Chef Chantel Dartnall does not follow recipes --- her imaginative creations are sublime improvisations.
Chantel Dartnall is making breakfast in a heightened state of awareness in the small kitchen next to her restaurant, Mosaic. She is plainly too busy to speak to me, but is too polite to say so. She is flitting between the stove and a counter, cracking eggs with one hand then poaching them in pans over a big pot of boiling water. Breakfast is in full swing and a few dozen wine tasters are expected for lunch.
A sous chef is slicing fennel with a mandolin, while another is greasing tiny moulds. There are piles of empty plates all over the kitchen, some ceramic slabs with pieces of silver rock baked into them, others of wood, like little platforms for the food.
Mosaic is deep inside the fortress that is the Orient, a boutique hotel about half an hour outside Johannesburg in a conservancy with zebra, buck and giraffe. Surrounded by a high wall with a heavy wooden gate, it is a confection of minarets and stucco, thickly planted with trees; a bit like an oasis.
I starved myself ahead of the grande dégustation, which is a three-hour, seven-course meal.
The table is set for a feast with at least three wine glasses and an array of cutlery.
There are also three small pots of butter — plain, herb and anchovy — so you can start to experiment with the bread basket. There is ciabatta — one with olives, another with sun-dried tomatoes, basil bread, rye and a seeded loaf.
And then the courses start coming. First, the amuse-gueule, a sweet beetroot tuille filled with soft, herb-infused goat’s cheese, a smear of beetroot purée and a piece of marinated radish, and an excellent glass of Villieria Cap Classique.
Parade of flavours
Then comes a finely sliced scallop ceviche, dressed with spheres of “saltwater pearls” made with slightly salty water dipped into a bath of Algin, an extract of brown algae. At the slightest pressure of your tongue they pop in your mouth. Another plate has a satisfying ball of deep-fried cauliflower purée and a frothy cup of cauliflower cappuccino, which you could eat with a spoon.
This is followed by a foie gras-filled macaroon — one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten — and then a trout confit perched on a mound of celeriac, cooked with balsamic glaze and a bit of Granny Smith purée.
And then my grease-stained notes become confused: a mushroom purée, shaped into a small mound, reminiscent of a miniature Matterhorn; a rock lobster with a langoustine cannelloni, made with egg white, lemon zest and interleaved with baby langoustine tails and black truffle, surrounded by pieces of beautifully cut vegetables and flowers. And finally, a truffle sauce that is so good I consider drinking it straight from the gravy boat.
A pause — and then a narrow plate filled with about 10 different kinds of local and imported cheese is washed down with a glass of muscadel.
I will remember the apple tart as long as I live. It is coated with a caramel sauce infused with star anise and vanilla — once as it comes out of the oven and then again when it is reheated and served with a vanilla crème anglaise. I can no longer lift my pen and there are still the petits fours and coffee to come.
Earlier, I meet Dartnall in the kitchen next to a giant pot of gently bubbling venison stock. The bones, she explains, are cooked with a mirepoix (a combination of celery, onions and carrots) and tomato and a lot of cabernet and merlot for 48 hours. Then it is strained and a new mirepoix is added with meat offcuts. This is simmered for 12 hours, then strained and reduced for four hours.
“It takes four days,” says Dartnall, “Some people may say you can make it in, say, four hours, but …”
There is another small pan on the stove with a thick juice of vanilla, star anise and orange juice. This is to be used to confit the orange zest accompanying a chocolate dessert. Once strained, the liquid will be added to orange bergamot ice cream.
Dartnall has more than two-and-a-half-thousand cookbooks and is the only person I know who actually owns a copy of the giant Modernist Cuisine by Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young and Maxime Bilet. It is arguably the most exhaustive (and certainly the heaviest) cookbook written to date.
But Dartnall, who won the Eat Out chef of the year award three years ago, says she does not follow recipes and “young chefs find it difficult to work with me … a peach doesn’t taste the same every day. Sometimes it will need 25g of sugar [for a sorbet] and tomorrow you may need 50g”.
She prefers to call her cuisine “botanical” cooking, “which starts with the sourcing process, the person who grows the vegetables, the person who collects the pigeons”.
She is trying to bring diners closer to the “true experience of the ingredient. Some dishes are easy to create … some nag at you, so I move on to something else and suddenly it all comes together and I know that’s the component missing from the dish and it’s ‘yeah, this is cool’.”
Matthew Burbidge was a guest at the Orient Hotel. Visit the-orient.net and restaurantmosaic.com