If a coach schlepping box-ticking tourist had pulled up outside the Mount Nelson 20 years ago, half the guests in the hotel would have packed their bags indignantly and checked out.
Today it’s this grand old dame’s stock in trade. Back then, in my early twenties, I had many a long chat with Sir Laurens van der Post on the stoep. (He always encouraged me, though he probably didn’t have restaurant reviews in mind.) When Marlene Dietrich stayed here she was apparently mistaken for a chamber maid.
The men of letters, the wealthy individual travellers and the degenerative upper classes that followed them have now given way to throngs of decadent nouveau riche boozing it up in the Planet Bar and scruffy film crews who spread themselves on the carpeted lounge floor tapping away at laptops and shouting into cellphones.
Despite the recent assault on its sensibilities, the Nellie remains gracious, from the columns of its Prince of Wales Gate built in 1925 for the Royals’ visit to the refuge of its manicured gardens.
A few years ago the establishment came under fire in the National Assembly for being too white. It now appears to have taken transformation to heart if belatedly and has done a very fine job of refurbishment. Truth be told, when the Orient Express bought the place in 1988, it was literally splitting apart at the cornices.
The renovations in 1994 included subdividing the huge dining room, where a pianist would play from a gallery balcony, into a function room and the Cape Colony Restaurant. The partitioning wall is now covered by British painter Simon Brady’s trompe l’œil mural of period gardens facing Table Mountain with colonial depictions of soldiers, servants and a few awkwardly stiff vervet monkeys. The opulent setting sports faux Lalique shades on torch lights, gleaming elephant-headed silver ice buckets, padded tables with starched white linen cloths and a magnificent vaulted ceiling.
As someone who loathes recorded music when dining, the Mike Perry Jazz Trio strikes just the right vibe.
Although you could easily spend a small fortune, starting with R280 for a flute of vintage champagne, you can dine finely here for what you’d pay at many less opulent restaurants. The same way medical aids love stories of astronomical hospital bills to terrify premium payers, one suspects the Nelson enjoys its reputation for scandalous pricing to keep its hotel clientele insulated from the hoi polloi.
Even if you chose the three most expensive courses, the lobster bisque (R150), which is one of the best in town, a fillet of Norwegian salmon (R160) and house-made, chocolate-themed petit fours (R55), your meal would come to R365; not cheap but not gobsmacking for that special occasion. The extensive wine list has reasonably priced wines (listed well to the back, I should add) — a Backsberg Cabernet 2005 for R164 a bottle and a De Meye Little River Shiraz for just R29 a glass. Both are excellent quality.
Also contradicting its many detractors, the service at the Mount Nelson has long been casual if not unabashedly familiar.
The menu is divided into a Classical selection and a Contemporary Asian-influenced world fusion miscellany. The duck terrine (R70) combines guinea fowl with classic duck confit and, although listed under classic dishes, it’s served on a porcelain floor tile. Strikingly presented, the dish is rather insipid and can’t stand up to the sourdough toast accompanying it. In contrast the laksa (R65), a green curry coconut soup with shredded chicken, blanched prawns and glass noodles, is sumptuous and piquant without being overpowering.
Given the setting, the temptation to order the springbok shank potjiekos (R145) in a traditional cast-iron pot is almost irresistible. In keeping with the tradition, though, try the beef Wellington (R290 serves two). Seared fillet is wrapped in puffed pastry, baked in the oven and topped with mushroom duxelles. The meat remains succulent, even rare. A giant portion, it could have served three of us.
For dessert I recommend the intriguingly entitled “is it green or red?” — a selection of apple desserts (R55). I won’t spoil the surprise. The vanilla brûlée (R50) is perfect, having exactly the right splintery crust while remaining chilled at the base. It is served with a pistachio shortbread that is a masterful disguise for calories.
On my last visit, shortly before the bill arrived, three ants crossed the table. Yes, thank goodness, with all this, we could still have Africa too.
Cape Colony, Mount Nelson Hotel, 76 Orange Street, Gardens, Cape Town. Open Monday to Sunday for dinner (6.30pm — 10.30pm). Tel: 021 483 1948.
(The bill was R694 for two, including a bottle of wine)