Hartford House with Shirley Berko
Food Critic's Review - Shirley Berko
Literally off the beaten path, the location of Hartford House may be considered limiting for ingredients but, in fact, its proximity to some of the best produce and producers in the country has inspired some sensational dishes.
The menus for both lunch and dinner are reinvented daily, influenced by season, honouring the main ingredients, and balanced according to what is available.
For lunch, the simplicity of the terrine of the day belies an astounding complexity of flavours. The pork terrine is succulent, its saltiness offset by the acidity of the accompanying homemade pickles and the sweetness of the aioli. A crispy pancetta chip gives the crunchy texture and umami flavour that effectively balances out the rest of the dish. ‘Perfectly balanced flavours’ is a clichéd turn of phrase that gets dragged out often, but in this case, the dish embodies this concept.
The free-range beef cut of the day for lunch mains is generously portioned, beautifully plated and deliciously cooked. But do save space for dinner, because that's where the culinary magic happens.
Dinner is a degustation of five courses, with or without wine pairings. It is an immersion of imaginatively prepared food, experimental flavour pairings, boundary-challenging cooking techniques and plating masterpieces.
It can be easy to forget the objective – serving food to eat – and the danger of over-complicating dishes in lieu of showing off techniques is inherent with such a meal, but Chef Constantijn instinctively resists the temptation and knows exactly when to rein it in. Few things are served that don’t harmonise on the palate. While the number of ingredients incorporated per dish is ambitious, nothing is added that doesn’t work.
A starter of conservatively titled Smoked Indezi underplays in name the flavour fanfare it delivers. Creamy rooibos-smoked Indezi River Creamery goat’s-cheese curd blooms with delicate petals of lightly pickled beetroot and dried pear chips, resting on a velvety bed of beetroot purée and dotted with herb flowers. A second course of poached geelbek is a Japanese-inspired broth unlike any other. The fish is tender enough to dissolve on the tongue. It rests unassuming at the bottom of the bowl, covered in charred sweetcorn and freeze-dried sweetcorn drops. Hot dashi is poured over it all, anointing the fish and dissolving the pearls. The ribbons of ulva seaweed come unfurled and the combination of flavours and textures on the palate is fantastic.
The rest of the courses that follow are as reverential to their ingredients as the first two. The sweet courses are an homage to Chef Constantijn’s guilty pleasures with a dish of the same name. His love of a popular liquorice candy is translated into Rhubarb Allsorts, plated to emulate the sweets he loves: soft marshmallows with liquorice centres, candied ribbons of rhubarb, strawberry coulis and quenelles of quince ice cream.
To eat at Hartford is to treat yourself to a dining experience that reflects some of the most prodigious cooking talent and lovingly cultivated and reared food in the province.
The wine list is multi-award winning, offering vintage, rare, local and international wines. GM Duncan Bruce’s knowledge of wine is extensive. Juices are freshly squeezed and cold pressed, using fruit and vegetables from the kitchen garden and orchard.
General manager Duncan is on hand to attend to the needs of diners and guests, and staff are friendly, efficient and accommodating.
Set on a sprawling stud farm, the restaurant has breathtaking scenery. Carefully manicured lawns and gardens roll out to the edges of dams. Hartford House is a beautifully decorated British colonial-style house, and the dining and lounge areas are a cosy and welcoming respite on cold days.
Recently, the Tijn Huis was opened just across from the house. Named for its location and the chef, it's nestled in the garden, overlooking water features and the dam. It’s open for tea, light lunches and pastry indulgences, and is a perfect setting for chilled G&Ts on summer afternoons or dinners under the night sky by the large braziers.
Eat Out (September 2016)