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The Restaurant (that was) @ The Nek

The Restaurant (that was) @ The Nek

You’ve got to stay on top of things in the restaurant business, especially at the Cape. Diners can be fickle creatures – and today’s ticket is tomorrow’s cold comfort. As Food Mole recently discovered while writing this very review.

 

The Restaurant (that was) @ The Nek

There’s a lot of talk about teleporting and the like in our household, thanks to the tech interests of the youngest member of the household. There is a certain charm and allure, I concede. But I am happiest in a screen-free imaginary world where the rewards are rich, tangible – and often delicious. In this scenario, I’m invited to review a new fine-dining restaurant in Constantia. I can handle this heavenly realm, so I happily accept. Now this is where you need to keep up and play along. Because things are about to get tricky.

Imagine there’s an air of expectancy swirling around Constantia Nek one balmy lunch-time in November. It’s not the normal buzz associated with this neck of the woods, so to speak. A five-course meal awaits, yes, but that’s not all. The venue, previously Harbour House at Constantia Nek, has been revamped and renamed. It is now The Restaurant @ The Nek, the first fine-dining offering from the Harbour House group (now Life & Brand) – and there’s a new chef sharpening his knives in the kitchen. So far, so good.

First Impressions

So now that you’re at the venue, start to conjure up the restaurant’s interior: it’s been spruced up in a pleasing-on-the-eye Scandi style with well-designed (natural) wood tables and chairs creating symmetry and order. I love the fact that simplicity is the order of the day, here, and that it can hold its own. There are no airs or graces: the tables are laid beautifully but there is no fuss. The place mats have form and function. The wine glasses gleam expectantly. The only flourish is to be found on one side of the restaurant, where the tables are painted white, in the form of a glorious botanical wall paper with an oversized print.

Are you still with me? We’re in a quietly confident destination restaurant that doesn’t need to flaunt its trump cards. The first of those is, of course, the setting. In a world where position is everything, The Restaurant @ The Nek is sitting pretty, perched atop the Constantia Valley with an eagle’s vantage point of the neighbouring vineyards below.

And so, when you imagine yourself entering this light-filled space, your eye is drawn immediately to the view, unfettered thanks to expansive stacking doors that allow for what interior magazines call “a seamless flow” to the outdoors. In this case, it’s a charming herb and veggie garden complete with a bird bath where you can sip your aperitif and sigh as you take in the Constantia Valley’s gorgeous greenery.

The Head Chef

The second trump card is of course the man who is now rattling his pots and pans in the kitchen: talented and talked-about head chef Dylan Laity. And he’s not a figment of my, or your, imagination. He’s fresh from a stint at The Roundhouse in Camp’s Bay, where his efforts were rewarded with Top 21 Restaurant and One Plate Awards in Jenny Handley’s highly regarded JHP Gourmet Guide in 2017 and 2018, Dylan also did his thing in the Aubergine kitchen and picked up other skills overseas, working in London at a Michelin-star restaurant.

I’m proud to be here,” he says humbly. “It’s nice to be back in Constantia, working in this beautiful space and I’m excited to see where this venture goes.” And so are we.

What’s on offer (well…)

First out of the kitchen are delectable morsels – Mozambican langoustine with kimchi, fresh coriander, sesame seeds and salmon roe, served on a bed of amazi and scattered with cubes of Tom Yum jelly. It is fresh on the eye and the palate, with the sweet delicate taste of the langoustine shining through and mingling beautifully with the saltiness of the other elements. A big “yes” to this one! Next up is a tartare-type affair of diced Karan beef tossed in Rooikrans coal oil (intriguing, no?), lemon and a zingy mustard dressing, served on a wooden log (think chic, not clumpy!) and perfectly complemented by caper and apple jam and the surprise crunch of popped rice. Raw beef is not really my thing, but this dish has a lot going for it. And the mild heat of the mustard is spot on.

Then it’s on to the mains, and here Chef Dylan dishes up equally good options for meat- and fish-eaters: the first one is spiced hake with chermoula butter (hints of ginger and paprika) on a bed of carrot-and-cashew nut purée with a swirl of brown butter and served with organic whole baby carrots and carrot rounds. This is a delicately spiced curry, with the flavour of the firm, flaky fish enhanced by the delicious brown butter. But my favourite main is the next one: sliced springbok loin, perfectly pink and tender, marinated in juniper berries and crushed pine needles from Newlands forest (go figure), and served with a celeriac puree, blueberries, semi-dried beetroot and a sprinkling of crunchy kale. There is mint oil somewhere there too, and mushroom “soil”. It is exceptional. It is a dish for which I will return. Or would.

A note to vegetarians and vegans: rest assured, you are catered for with as much attention to detail as the rest of us. On the menu is a delicious roasted cauliflower dish served with Hanepoot grapes, capers and mint, among other tasty options.

And then the memorable dessert arrives. This is where things really get other-worldly. It really deserves a flourish of trumpets. Amid the dramatic swirl of liquid nitrogen lurks a beautiful, enticing creature. It’s an amarula and white chocolate mousse topped with a creamy coconut sorbet and crunchy white chocolate “soil”. At the table, it is sprinkled with lime juice and lychee, frozen into a ‘snow’ using liquid nitrogen. It is heaven on a plate. And luckily the plate is mine.

Should you go? *clears throat*

Hell, yes, in a dream world. Dylan Laity has a confident, talented hand. Most of his dishes are extremely beautiful and innovative, and his techniques up there with the best of them. They render each dish an event, with the unique use of local ingredients, freshly sourced and seasonal, ensuring this is a very fine fine-dining experience. But imagine that, like those pesky video games in our household, there is a dark side to this story. Sadly, and bewilderingly, on the very day I sit down to conjure up these delights and write about them (albeit a few weeks after the event), teleporting back to the charm and grace of the place and the very good meal, I discover – after two hours of trying to recreate this imaginary world in words – that The Restaurant @ The Nek has had its doors slammed shut.

Trying to pinpoint exactly which awards Chef Dylan has notched up, I find the words, “This restaurant has closed down since this review”. It’s confusing. Reviews by fellow guests are up and glowing and still singing very real praises. I dig deeper. And find two more with the same curt message. I’m on to the publicity people and they confirm it’s true. The information on what happened is scant; but I’m not going to worry about all that. You can imagine the worst. This is an interactive exercise, remember. But in the perfect world of my imagination, Chef Dylan rides again. Watch this space. It’s real, after all.

For its short life span, The Restaurant @ The Nek served lunch and dinner from Tuesdays to Sundays. And yes, the view was glorious. DM

The Restaurant @ The Nek was at… oh, never mind.

Gallery

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Otsile Nkadimeng - photo by Thom Pierce

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