Eating the occasional not-very-good meal is an occupational hazard of being a food writer. As occupational hazards go, there are worse ways to earn a crust. Mostly I ignore disappointing dinners and focus instead on the many more interesting offerings out there. It is the combination of poor food and eye-wateringly expensive prices that stirs me to write up my experience at the recently reopened, Four Seasons Hotel The Westcliff in Johannesburg.
This iconic hillside hostelry, previously owned by the Orient Express group, closed its doors in June 2013 and has undergone a US$52m renovation. Flames Restaurant, which opened in early December 2014, is the first of what is set to be a series of restaurants at the hotel under the management of Executive Chef Dirk Gieselmann, who has previously worked at several Michelin-starred international establishments.
My first experience of the 2014 revamp was odd on every level. First, the architects and interior designers have done what one would have thought impossible, in that they have managed to significantly damage the view. The Westcliff is set atop the Parktown Ridge among the enduring, jacaranda-laden grandeur of the world the Rand Lords made. Over the years, the food at the Westcliff has had, at best, a patchy reputation but it has always been indisputably lovely to look out from. To date, the terrace tables have offered up a panoramically present yet soothingly uplifted overview of one of Africa’s most dynamic cities. The imposing majesty of the highveld landscape has hitherto been everywhere apparent.
Not anymore. A new elevator with macho steel struts blocks what was the side view into Parktown and on into Braamfontein. Even when one is not directly looking at the afore mentioned lift it infiltrates peripheral vision and damages the expansive sense (that previously consistently came after one cocktail) that anything was possible in the city of gold.
Even staring straight ahead metal support struts and spindly trees in pots cut the splendour into bite sized, manageably uninspiring chunks. Where once shone an optimistic, expansive David Hockney-style azure swimming pool hit by the glories of Southern Hemisphere light, there is now a small, slate grey ‘infinity’ pond. Its smallness and greyness serve only to underline that the water therein is anything but infinite. Booming speakers behind and a dark, covered roof over the terrace completes the sense of constraint. The international nature of the crowd at a Four Seasons surely means that if they wanted confined and grey they could treat themselves to the real thing in London?
The kitchen at the Westcliff seems to have been cursed almost from the day it opened. There was a brief moment of glory at what was then the Belle Terrasse restaurant when Chef Sven Niederbremer was first at the helm but even that soon faded. Since then Chefs Stefano Strafella, Dario d’Angeli, Nicky Gibbs have all tried and failed to make this kitchen their own.
One doesn’t envy the challenge that awaits Dirk Gieselmann. We’ve seen it all before. The arrival of prestigious international glamour cooks ought to be a welcome infusion of talent and training but invariably such chefs are horrified by the lack of skills in their support staff, overwhelmed by the politics of race and resentment that infuse our kitchens, confused by the lack of respect shown to kitchen professionals by hotel management and demoralised by the quality of ingredients they are offered. They seldom stay. I hope I am wrong but I give this appointment 18 months tops.
So there we were, two adults and a child who sat down to lunch on the terrace of Flames. We all felt older, wiser and a little sadder by the time we left. Terrible, dust-dry bread rolls were served without butter but curiously with tiny tomato sauce bottles. Neither the rolls nor the risotto balls that followed them had any seasoning. While going easy on salt and allowing customers to add their own is generally a good thing, everything requires a modicum of seasoning and there was none. The risotto was so tasteless that one felt that it must have been made with water not stock. Curiously the risotto balls were served with a Marie Rose sauce that had been made with an unmodified, unpleasantly acidic tomato paste. The same tomato paste that was slathered on the semi-cooked pizza (with soggy central dough and burnt edges). The chips that came with the Club Sandwich had the reconstituted graininess of pre-cut packet product. The ‘surf and turf’ Caesar salad was topped with chicken and prawns. A classic Caesar has a pre-existing surf element in the form of anchovies which were entirely absent from both the dressing and the body of the salad served at the Westcliff. The prawns were floury. The croutons were tasteless. The dressing had none of that exhilarating umami-laden, briny blast that happens when anchovy meets Parmesan in the perfect ratio. I would lay my head on a block that the cheese used in the Caesar was not Parmesan and that whatever it was it, the same dressing was used on the Club Sandwich. Neither was seasoned.
Saddest of all were the desserts. Chef Vicky Gurovich (previously of the Mount Nelson) is at the helm of the pastry department and yet my table received a waffle so stale that it had to be sent back. The ‘caramel’ sauce appeared to be cream coloured with brown sugar not caramelised sugar combined with cream. The apricot sorbet with the macadamia tart was very flavoursome and superbly smooth but the accompanying macadamia tart was cloyingly sweet and the pastry was leaden. The espresso was okay but unremarkable.
The menu is littered with spelling and grammatical mistakes. Monster (sic) cheese competes with ‘buark’ (I asked the waitress apparently they meant quark) to confuse customers. Italics where none are required (see broccoli) are scattered throughout the document as are unnecessary adjectives (fresh fish). Capitals for Traditional Condiments but lower case for ‘margarita’ (sic) pizza – I could be wrong but I have always thought that it was Margherita pizza, named after 19th-century queen consort of Italy, Margherita of Savoy and Margarita the drink, created in 1948 for Dallas socialite Margaret ‘Margarita’ Sames.
Service was pleasant enough but anxious. Waiters seem to know that the food is not good – our failure to finish more than half of any dish set in front of us went unremarked upon. When my companion complained and sent back the waffle it was immediately removed from the bill as if this was a regular occurrence. Managers are unnervingly omnipresent and hovering but do not ask relevant questions. It is as if they know that there is a big problem and are exhausted from trying to sort it out. They swoop towards tables as if they are about to ask about the obvious issues there upon and then at the last second change course as if they don’t have the heart or energy to engage with complaints yet again. The bill came to R800 (after the waffle had been removed from the listing). We had two mediocre cocktails and a single bottle of mineral water. I had the only cup of coffee.
Given the obvious exhaustion of the staff, I feel unkind writing up the experience but R800 is a lot of money and I do want to spare others the expense and disappointment of a trip. This was hands down my most disappointing and over-priced meal of 2014.
Flames at Four Seasons Hotel The Westcliff 011 481 6190; 67 Jan Smuts Avenue, Johannesburg.
- Dr Anna Trapido was trained as an anthropologist at King’s College Cambridge and a chef at the Prue Leith College of Food and Wine. She has twice won the World Gourmand Cookbook Award. She has made a birthday cake for Will Smith, a Christmas cake for Nelson Mandela and cranberry scones for Michelle Obama. She is in favour of Champagne socialism and once swallowed a digital watch by mistake.