Archive for May, 2010

What we were expecting.

Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse has developed an entire mythology of it’s own when it comes to destinations for food in the Natal Midlands. Its often spoken about in glowing terms and time and time again it has been recommended to me by various people, not least of which my friend, a well heeled sophisticate who has eaten in some of the best places in the country, if not all of them. His parents, even better heeled are accustomed to traveling around the world and staying at the best venues along with sampling the best fare from London to Bombay, would be our hosts.

So you can imagine that when they invited me to dinner, and a night at their “farm”, a small luxury fiefdom the size of a small country in the midlands, along with dinner at Cleopatra’s, I jumped at the invitation. My friend had eaten there on three other occasions and he enthused about the event all the way up there. He stopped me from eating biltong from a farm store, denied me the fabulous cheeses in the fridge and held me back at lunch. Hell he even stopped me from eating the bread rolls they placed on the table before our meal. “Don’t eat “, he insisted, “save yourself.”

So, fair to say that my expectations were high, very high. So high that even a dreadful and slightly historically incorrect self-indulgent babble from a hotel manager presented as a lecture before dinner could not dampen my high spirits. My heart first began to sink when the chef addressed us on her menu for the night. She gushed over her food like a lovesick sycophant on crack. Everything was “fresh”, and “delightful” all her flavours were “intense” and she insisted, after describing each dish to us like we were teenagers, t hat it was “a lovely dish with wonderful fresh flavours, and you are very lucky to be having it, and I hope you enjoy it.”

Each time the little girl repeated the mantra, six times in all, my expectations lowered. I was amazed that a girl so young could call herself a chef, let alone have such an inflated opinion of her culinary expertise. I realized there and then that this was no chef-patron venue, and that all I had heard about Richard Poynton, the chef at Cleopatra, was in vain, for he had deserted us for a recent graduate of Matric, he wasn’t even in the Hotel that night.

His pubescent sidekick continued to speak to us as if we had just began eating food. She explained that the main course would be a confit of duck. “Confit is a way of cooking duck in its own fat, so its very tender and it’s a lovely dish with wonderful fresh flavours, and you are very lucky to be having it, and I hope you enjoy it.”

Of course she was wrong. Confit is about storing duck,  and preserving it in it’s fat, a step they leave out at Cleopatra, and a vital step too, because its while the duck cools in the fat that the flavours are reabsorbed… but I’m splitting hairs, that’s for 5 star dining establishments.

After the school lesson, a la student teacher, we were ushered into the dining room.

As we waited for one of two waiters to pour our wine, that they had recommended, a dreadfully sour pinot noir, we plotted to choose our own wine for the next bottle. I held back on the bread, and waited, and waited, and waited and then dashed down to the cellar to pick a better bottle (they have no wine list – you see), bored with waiting my friend and his father joined me a little later and we decided on a bottle of Rubicon, defeated by the  lack of good choice. A waiter came and found us, our first bit was up, we rushed back.

There it sat, on a plate, no bigger than a Kruger rand and not much thicker. The girl-chef had called it a tower of apple and Brie, topped with sultanas and almonds. It was at best a tablespoon of apple squeezed around a slither of under ripe Brie with a smattering of almonds and raisins. If the presentation was a let down, the flavour was, well a towering flop. In fact the almond and sultana garnish were the best part.

I hit the bread.

Richard was nowhere to be seen.

I eyed my friend across the table, he blushed, and said “so they missed it, its not bad though, trust me, it will get better.”

His mother smiled a wry smile and said, “ I certainly hope so.”

We chatted over our empty plates for 20 minutes, and the bread disappeared.

We left the pinot in our glasses and opened the Rubicon. It was so much better.

Then the soup arrived. Three tablespoons of it, in a strange white bowl that looked like an ashtray. I demolished mine. Sweet corn soup, nicely made, but already luke warm. I thought to myself, so much bowl for so little soup. We all decided that we liked the soup, and my friend muttered something about the tomato soup he had last time.

20 minutes more, we stared at our empty plates.

The next course was a sort of corse potato and salmon fish cake. It had been billed as a Mediterranean dish, topped with a tiger prawn and nestling on a courgette pasta, with a balsamic reduction, the cakes were supposed to be lightly coated and fried until crisp, it would be we were promised , ““a lovely dish with wonderful fresh flavours, and you are very lucky to be having it, and I hope you enjoy it.”

What it was, was a bland conglomeration of potato and fish, pressed together and fried, it almost fell apart as it arrived, on top of a julienne of courgette. When I wondered did julienne veg become pasta? The tiger prawn was more of a tabby cat prawn and the balsamic reduction was so strong and acidic it obliterated what little flavour there was in the dry little fish koek.

In a word… dreadful

The obligatory twenty minutes of empty plates happened.

Then, the main.

The tablespoon theme continued as a theme, with one tablespoon of shredded duck in an over sweet sauce placed on top of massive potato gunge masquerading as, I think, a potato fondant ( who knows), floating in a puddle of creamed spinach and decorated  with 6 equidistant cubes of butternut, interrupted by 6 tiny dice of feta. The duck was topped with a piece of puff pastry, the same white colour as the potato, duck burger on a puddle of yuck.

I’m not even going to tell you how the spinach feta and butternut and confit duck clashed, the dish was worse conceived that executed .

A disaster.

We were about to get the bill and go when the pudding arrived.

It reminded me of those terrible mousses they serve in champagne glasses on cruise ships for geriatrics, you know the ones that double as display and food. The dessert was a gelatinous chocolate “soufflé”…  It was a lot of things, it was certainly no soufflé, and I dare say barely chocolate.

Thank God it was small, even so I was unable to finish it.

But, dear reader, the best was to come last as our chef bounded out the kitchen to ask  how we enjoyed our meal.

“Mediocre,”, I said.

“Perhaps you would prefer a toasted cheese and tomato!” she shot back.


(Our  meal cost R2250-00 for four )


Anne Steven’s loves this place by the way, you can read what I think of her reviews here:

anne stevens and the hunt for intergalactic “veges” or the culinary faux pas of durban’s own jabba the hut