For a fortunate few, five star treatment is a norm. For the rest of us it is a luxury to be enjoyed and the memory thereof cherished.
The InterContinental Hotel, OR Tambo, is a five star hotel. Their main restaurant is the 24/7 Quills, named for the installation of (imitation) porcupine quills which has survived several refurbishments. Members of the media were recently invited to preview highlights of their new summer menu.
I drove to the entrance of the hotel and was treated like visiting royalty from that moment forward. The doorman outside the hotel was capable of dealing with mobility impaired patrons in the most efficient manner I have EVER seen. 10/10 for a smooth arrival.
We were seated at the very back of the restaurant with a demonstration table to the one end of the table. Final preparation and plating can take place there, and often is, but the exact weather conditions of the day made it simpler and more efficient to plate in the kitchen.
Also to the side were the selected red and white wines for the evening, respectively decanted and breathing or placed on ice. This was to be a formalised food and wine pairing conducted for us by the Food and Beverage Manager, Sibo Buthelezi. Sibo is engaging and knowledgeable and tells us some of the secrets of procuring these treasures for the Quills cellar. He talks us through the tasting with confidence of a sommelier, and I am somewhat surprised to learn that he is still in training to be a qualified sommelier.
On the centre of the table was a selection of breads. They looked like multicoloured stones and gourds and plants. Some of the rolls were pitch black, looking like lumps of charcoal. Eating them proved that they were soft, delicately flavoured bread rolls (coloured with activated charcoal) and delicious with pepperdew flavoured butter (I didn’t try the other flavoured butters). Also on the bread table were savoury churros. These are unique to Intercontinental Hotel OR Tambo and came about when a trainee accidentally fried the wrong pastry for a dish. Chef Yoshan was presented with the result and found it to be good. He added a few South African favourite seasonings like cumin and the result is deliciously soft, chewy treats which line an empty stomach with an oily base on which to have an alcoholic drink.
Executive Chef Yoshan Naidu, originally from Durban, explains his concept of “African cuisine” to us, pointing out that international tourists have often tasted their way through all our braais, baboties and other local foods, and they are wanting something both more familiar to their American and European palates and somewhat mysterious and exotic at the same time. The tasting menu with which we were presented certainly lived up to his philosophy.
Joining us for the evening were Robyn Klemp, the hotel’s sales manager, and Samantha Clingham, the hotel’s General Manager. It is refreshing to see a woman in the top post and the InterContinental Group goes up immediately in my estimation. Both women gave us the entire evening (over four hours), sharing their perspectives on the menu and enjoying themselves as much as we, the other guests, were. This is typical of the gracious hospitality which is apparent everywhere at the hotel.
We started with canapes of crab in basins of phyllo pastry, a chicken vol au vent and a ratatouille stack and bubbly. The bubbly carried us through the Amuse Bouche. The purpose of an amuse bouche (“mouth amuser”) is to both prepare a guest for the meal, but more importantly, to set the tone for the meal ahead. It is the gastronomically presented calling call of the chef and it as been used as such since nouvelle cuisine the 1980s. It is always a complimentary course showcasing the artistry of the chef. Jean-Georges Vongerichte, a celebrity chef from New York says “The amuse-bouche is the best way for a great chef to express his or her big ideas in small bites”. It presents its own logistical challenges. Our Amuse Bouche consisted of a prawn and baby marrow roulade accompanied with a mango salsa (delicious) and edible confetti. This course needs to be creatively presented, with a backup for the people who don’t eat shellfish (I was tempted to test this, but was too intrigued by the description, so I let it ride). The chef demonstrated how the edible confetti (which looks a bit like caviar) is made. Some of the guests claimed they would make it at home. I know I never will. However, I loved the demonstration because it helps me to understand exactly how much work goes into the small touches on a dish.
Our starter was a deconstructed Waldorf Salad accompanied by a Sir Lambert Sauvignon Blanc 2016. They paired extremely well, the wine having a fresh, grassy, pleasantly astringent taste which cleared my palate of the texture of the mayonnaise. My Waldorf salad, and I make it fairly often, is a slightly adapted version of the century old classic apples, celery and walnuts in mayonnaise. I use Bulgarian full cream yoghurt rather than mayonnaise (because I generally don’t like mayonnaise) and pecan nuts because they are easier to get and cheaper than walnuts. They also have a sweeter taste which suits my palate. Our starter quite rightly spurned the cheaper alternative.
The palate cleanser was watermelon balls soaked in triple distilled Cape To Rio Cane Spirit and then frozen. I found them delicious. Easy enough to whip up a few for the Christmas table. Cape to Rio is distilled in KwaZulu Natal which is our sugar cane growing area. The 43% alcohol content Cape to Rio brand is the most popular cane spirit sold in South Africa.
The mains were A Symphony of Salmon and Karoo Study of Lamb. And we got two “half portions”. If they were half portions the mains are going to be enormous.
Norwegian salmon is brought in fresh three times a week and the salmon is pan-fried. The bits that aren’t suitable for pan frying are turned into spicy fish cakes, Durban style. This was served with butternut tart and a medley of vegetables and cauliflower puree. It was paired with the Hamilton Russell Chardonnay 2015. Norwegian salmon is a SASSI (South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative) green list fish. This basically means that the fish are farmed and are NOT endangered in any way by being used as a table fish. From this and the use of plastic quills (and doubtless other things as well) one can see that InterContinental OR Tambo is committed to doing the environment as little harm as possible. This is a good aim for every business. The salmon is also, justly, Quills best selling dish. I don’t like chardonnay as a rule, and this one was no exception. It is simply a personal preference. I was amused to find that someone else identified the same flavour that I don’t like and complained about it. When whatever it is that tastes “woody” to my palate is not there, I am always surprised. This was not a wooded chardonnay (but it does taste that way to me – and to one of the other guests). I can hear my late father suggesting that I must be an ignorant peasant. He’s right. It doesn’t change my tastebuds though.
The Karoo lamb was served in three ways. A classic herb crusted lamb chop, pan seared lamb liver and slow cooked shoulder of lamb. These were served with dauphinoise (thinly sliced and cooked with cream and garlic) potatoes, a medley of seasonal vegetables and a whiskey and green peppercorn jus. This was served with an Anthonij Rupert Sangiovese 2013. This wine come from the Groenekloof area close to Darling where the Sangiovese so typical of Tuscany, Italy, thrive in the long dry summers cooled by the Atlantic Ocean breezes. It was an excellent wine.
Dessert, paired with a Klein Constantia Vin du Constance 2011, was a Rooibos creme brulee with a milk biscuit accompanied by Cape gooseberry compote. The creamy mixture was sliced and caramel was spun as a decoration rather than the traditional presentation in a ramekin, but the dessert was unmistakeably recognisable. For me a restaurant lives or dies by its creme brulee, a tricky thing to get right. Chef Yoshan and his team got it right. Dessert wines were first made on the Constantia Estate in the late 1660s and were celebrated in the literature of Austen, Dickens and Baudelaire. The Klein Constantia farm, sorry, estate, is in the oldest winemaking area in the Western Cape. The Vin du Constance 2011 was made from hand harvested, shrivelled grapes. It boasts “fresh, floral muscat aromas with a hint of spice,and a rich, opulent palate of stone-fruits, nuts, vanilla, wood spices and honey”. It was wonderful with the brulee.
My personal favourites were the Symphony of Salmon and the Rooibos creme brulee. The cellar offerings were not to be sneezed at either, with the Vin du Constance 2011 being particularly fine.
Tea or coffee followed with a mercifully packed-for-taking-home assortment of petit fours and sweets.
Quills and the Intercontinental Hotel OR Tambo generally is a wonderful experience where nothing was out of place. I am looking forward to returning in the future.