Into the hills and far away...
An evening of fine dining requires preparation. You need to have a word with your credit card, and ask for its cooperation; you’ve got to find an outfit that will expand discreetly over the course - or five courses - of the evening; and if you are over 40 it goes without saying that you’ll have to stock up with antacids.
So it was with great anticipation and a family pack of Rennies that I headed inland to indulge in the finest dining in the province - Hartford House.
Mooi River’s Hartford House first found its way onto the national foodie map under Richard Carstens. When a teenaged Jackie Cameron took over 13 years ago, she turned the restaurant into a regular among the nation’s top 10, and when she left early last year to open a cooking school there was general consternation.
Unnecessary, as it turns out.
After a couple of nonstarters in came Constantijn Hahndiek. He is a chef with a mind and a style all of his own, and I’d happily head up his fan club.
Five courses, all worthy of gold stars, accompanied by a pairing or a bottle or two from a carefully considered wine list.
A starter of summer artichokes with imaginative polenta chips and pistachio aioli was followed by a Thai fish curry with a lemon grass cream that I wanted to suck up with a straw. Thereafter, free-range Dargle duck with a delicious orange gel, plus fennel and the meatiest oyster mushrooms and after that a serving of posh comfort food: a take on lasagna, with four-year-old boerenkaas [cheese] and beef short rib.
When you go, however, you will get none of this. The menu changes nightly, all based on what’s growing in Hartford’s garden, what’s on offer locally and what’s fresh, ripe and available.
What makes Hartford House distinctive is the general enthusiasm, the spectacular service and a singular lack of pomposity. If you want your duck/lamb/guinea fowl cooked through rather than ruby red, you just have to say so. No raised eyebrows, no judgment.
Constantijn’s personal touch is a pre-desert bit of whimsy instead of an amuse bouche. We were presented with tiny brown paper bags filled with caramelised popcorn and accompanied by a mini- milkshake with a smoky flavour that brought back, said the chef, the memory of those little burnt kernels at the bottom of the box of movie popcorn.
Lots of fun - and very tasty - but it meant that I was physically unable to tackle my chocolate pudding.
Part of the evening’s preparation should include making an overnight reservation at Hartford. It’s the best advice I can give you, not only because the 50m walk to your room is about all you will be able to manage, but because of the breakfast you get the next morning if you do so.
But that’s another story.