final main course is a humorous nod to the Edwardian period, with one French-trimmed lamb cutlet and the other chop turned into a roasted lollipop, alongside greens, gravy, duck-fat fries and a spoonful of olive-and-truffle reduction.
The scintillating burlesque dancer returns for the ‘hot’ part of her act and the cold splendour of a dessert called Monsieur’s Petit Mort. It’s a layered delice of a silky Valrhona Caraibe chocolate and fine bourbon, with charred meringue and a soft filling of mascarpone, served with salt flakes, chocolate and a roasted pine-nut bark.
Lavish cocktails or champagne are befitting drinks. Ingredients include wondrous infusions made in-house. Seeing and smelling white smoke billowing from a silver pineapple being delivered to another table might turn your reserve to recklessness. A good choice is a table cocktail if your party is bigger than two: The Hancock’s Punch will please a group, with Dutch vodka, clarified milk and angostura. For well-balanced excellence, A Gentleman’s Persuasion includes Johnny Walker Gold and Talisker, the amber whiskeys slightly sweetened with a hint of barley honey and rounded out with chocolate bitters and sesame. For a visual spectacle, try the Cobbler by Firelight, based on a combo of South African sherry and port, pineapple and ginger bitters.
Aside from the champagnes, Veuve Clicquot, Dom Perignon, Moët and Louis Roederer, plus a few French white and red wines, is another wealth of carefully picked and sometimes humorously chosen South African wines, like Bouchard Finlayson Crocodile’s Lair chardonnay, Bloemendal Suider Terras sauvignon and the Swartland’s Blake Family wines. These are top-end wines at the expected prices.
The experience is faultless from beginning to end. People appear like magic when required and you’ll find everything you need glinting before you in the candelight.
Gentleman’s Arthouse is dramatic, with all the different kinds and levels of lighting, but you can still see your food – even enough for Instagram. The free-standing kitchen, so designed because of the PHRAG (Provincial Heritage Resources Authority Gauteng) preservation policy, resembles an Edwardian train carriage but it contains two wood-fired ovens. There’s an appreciative hushed murmur until the music starts and the burlesque artiste appears out of the shadows with giant feathered fans. You’ll be astonished by the South African art on the walls, original pieces by Pierneef, Irma Stern, Kentridge, Gerard Sekoto and Kendell Geers. Absinthe-green velvet seats are built to fit the curve of the tiled former-bathroom fittings. There are masses of candles and lanterns, and a gorgeous brass bar, custom-made from reclaimed materials, is surrounded by palms, planters and glinting bevelled mirrors. It’s like being inside a jewel.
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