The Silver Orange Bistro, Hartbeespoort, nestles in the shade of fever trees on the Altyd Mooi citrus estate. Chef-patron Leon Nel grew up on the farm and his eatery occupies the cottage and gardens where his grandparents once lived. Ouma Nel’s retro-bling Venetian chandeliers glitter above the interior tables. In a nod to the Portuguese ancestry of the chef’s mother, al fresco eating occurs on a veranda decorated in blue and white Azulejo ceramic tiles.
The good news for everyone is that, for the past two decades, The Silver Orange has consistently been the best bistro in the North West province. This good news is made even better for me because it is only five minutes from my house. The bad news for all of us is that in recent years the fabulousness has become widely known and booking is now essential in what was once a walk in on a whim, hidden gem.
The location is lovely but it is chef Nel’s creative, contemporary South African style that lures diners back over and over again. The phrase ‘South African style’ can mean so many things. Here it is a superb chef with extensive international experience and training applying his skills within South African sensibilities, with reference to terroir specific ingredients and flavour combinations. Nel’s work is rooted in the environment without ever feeling folksy or trapped by tradition. He is entirely his own man but if one were to compare Nel’s work to anyone else, it would be that of Michelin starred chef Jan-Hendrik van der Westhuizen Restaurant JAN in Nice, France.
The menu at The Silver Orange deliciously blends elegant, thoughtful, classic techniques with vivid, idiosyncratic comforting generosity. Generosity is code for big flavours and even bigger portions. The two closest cities to the bistro are Pretoria and Rustenburg where hearty helpings are non-negotiable. Come hungry and expect to leave full to bursting.
To start we chose caramelized onion and goats’ cheese tart (R60) encased in gloriously golden pastry and set upon an edible landscape of wild leaves and flowers. The bistro’s signature duck and fig samosas (R65) were crispy and light, sweet and spicy in all the right ratios.
My pork belly main course (R170) was topped with a wedge of crunchy crackling and surrounded by a big, sticky, white port-laden pork jus. A butterbean and mealie mélange offered soothing carb-laden contrast against the invigorating, sweet-sour tang of caramelized orange zest swirls. Every great dish has a centre of gravity, an essence that pulls together all other ingredients to form a coherent and compelling whole. It’s not necessarily the ingredient that headlines on the menu description but it is fundamentally what the dish is about. In the case of my pork belly, the lemon wielietjies were that exquisite epicurean epicentre.
My husband had lamb shoulder (R190) enrobed in a glistening, chestnut brown, hanepoot-enriched demi-glace sauce. The flesh was soft enough to part from the bone with a spoon. The accompanying creamy, sweet potato mash was most worthy of the aforementioned very fine gravy.
For dessert we shared a superb sliver of smooth, deep, dark, blissfully bitter flourless chocolate cake (R60) with a crackle of praline and more preserved citrus slivers– is it a criticism to say that oranges come up a lot on the menu when the eatery is on an orange farm and called The Silver Orange? If I had to find other faults with the food, I suppose it is possible to argue that the menu is not so much meat-heavy as vegetarian-light. There are plenty of aquatic options but only one main (a vegetable curry) is made without flesh. It is hard to say if this is a fault or simply a sensible assessment of the eating habits of people in the North West province.
The menu is focused on meat and this is reflected in the 23-page wine list – which is another way of saying that it matches the food. While it is predominantly South African (listed by region, style, producer and varietal), there are also three pages of Portuguese wines (listed by region) and a page of Champagnes. The mark up is approximately 100% throughout. Diners are invited to examine the display in a well-stocked foyer cabinet for ports, brandies, cognacs, Armagnac etc.
The Silver Orange Bistro manages to be delightfully laid-back and completely on point at the same time. Service is smooth, well informed and eager to please but also unobtrusive. For those of you who don’t live around the corner, it is (as they say in the Michelin Guide) “table excellente, mérite un detour.” Although that would suggest 2 stars rather than Restaurant JAN’s 1.
Silver Orange Bistro: 082 3782948; R513, 400 meters from Mfula Junction, Hartbeespoort. North West Province, Silverorangebistro.co.za