As a young adult, the Grill Room at the Mount Nelson Hotel was high on my list of special occasion outings. With jazzy-type live music (and mini dance floor), plush banquettes and dark wood it pressed all the right buttons.
Most of what happens at the Mount Nelson has remained pretty much the same as it’s been for decades, which is part of the property’s appeal. However, hotel restaurants are an almost-impossible business to operate effectively – ideally they’d be a profit centre, but most of the time they are a cost centre. And, let’s not forget how fickle Cape Town’s dining out crowd is, so there’s an ongoing imperative to keep the offering fresh.
The Mount Nelson’s most recent restaurant update has been the Planet Restaurant, twinning with the hotel’s hugely popular Planet Bar. The marketing person in me isn’t convinced about this as a brand extension, but that’s a separate discussion. What is convincing is Chef Rudi Liebenberg’s food.
The main theme running through the menu is one of sustainability, which as a buzz-word is as hip as the patrons at the Planet Bar. It’s very easy to be cynical of businesses that have jumped onto the sustainability band wagon, however, having got to know Rudi over the years I can tell you that he is 100% sincere – not to mention passionate – about the direction they have taken.
It may be a boy thing, but I also know Rudi to love his kitchen toys. Again, it’s not about waving the flag of the latest fads, it’s about what ends up on the plate. So, sous-vide is a method used with several of the dishes. What this usually entails is putting the item into a vacuumed bag and popping it into water at a specific temperature (could be anything between 60 and 80 degrees) for a fixed length of time. The benefit is that the cooking happens at a temperature which retains the texture and juiciness of the meat (or whatever is being cooked). Accurately determining (and implementing) the cooking temperatures of various foodstuffs is one of the features of molecular gastronomy.
I should add that I have had a somewhat cynical view of sous-vide, mainly because my earliest experiences were of chefs using the latest toys without paying much attention to deliciousness, which surely is the ultimate aim of their ‘alchemic’ activities.
So, on to the meal. I started with what one could lightheartedly call egg and bacon. It comprised an egg poached sous-vide (the white had not denatured to the point where it was a solid white, but had turned to jelly) with locally cured ham and shavings of Gouda cheese. Garnish took the form of delicately tasty pea sprouts. I’m not one of those eaters who needs his eggs cooked to the point of bouncing off the walls, so the concept of conceptually half-cooked – but scientifically fully-cooked – eggs don’t scare me. I loved the dish, which could also stimulate debate about which part of a restaurant bill we regard as fair mark-up.
You see, this starter sells at R85, which is astronomical (what else could one expect from a place called ‘planet’) when related to the cost of the ingredients. Yet, we happily accept it. On the other hand, the mark-up on their wines is much smaller, but still at a level that could raise some diners’ ire (my benchmark, Warwick First Lady, sells for R190).
My main course was pasture-reared chicken on a curried barley ‘risotto’, that was sensational (there may well be something perverse about a meal starting with egg and proceeding with chicken). The breast, which had been cooked sous-vide, had the most fabulous texture, doing an excellent job of demonstrating the benefits of cooking at low temperature. With this was served a grilled drumstick that had been coated in popcorn. I’m not making this up. The popcorn had been cooked with chakkalakka oil, then blitzed in a food processor. The flavour and texture combination was amazing!
Across the table, the food was no less delicious. I was given a morsel of braised pork cheek that blew me away. From the starter, I had a piece of salmon trout (cooked sous-vide) that had the most unusual texture (neither raw, nor cured, nor cooked).
We couldn’t manage dessert, so mopped up the rest of our wine with a shared cheese board.
As befitting an establishment of this nature, there is a six-course tasting menu, which you can order with matching wines. What sets Planet Restaurant apart – and which proves Rudi’s sustainability ‘cred’ – is the same thing for vegans. Fine dining is usually about expensive protein being used as the mouthpiece for a head chef’s ego.
Vegan cooking is something different altogether, and for traditionally-minded chefs may even qualify as a form of torture. It’s one thing to omit meat or chicken, but working without staples such as dairy or eggs – and creating six sensational courses in the process – is not the kind of cooking challenge that top chefs would normally choose to take on.
So, how successful is this as a rejuvenated restaurant concept for Cape Town’s most traditional of hotels? The whole experience is certainly grand, from décor to service to food. Of necessity, this is matched by the pricing. While costly, it’s fair, given the quality of the offering, but much less accessible than the adjacent Planet Bar. I do wonder how many of the Bar regulars would eat at the sister Restaurant, and this makes me question the marketing side of things. The situation isn’t helped by recessionary times, which have inhibited people’s willingness to splash out on smart meals.
Enough of me with my marketing hat on. The foodie in me was absolutely delighted with the experience. And, I’m about to contradict myself; in these straitened times one occasionally needs a little escapism from enforced austerity. Where better than Planet Restaurant, with its grand, traditional Mount Nelson backdrop to Rudi’s modern food?