Review: Camphors at Vergelegen

The Proposition

Blue-chip Cape estate, spectacular setting, wondrous gardens, superb wines, textbooks of history. Now that is either the most fantastic foundation for a restaurant, or a list of nerve-wracking expectations.*

The Experience

Possibly the only quibble at a recent lunch was the service which lacked the high level of attention to the floor which I’ve experienced in the past, but then again, it was a busy lunch, with many tourists in the house. As for the rest, this account could begin and end with a simple exhortation for you to visit, or revisit, soonest.

A “Summer Harvest” menu offered four courses (with three to four options to choose from for each course), and a “Tour” (degustation) menu with ten courses. Optional wine pairings are available for each. For a while now, Camphors has presented the menus with the innovation of dishes being “graded” according to their flavour and texture “weight”.  Those listed closest to the left margin are “light and delicate”, and each indent to the right describes a move towards the “full and rich”. Here’s what it looked like on a recent visit:

After a delightful bread service that took a local honey theme, the first course was a play on risotto, but instead of arborio or another rice, they used sunflower seeds that had been softened and combined with sunchoke (a “big knobby root vegetable, [with a] nutty flavour profile“). It was innovative and flavoursome, with great textures. The Malay-pickled kabeljou (a local fish, also known as kob) plate was very good too, with properly authentic Malay spice flavours. Notice also the use of amasi (fermented milk, similar to a light yoghurt), a stalwart of African cuisine.

Green sunflower, sunchoke, butternut and quince

For the “second”, rosemary-smoked trout with naartjie, radishes and buttermilk nailed clear and bright flavour, the fish firm and delicious – and trout can easily default to ordinary blandness. Here again, the naartjie (tangerine) added a welcome South African note which played a prominent role in lifting the profile of the whole dish.

Rosemary-smoked trout

Continuing the indigenous focus, the main of Karoo lamb (a three-way with lamb assemblage) was paired with fennel, apricot and rooibos – the last two very traditional ingredients deployed in a novel manner. The lamb was indeed rich (as its position on the menu suggests), but there was enough counter-point in the fennel and fruit to make it a carefully-judged exemplar of a “full and rich” plate.

Karoo lamb with fennel and apricot

As was the dessert choice (“African-Origin chocolate, umeboshi plum, macadamia”) where, once more, the kitchen succeeded in creating a pleasingly complex set of flavours, with the fresh acidity from the pickled stone fruit balancing the richness of the chocolate.

African chocolate with umeboshi plum and macadamia

The Verdict

The cuisine at the current incarnation of Camphors, under chef Cooke, certainly lives up to the expectation that this famed estate engenders, and the unforced emphasis on the local and seasonal is an added pleasure. The service can do with some focus if their generalissimo, Christo, is not around, but always remains gracious. A very worthwhile Winelands visit and easily among the Cape’s top gastronomic echelons.

Camphors at Vergelegen

Lourensford Rd, Somerset West

021 847 2131

*Note that this is a review of the “fine diner” Camphors, and not Stables, which is the estate’s more casual dining “bistro” option. In fact, a recent visit to Stables was underwhelming when compared to experiences over the years, but it does offer space and menus suited to children and is closer to the wine tasting venue if you are on a timeline.

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