Last week I had the privilege and pleasure to seek the best dining experiences in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), visiting Durban, Hilton, Pietermaritzburg, and the Midlands Meander. I found the close to perfect eating experience at Hartford House, where the kitchen is now run by Chef Constantijn (known as Tijn to his colleagues) Hahndiek, having stepped into the Hartford House kitchen five months ago.
A trip to KZN had been on the cards for more than a year, Chef Jackie Cameron having encouraged me to visit the province, and her former restaurant at Hartford House, where she made Eat Out Top 10 for a number of years in the 12 years that she worked there. Last year she left with their blessing to open her Jackie Cameron School of Food and Wine in Hilton. About two months ago Chef Constantijn paid me the most amazing compliment, by inviting me to visit Hartford House, to evaluate the restaurant lunch and dinners, having valued that I was the first to write about him when he still worked at Café BonBon in Franschhoek. Our paths crossed again earlier this year, when Chef Constantijn was a Finalist in the S. Pellegrino Young Chef of the Year for Africa and the Middle East.
The invitation was too good to be true, and the reservation was made with the very friendly Hartford House GM Duncan Bruce. He did not show any irritation when I requested a room in the main house, so that I could access the wifi, as I am a late night writer, nor in helping me access good light for the two dinners, which we sorted out in the kitchen on the first night when we ate in the formal dining room, and in the lounge on the second night when we ate on the terrace.
The first taste of what is to come is the welcome platter in the room, being a selection of charcuterie sourced from the Midlands, with biscuits baked by the very new Pastry Chef Amoré Botha, who joined from the Twelve Apostles Hotel & Spa at the beginning of this month. She won the Unilever Food Solutions Junior Chef of the Year competition last year, and competed against Chef Constantijn (and other chefs) for the S. Pellegrino Young Chef of the Year competition. With the tea and coffee collection in the room I found delicious small dainty rusks and chocolate brownies, baked by Chef Amoré.
The introduction to the dinners was unique and different, something I have never experienced. One is invited to enjoy drinks from 19h00, and then Chef Constantijn joins the seated guests by reading the evening menu at 19h30. It is beautifully presented on the table, in a small silver A5 frame, but Chef Constantijn added more detail as to the additional ingredients in each dish, and told us the theme of each evening’s dinner. The standard number of dishes is five, but an additional ‘secret’ dish is hinted at at the beginning of the meal, without it being explained initially. The menu is changed daily.
On the first night we ate in the formal dining room, a room dominated by silver decor touches, with beautiful frames around large mirrors, silver and white table-cloth covering the full table, legs and all, a light grey overlay with a silver thread, little silver containers of Himalayan rock and Khoisan salt, a silver framed menu, a vase with a lily, and the most beautiful Italian silver cutlery by Liberty, Hartford House being one of only two restaurants in our country using it. Unusual too was that the full set of cutlery required for the four savory courses was already set on the table, preventing any danger of the waiter stretching across the patron, a pet hate. Given the strong silver theme, the wood under-plates seemed out of place, but may find a use elsewhere in future. Photographer Dee During was in the house that evening, and she took photographs too with very professional-looking equipment, compared to my iPhone 6. The chefs were surprised at the quality of my iPhone photographs, envying me as they did not feel they were achieving good quality photographs on their Samsung phones.
The theme for the first dinner was a celebration of the last of the winter vegetables which they have in their garden. A bread plate with lavash, a white roll, and a brown roll with cranberries and seeds was accompanied by Mooi River butter. The plates used for the dishes were made by popular ceramicist Mervyn Gers, different colors used for different dishes. Interesting is how the Hartford House chefs use the rim for plating of the dishes too, adding a further creative touch.
The first dish was blanched heirloom kale served with Gorgonzola cremelat, oven roasted grapes, cabbage, and Chardonnay jellies, paired with Overgaauw Cape Vintage 1994. This was followed by a dish of juicy seared free-range quail supplied by Jodi, served with sweetcorn chowder, crispy pancetta, and popcorn, served with Radford Dale Black Rock.
The third course was a SASSI orange-listed line-fished cod, supplied by fisherman Kaas, served with green clay-baked potatoes (not experienced before), pea purée, pea shoots, and a confit egg yolk prepared at 60°C for 25 minutes, a show stopper! This course was served with Creation Sauvignon Blanc Sémillon 2013. It was no surprise that fish cutlery was catered for this course. This was followed by a Lowlands lamb, described as being on a par with or better than that from the Karoo, served with winter vegetables of carrots, beetroot gnocchi, and kalamata olives, and paired with Thelema Merlot 2011. It came across as a little too salty, and I may have bitten into a salt crystal which the chefs had used.
Chef Constantijn prepared the fifth surprise course in the dining room, using liquid nitrogen to create an Orange Nitro Mousse meringue ice cream at -200C, served on top of soft chocolate ganache. The dessert dish was prepared by Chef Amoré, a choux bun, apple mousse, and a rhubarb parfait, served with Klein Constantia Vin de Constance 2008. I was impressed that both Chef Amoré and Chef Constantijn came out of the kitchen after the dinner, asking if the meal had been to our satisfaction.
There was very little that I could fault about the first dinner, and I felt guilty to be enjoying more of the Hartford House spoiling lined up, given the excellence of the meal. Chef Constantijn was amazing in receiving the feedback after both dinners, and overall when we sat down on my last day. I have never experienced an interaction with a chef who proactively seeks feedback about his and his team’s meals. I was impressed with the long hours which the kitchen team of twelve works, noting from Facebook that Chef Constantijn’s day starts early in the morning, attending a managers meeting at 6h30, and the day ending close to midnight, after the dinner service. Similarly, Duncan attends the early morning meeting, which is to make sure that all heads of departments know who is in the house, and share important information pertaining to Hartford House for the day.
I had eaten so well at the first dinner, and breakfast the following day, and decided on a light lunch after I was taken on an extensive tour by passionate owner Mick Goss of the Summerhill Stud farm on which Hartford House is based. More detail about the hotel and property will be covered in a follow-up blogpost.
Lunch is served on the terrace, the KZN mild weather making it an absolute pleasure. The area is dry, and all KZNers are hoping for rain, and I could imagine how beautiful the meals are in Spring and summer when the roses, azaleas, jasmine, and other plants start flowering in the garden. The tables on the terrace are wooden, with woven cane chairs and without tablecloths, but material serviettes are on the table, as is a lily in a vase, and two types of salt, with no pepper.
The Lunch menu is à la carte, and my eye caught two starter items immediately. My first starter dish was a heavenly duck liver parfait, smooth and creamy, nicely plated on a slate plate, with toasted walnut bread, as well as sultanas, fennel chutney, radish slices, celery, and toasted trail mix. All the cutlery types had been set out on the place setting, and as I didn’t order soup, the waitress removed it, squeezing behind me to take it away from the right. It would have been fine to stay there throughout the lunch.
The prawn salad was prepared by new Chef Anand Bhan, a quiet-spoken member of the team, who joined Hartford House in June, after having done a five-month internship at Hartford House for his studies at the Prue Leith Chefs Academy earlier this year. Chef Anand has just been named a Finalist in the Chefs who Share Young Chef of the Year competition, for which he will travel to Cape Town next month, to compete with his ‘Ocean Adventure‘ canapé against six other young chefs. He is the only non-Western Cape finalist. The prawn salad was the most beautifully presented dish visually of all the dishes I experienced over the week, having a base of smoked sweet corn, having lost some of its strong yellow color in the cooking process, confit tomatoes, prawns, paprika, pea shoots, celery, and topped with a striking blue pansy. I overheard a guest complimenting Chef Constantijn on the lunch dishes.
The second dinner was served on the terrace, and while the light was brighter, the heaters had a red glow, so a good light was set up in the lounge, so that I could photograph each dish. I had been spotted with my notebook at lunchtime by a couple celebrating a birthday, and they invited me to share the table with them. They were keen to hear my feedback about my restaurant visits earlier in the week, and I seemed to be on right track in that we shared similar views on the eating experiences.
The theme of the second dinner was ‘On our doorstep‘, in honour of the produce available from the Midlands suppliers nearby. We were served a carrot broth, made with a rainbow of heirloom carrots supplied by Tony of Herbs on the Hill, and goat’s cheese. This course was paired with Saronsberg Viognier 2013. The second course was trout supplied by Sue Hoffman, from whom they receive two boxes per week. It was served with creamy nutty-tasting parsnip, grapefruit, and rosemary foam, and the dish was paired with Cederberg Blanc de Blancs 2010.
The third course was crispy pork belly supplied by Trevor Bannatyne, served with a moist apple crisp, baked turnip, and a light touch of wasabi. This dish was paired with Meinert FCM Riesling 2013. Course number four was Grasslands-fed beef, which was served very rare, too rare for Marilyn, the birthday girl at our table, and served with exotic mushrooms, a non-Banting short rib tortellini, and butternut. I felt that the patterned plate clashed with the presentation of the food for this course. This dish was paired with Glenelly Grand vin de Glenelly 2008.
The surprise course was served in a yoghurt glass jar, described by Chef Amoré as a Chia pudding which had an interesting crispy and crunchy texture, my first experience of this Indian seed. The evening ended off with Chef Amoré’s dessert of bread and butter pudding, an enthusiastic Valrhona smear, Frangelica ice cream, and topped with slices of banana, paired with My Wyn Amber 2012.
I was served endless numbers of dry Cappuccinos during my stay, all perfectly made after I had explained it to the staff.
Chef Constantijn proudly showed me the vegetable and herb garden, lamenting the loss of some of their plants due to a frost attack a few days before. They have created a greenhouse, which Duncan helped plant, to protect the more fragile plants. They have planted Chinese radish, celery, turnips, kale, lemongrass, purple broccoli, chili, and have kumquat and lemon trees. In the greenhouse they have seedlings of tomatoes, saladini leaves, and carrots. They will pick wild porcini next winter.
Chef Constantijn has got to know the key suppliers in the Midlands, using those that offer organic produce, and support sustainable farming methods. When he read the menus to us, Chef Constantijn would tell us the source of his produce. He is Cape Town born and bred, and started his restaurant career whilst still at school, washing dishes in a restaurant belonging to friends of his parents. They paid for him to attend a chef school in Sidmouth in Devon in the UK, being taken through the 3-year kitchen training by a tough chef.
I had a glance at the wine list, Duncan’s pride and joy, and he told me that their list has 49 pages, half of the wines being known and popular brands, and the other half being from boutique wineries. They offer Champagnes as well as local sparkling wines.
Exciting news is that Hartford House is planning to open a Tea House later this year, serving light lunches, offering picnic baskets, and Deli items made in the kitchen for guests to buy to take home, with wines too. Duncan described the Tea House as a symphony of glass, stone, wood, and water. They are extending the vegetable and herb garden around the Tea House, and have been inspired by the garden design by Fabrice Moireau at Notre-Dame d’Orsan, who consulted to Babylonstoren to create their herb and vegetable garden, and visited in France by Hartford House owners Cheryl and Mick Goss.
The Hartford House restaurant team, led by Chef Constantijn, himself only 31 years old, and his two young but goal-driven assistants Chef Amoré and Chef Anand, are a powerhouse, and in a short period of time appear to have gelled to create dishes of the highest standard and most beautiful presentation (see this video), making it the best quality restaurant by far that I experienced in KZN, and worthy of an Eat Out Top 20 Restaurant shortlisting for 2016, continuing the proud tradition of Hartford House as KZN’s best restaurant, even if the cuisine served has changed with the arrival of the new chef team. According to the Eat Out rules, chefs must have been in the restaurant kitchen for 12 months, which will explain why Hartford House will not qualify for the shortlist this year.
Hartford House Restaurant, Summerhill Stud, Mooi River. Tel (033) 263-2713 www.hartford.co.za Twitter: @HartfordHouse
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Tel (021) 433-2100 Twitter:@WhaleCottage Facebook: click here