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The Lord Milner’s old Set Menu spars with its à la carte successor

The Lord Milner’s old Set Menu spars with its à la carte successor
Great dish: Biltong ravioli, deep-fried.

Change is a good thing. Ingredients do cost more today. There were things about David Rawdon’s Matjiesfontein that could have been done better. All of these things will be accepted by the many people who have known and loved this characterful little gem of a village in the lower Karoo. But something’s gone a bit awry, and needs fixing.

The dining room of the Lord Milner Hotel — named after a colonial type I personally have no time for, but there it is — is one of my favourite spaces on the planet, so this is personal. The room has played host to more dinners, breakfasts and occasions — involving family, friends, the odd murder mystery weekend, et al — than I can remember. At any table in any part of the room I can picture ghosts of ourselves from one or other night of the past decades. Keith, our late, great praise singer (long story) giving one of his erudite speeches. The night the Stellenbosch Maties group in costume mooned the entire room, with the ever refined Margaret putting finger to mouth and quietly commanding us: “Rise above it!” This with a derrière inches from her face. Us retiring to the old red London bus, parked in the grounds, with bottles of wine and much glass-clinking of toasts. Only recently, our daughter fulfilling her lifelong wish to wed there. And the hotel and management did a splendid job of all that: Massive credit and gratitude.

The recent “food history”, if you like, of the room dates to the days in the early Seventies when David Rawdon, having bought the place, did a major renovation and put it back on the map with aplomb. It became highly sought-after, and regular punters soon got to know and love its eccentric spirit — including its eccentric menu, from Hot Logan Soup to the groaning hot and cold puddings of the dessert board on a grand sideboard at one end of the room.

It was always an old-fashioned set menu, with options, and an overall price. You’d have the Hot Logan Soup — a remnant of Matjiesfontein founder James D Logan’s soup served on the railway platform to fortune-seekers off to the diamond digging in Kimberley — or the chicken liver pâté, perhaps the Cape Malay-style pickled fish. There was always roast leg of lamb with mint sauce or Laingsburg lamb chops. They’d always be succulent and napped with old-fashioned mint sauce, the sort Ma made. I’d always get an extra chop, just by charming our waitress. (Sorry, Rawdon family.)

The 300g sirloin, with wedges and potato rings and a mushroom sauce.

When the late hotelier Liz McGrath had a management contract to run the place after the death of David Rawdon, it was decided to introduce an à la carte menu in favour of the old set menu. Prices soared. Some of the à la carte dishes were very good, if not always in the Matjiesfontein tradition. The kitchen and table staff tended to look somewhat perplexed.

McGrath subsequently also left this coil, greatly missed by those who knew and loved her — not least the careful hand she had on the place, keen to preserve David Rawdon’s legacy while ensuring the place stayed in the present.

A few weeks ago we spent a night and went into the dining room for dinner for possibly the hundredth time. One of us ordered the pan-fried hake. It was just awful. I wouldn’t have served it to my dog, if I had a dog. This, for R155. I can get a much better piece of hake, perfectly cooked, at any branch of Ocean Basket, for less. It was scrawny and over-cooked, dry and tasted only of the oil it had been cooked in.

Anyway, some weeks passed and we were back there this week. With an open mind. And I am happy to say that, by and large, I was both relieved and pleased to find that the food was fairly good. Not brilliant, but nothing like that horrid hake. Having said that, we both avoided the fish, for reasons that should not need explaining — and there’s a thing: just one bad meal, and whoever did not enjoy it is never likely to order it again. Even if you do improve the recipe. I wouldn’t take my chances for R155.

The lamb chops on the current menu.

Like on so many, many occasions over the decades, I ordered the Grilled Laingsburg Lamb Chops, for R180. The chops were succulent enough but were smothered in a nondescript sauce, so that you couldn’t remotely taste the lamb’s natural flavour. Not that I didn’t enjoy them, but compared to the old simple lamb tjoppies, not nearly as good. They have, however, retained some of the old tradition by including some good old sweet vegetables in the mix. While not to everyone’s taste, it’s just something you expect in this dining room. So a tick for that.

There was a decent steak, a 300g sirloin, with onion rings, potato wedges and mushroom sauce. But, really, no imagination there. Just an okay steak, okay onion rings, okay wedges, and the sauce too gloopy. For R175. For R175 I want some extra effort, some thought.

But we had preferred our starters. Mine was a winner: Deep-fried Biltong “Raviouli” (really), at R75, with what the menu termed a “white wine valute”, cream cheese and Parmesan. It was delicious and of a much better standard than the menu’s spelling. (Come on, guys, you know us, give us a call, we won’t charge.) The “Hot Logan Soup” was vegetable soup, our waitress told us, but a big bowl of tomato soup arrived. Very good tomato soup, but not what you’d think of as vegetable. For R60.

Also on the starter menu is a Twice-Baked Cheese Soufflé (R70) served with baby leaf salad, pickled onion, avo and a cheese straw, and this: Crispy roasted pork belly with fondant potato, caramelised apple and balsamic reduction (R75). We did not order it, so I cannot say whether it was any good, but that has to be the weirdest starter I’ve heard of in a long time.

The old dessert board on the groaning sideboard is long gone, in its place only two choices: Apple and Dried Fruit Crumble and Malva Pudding (both R65). There is a “Karoo Pedro”, though, for R50, if that counts as a dessert. It brought a smile, Liz McGrath having told me over lunch at the Cellars-Hohenort not long before she died, “Tony, Dom Pedros are back!” She knew her stuff, and her market, and was in touch with trends even in her nineties.

It wasn’t a bad meal. It wasn’t necessarily worse, overall, than the food on the old-style set menu. This, again, in the context of us not having ordered the fish. But was it so much better that the rather high prices would be happily accepted? Not remotely. My ravioli starter was the only menu item that scored high points; all the rest was okay to good enough. And that’s not really good enough is it? DM

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