Restaurant review: Lord Nelson, Cape Town
By Anna Trapido, 6 August 2019
Once upon a time, chefs did what they did behind closed doors and high-end restaurant theatrics came care of well-rehearsed waiters. Whether it was tableside tossing of Caesar salad and steak tartare or the carving of Chateaubriand and flaming of crêpes Suzette, super-skilled service staff were the stars of the show.
Then the world economy changed. Available time, space and cash contracted. Long serving, professional waiters with experience, knowledge and training were replaced by cheap-and-cheerful teenagers passing through. Rents rose and floor space shrank. Setting fire to food requires high ceilings (so as not to inadvertently activate smoke alarms) and widely spaced tables through which guéridon trolleys can roll. By the mid-1980s, front of house performance art had petered out in all but the most old-school and uncool establishments.
Diners ought to be able to entertain themselves with erudite chitchat but let’s face it many of us can’t or won’t. Something had to fill the gap left by the decline and fall of tableside tricks. In the modern era, many of the walls between restaurant dining rooms and kitchens have been knocked through so guests can gawp – à la fly on the wall – at kitchen staff working. Often, diners are not the only flies on the wall.
All of the above is sad for several reasons. First, because tableside service is super-fun for diners. Second, unlike the carefully choreographed silver service routines of yesteryear, kitchen staff, at all levels of seniority, seldom seem to recognize their new role as entertainers. In recent months, I have seen everything from grubby dishcloths and chef ear picking to full on cocaine rages. I trust my gastric acid so I don’t particularly mind that they do such things. I just don’t find it restful to watch them at it. Finally, the death of tableside service has changed the power and prestige dynamics between front and back of house. It is no coincidence that the cult of celebrity chef ran rampant when the guéridon trollies were packed away.
Human nature is such that whenever something becomes deeply outmoded it is ripe for revival. And so, it is that, all over the world, guéridon trolleys are rolling back into smart restaurants. At Jason Atherton’s Berners Tavern in London, the deconstructed pork pie undergoes its epicurean autopsy while diners wait and watch. Manhattan’s Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park boasts a smoked-sturgeon cheesecake with caviar hollandaise prepared tableside.
Cape Town’s recently resuscitated Lord Nelson restaurant at the Mount Nelson Hotel is an ideal spot for trolley service. After years of trying and failing to make the cavernous space that was The Planet restaurant work, Mount Nelson management have finally seen sense and reverted to using the hotel’s original 120-year-old dining room as their flagship eatery. The space has all the trimmings of a well-funded, iconic hotel – think thick carpets and curtains, heavy linen, and ornate, gold overhead light fittings. This being the Mount Nelson, it also has original, 19th century pressed plaster freezes depicting the agricultural output of the Cape and Natal colonies and that of the Orange Free State Republic.
Executive chef Rudi Liebenberg has curated a menu that recognizes the mood and history of the room (diners past include Noël Coward and Rudyard Kipling) but skillfully avoids museum-piece pastiche. Classic French fine dining dishes are made simpler and less cholesterol heavy than the original recipes but not dumbed down. It is almost impossible to resist the retro-chic joy of the classics but those who can tear themselves away from the prawn cocktails and beef Wellingtons will find a selection of more modern offerings with a nod to the South African spice repertoire (e.g. roasted seabass with spinach crust and masala roasted cauliflower). Throughout the focus is on superb quality, eco-epicurean ingredients sourced from local small farmers, fishermen and foragers.
The tableside service is terrific. Chef Liebenberg likes to train and he has been not only teaching the Lord Nelson waiters guéridon food preparation skills but also the associated culinary history. Waiters generally like tableside trolley work – it increases their skills, status and tips – but the quiet pride and joy offered up the Lord Nelson front of house staff reflects an appreciation that good service is an art. They know how to do the job, why they are doing it and where the techniques originated. If you want to know the history of Charlotte Russe or understand Escoffier’s empire, the Lord Nelson waiters are Cape Town’s go-to guys.
I chose steak tartare for my main course (R250). Waiter Shepherd Conceyo wheeled in a guéridon trolley laden with bowls and bottles. Seldom have I seen such a masterful union of theatre and cuisine. Knowledge, skill, charm and humour were tossed into the mélange of artery red, raw beef, an egg yolk, chopped shallots, cornichons, capers, parsley, Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco. The result was bright, fresh and extraordinarily good.
For dessert, waiter Linga Ndudula and pastry chef Biatha Nkomo teamed up to ignite the beautiful baked Alaska (R95). Nothing beats the magical improbability of ice cream remaining cold and firm while encased in a bouffant puff of flaming meringue.
I don’t live in the Western Cape so when I am there I tend to pack more fine food into my days than is healthy. Prior to my evening at the Lord Nelson I had had quite a large, boozy lunch at Terroir in Stellenbosch. I am not asking for sympathy, merely explaining why it was that I drank only mineral water when the restaurant boasts a multi-award-winning, local and international wine list with the kind of varietal, style and vintage depth that befits an historic hotel. The offering is indicative of a significant cellar built up over many decades not a wine list drawn from recent wholesale trade. There is a nod to modern consumer tastes with a large selection of vegan-friendly wines. The nearest thing to a criticism I could find was the relatively few boutique wines.
The Lord Nelson’s weakness is also its strength. Chef Liebenberg seems much more interested in upskilling and empowering his team than in being a star. So much so that he has let his own creativity take a back seat. Anyone who ever ate his food at the Saxon in Johannesburg will know that this is very sad indeed. The Lord Nelson’s more modern menu items are delicious and skilled but they carry the telltale signs of having been created by sous chef Dion Vengatass. The executive chef’s spirit is present in the pride of the waiters and the technical prowess of the kitchen staff who work under him but not in the specific culinary creations on the menu.
Life has phases, priorities change and running the kitchens of a huge hotel is a demanding job. There will undoubtedly be a generation of young chefs and service staff whose skills can be directly linked to chef Liebenberg but I selfishly miss the other Rudi. I suppose what I am saying is that I want to have my cake and eat it. I applaud the redistribution of power that has let the front of house staff be stars but I want my kitchen star too. Such is the talent of chef Liebenberg that I think he can make both happen. I await the spring menu with breath that is baited…
Lord Nelson at the Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel: 021 483 1000; 76 Orange St, Gardens, Cape Town
- 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.