Oaklands Country Manor took home the title of Best Country-Style Eatery in KwaZulu-Natal at the 2015 Eat Out Mercedes-Benz Best Everyday Eateries. The new set of awards is voted for by Eat Out readers, who give restaurants star ratings when writing a review.
Eat Out critic Hennie Fisher makes a mini-break of it at the charming Oaklands Country Manor in the Drakensberg in KwaZulu-Natal.
The country hotel and restaurant is run by four siblings, with Kathy Romer-Lee in charge of the flavours and tastes coming out of the kitchen. Although small, the à la carte menu is comprehensive and offers a number of delicious options: a salad of heirloom beetroot straight from the garden, halloumi, avocado and rocket; a potato rosti with smoked salmon, avocado, cream cheese and beetroot; free-range devilled chicken livers; and a soft boiled egg, deep-fried in a crisp parmesan crust set on local asparagus.
A Vietnamese chicken pho soup served with extra lemon and a fermented sauce on the side, is elegant, flavourful and perfectly executed. Main courses include aged steak (250g or 500g); Dargle Valley pork roast with beautifully seasoned crackling, a superb apple and saffron chutney, hand-cut potato wedges and garden vegetables; Vietnamese-style steamed seabass; and braised neck of lamb with accompanying seared rump and Anna potatoes. But it is the chicken-and-prawn curry with spiced rice and homemade naan bread, served with tasty sambals and a final flourish of fried spices and curry leaves on top, which deserves special mention. Desserts are equally decadent: a chocolate pot, crème brûlée, lemon meringue parfait, berry sorbet with shortbread, and an apple tarte tatin served with homemade ice cream and – showstopper – a flambé flourish at the table.
A wine list opening with a quote by Winston Churchill reminding the fighting forces that “it’s not just France we are fighting for, it’s Champagne” should offer enough to appease any discerning palate. There are a number of excellent local MCCs, supplemented by superb chardonnays from Paul Cluver and Springfield. Other listed producers include Beaumont, Tokara and De Trafford. The young engaging barman, Musa, pours a mean G&T, making drinks before dinner an occasion in itself.
Staff members are well-trained and competent, personable and eager to please without hovering or pestering. The establishment offers a baby-sitting service, which should be much appreciated by parents needing some downtime. This is the sort of place where the kids can have supper – spaghetti bolognaise or fish and chips – much earlier than the grown-ups at a communal table, allowing parents to supervise them without having to sacrifice the enjoyment of their own meal later.
The interiors are easy, comfortable and light, and manage to avoid some of the ‘country house’ clichés – although there are areas where they make sense such as the bar, which is decked out in a collection of ties and flags that must have been donated over time by generations of patrons. The main building, which features whitewashed sandstone walls a good 50cm thick, has a broad veranda overlooking horse paddocks, grasslands and mountains disappearing into the wide blue yonder. The interior is simple but elegant, punctuated by fresh, graphic flower prints, and we were awestruck by blowsy, fragrant peonies in vases on all the tables. The customer’s comfort is obviously a priority here – if guests would prefer to braai when the Boks play a major match rather than sit down to a gourmet dinner, management will happily oblige.
The hosts are all particularly health conscious, extolling the virtues of home-fermented kefir, kombucha and exploring the health-giving properties of kimchi, and they are thinking about regular workshops focused on healthy eating. They grow as many of their own vegetables and herbs as possible, and source whatever they cannot produce themselves from farmers in the area. We loved being able to enjoy local asparagus and organic eggs for dinner as well as breakfast, making us feel supremely virtuous. The venue also caters for weddings and other celebrations. It’s no surprise that people think nothing of driving all the way from Johannesburg and back just for Sunday lunch.
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