Cape Town is known for the eateries that take your breath away. A different experience altogether would be one that makes you inhale deeply instead. And while I could tell you everything about how aesthetically pleasing the Greenhouse at The Cellars-Hohenort Hotel is, you probably have to see it for yourself: pictures and words do not do it justice.
The name lends itself to the experience. It is a quaint fine-dining establishment in a glass-roofed building set in a lush garden in Constantia, basically a greenhouse. The entrance has its old Dutch feel of warmth: big fireplaces ward off the cold in winter and lots of light let in the sun.
The dining area is small, with a choice of spaces to accommodate pods of dinners.
Intimate and exclusive, it’s the kind of dining you would expect for an occasion filled with great food and wine.
The decor is chic, a contrast of light and dark big leather chairs, oversized mirrors expand the quaint spaces and delicate lighting allows the Greenhouse effect to envelope the room. Bouquets of flowers dot the tables around the dining area. It’s an elegant way to spend an evening.
We’re seated next to the windowed wall. As the last smudge of sunshine disappears between the trees, the moonlight drops in and you are engulfed by nature.
Highly acclaimed, group executive chef Peter Tempelhoff and head chef Ashley Moss serve you a master class in technique with every dish that arrives at your table.
“I want guests to experience the taste of South Africa. I want them to leave thinking they have something they haven’t tried before, or that they didn’t know those ingredients could be used that way. Mostly I want them to leave with our story of amazing South African ingredients,” says Tempelhoff.
It is evident from the first three courses that this was going to be an unforgettable dining experience.
The menu is a celebration of the country’s diverse food culture, the flavours introduced to your plate are unexpected. And their secret lies in the unique South African ingredients that are transformed into edible works of art.
According to Tempelhoff, when he started at the restaurant a decade ago it was very classic, Anglo-Francophone, and not South African influenced.
“I had just come from Europe so my food reflected that. When I was exposed to South African flavours again I had a better understanding of the ingredients and how to use them properly.
“I understood how to bring local ingredients into the food. It’s still French-based, a little Asian in there too, but it has a strong South African influence. In the last three years, we have moved across to doing more local stuff which we are passionate about,” says Tempelhoff.
As the 11 delicious courses grace your table, each bringing an element of nature, I am enamoured by the creative process behind the dishes.
A plate or rather a branch you must look out for is the Butcher Bird’s Pantry.
The bird is an amazing hunter-gatherer. It uses sticks or thorns to impale its prey, which are mostly insects, then leave it there to consume later.
Brilliantly adapted, a metal tree landed on our table with gremolata crusted salmon speared on the branches and a little card giving an explanation on the dish. I love being schooled while eating.
Next to the tree was a bird’s nest with two crisps dotted with a gel and alongside the nest was a piece of petrified wood with two miniature cones of mushroom, sherry and chocolate - food dished up with nature.
The seashore swept over our table with an Atlantic tuna, kimchi, radish, compression of apple with sesame dressing, dish. And then another wave with the aromatic crustacean “tea” brewed at your table.
The more delicate meat dishes such as the Outeniqua Springbok with bean salad, niçoise vinaigrette, bonito flakes and miso have an Asian influence. The Peking lamb, yuzu gel, tsukudani, Asian pesto, star anise roast leg, roasted garlic, crispy onions, fermented apricot is another delight.
Tempelhoff is proud that they source all their produce, meat and fish, ethically. “We don’t import meat or fish into the country. We don’t use scallops or foie gras. They are luxuries but they are not found here so to keep our carbon footprint down we steer away from this.”
When even the palate cleanser is a game-changer you know you are in the hands of exceptional chefs. Try liquid nitrogen salted celery in a sorbet. It is unimaginably refreshing. Dessert ends the ensemble on a dramatic note with “the life and death of trees”. And the creator explains the inspiration behind this dish beautifully.
“In the end, it is about the circle of life. It takes you back to reality, the life and death of trees fell together effortlessly. We had indigenous Bonsai trees that we wanted to use in the courses. And I came across the Mopani root, it is really graphic and textured and looks nice with food.
“And one day I was with my kids and came across the discs of petrified Madagascan wood and it clicked, life, death, petrification. It’s a cycle and a nice way to end.
“It tells a story of our restaurant nicely.”
The Greenhouse Restaurant is refreshing, a tale of life, nature and nurture, one that aligns your senses with the sustainability of food and makes you appreciate ingredients found on your doorstep.