CLIVE AARON : EATMEGOURMET
Following is an article written by roving foodie, Chef Clive Aaron, which appeared recently on his new blog Food And Travel Durban :
One of the benefits of not having to keep the hours of a working Chef is that I can resume all the regular activities that I could not while slogging out 18-hour days! Undoubtedly, at the top of my list of re-discovered pleasures is the time to eat out again in fine restaurants.
I recently had the immense pleasure of returning to Hartford House in Mooi River. The opportunity to sample Jackie Cameron's cuisine again was the biggest draw of the weekend and added more anticipation to the trip. At 26, Jackie has been at Hartford now for 7 years and since my last visit just over a year ago, her style has evolved further. While rooted in French classicism, her style benefits from the wealth of global exposure. The best way to describe this style is "Modern South African", a term which has not yet found a comfortable place in the local cooking lexicon. Now, a lightness of touch, a more daring juxtaposition of flavours and a greater reliance on seasonal, local produce is evident in her execution of the dishes we were treated to.
Dinner started with drinks at the bar accompanied by delicate canapés which got the tastebuds primed for the dinner to follow. Jackie's menu is structured along a 5 course set menu (you need to inform the kitchen in advance of any dietary restriction). The starter of Garden Pea soup with Parma Ham ice-cream was topped with oven-dried slivers of local ham cured in the Italian style. The freshness of the peas was more than evident with the counter-point of the ice-cream adding both surprise and dimension to the soup.
The highlight of the dinner for me was the next course: A smoked salmon salad. The smoked salmon came wrapped in Nori, quail eggs, micro herbs, croûtons and caper berries and was accompanied by a horseradish cream and lemon olive oil dressing. This was a beautifully presented dish where the produce shone. Every element on the plate proved to be a sterling supporting cast to the salmon. Lightness of texture combined with complexity of flavour to turn this simple-sounding dish into one worthy of Michelin star status.
The main of Dijon-blackened beef fillet topped with a shiitake butter and accompanied by truffle-infused creamed potatoes with seasonal asparagus and truffle sauce sounded interesting enough. However, the attention to detail in the execution resulted in a tender-as-butter fillet, still beautifully rare in the middle with intense, juicy flavour. The truffle flavour was difficult to detect but the shiitake butter brought an amazing earthy depth to the dish. The supporting asparagus, with their clean flavour, was a perfectly judged accompaniment. This dish, more than any of the others on the night, demonstrates Jackie's ability to turn the (somewhat) ordinary into food to make any foodie weak at the knees.
With a new pastry chef forming part of Jackie's brigade, dessert has become a more creative effort. We were treated to what can best be simplified as 'doughnuts and tea'. A not-too-sweet spiced chai latte accompanied the doughnut together with fruit compôte, a smattering of thick dark chocolate sauce and Crackle-Pop ice-cream. The ice-cream came topped with small shards of candy which exploded in the mouth. I loved most the surprise and playful element of this course. I'm sure with more guidance and experience the offerings from this kitchen section will no doubt become even more delectable.
At the level that Jackie is cooking at, it is inevitable that some guests will complain over the merest flaw. Regrettably, I'm going to be one of them: We ended with a Midlands cheese board accompanied by pickles and relish. This course, was not up to the standard of the rest of the meal. The cheeses, as ordinary as a super-market bought cheese platter, did not inspire. The Brie could have been served closer to room temperature and the platter as a whole could have been better structured in the "less is more" vein. This criticism is of course to nit-pick.
The multi-award winning wine list caters to even the most picky wine connoisseur; with a range of price points to suit smaller budgets as well as those wishing to splurge. The evening's menu featured two wine recommendations: Glen Carlou Quartz Stone Chardonnay 2005 and Meerlust Cabernet Sauvignon 2005. These were also available by the glass. Jane and I particularly enjoyed the Chardonnay which was a beautifully balanced affair of subtle acidity with lemon overtones and butteriness - all underpinned by finely balanced oaking.
Service was nearly flawless and Jackie and her team deserve every accolade they have won (and those which I have no doubt will follow). It is no wonder that they have been rated the 10th best restaurant in the country - an accolade I'm sure they will replicate this year! In the words of the Michelin guide: "Worth the journey".