A winter feast in Knysna
After a day spent exploring Knysna's Diepwalle Forest, I had been looking forward to dinner for hours by the time I arrived at the Conrad Pezula, the luxury hotel and spa with famed views of the Knysna Lagoon and a reputation for the culinary arts.
As I sat down to dine at Zachary's restaurant, I was wondering how the food would compare to the sensory feast of the forest. I wasn't disappointed. As I worked my way through the seven-course Menu Gourmand, my only concern was that I'd have to describe in words the dishes that executive chef Geoffrey Murray prepares. His food is a language in and of itself, and he's been perfecting it in Knysna for the past 10 years.
The amuse bouche set the tone – an oyster simmered in a 2009 Jacques Bruere Blanc de Blanc Method Cap Classique (and served with a glass of the same), complemented by slivers of smoked trout and caviar. It looked beautiful on the plate, but I was hooked by the delicate balance of flavours and textures that unfolded in my mouth. Each pop of the fish roe was a delight and I savoured every mouthful.
I loved the shitake mushroom broth made with duck confit, puffed wild rice and home-made pickled turnip, which was served next. The wine, a 2011 De Grendel Op Die Berg Pinot Noir, seemed to hold all the flavours of this autumn-inspired dish, which was characterised by extraordinary mouthfuls of flavour and a combination of distinct taste sensations – from surprising crunchiness to earthy smoothness.
My favourite dish of the evening (although the broth came a close second) was the course I usually like the least: the fish. It was kingklip, served with Jerusalem artichokes, white bean puree, and a flavoursome warm clam and chorizo vinaigrette. No two mouthfuls were the same, and as I sipped the 2011 Cape Chamonix RSV white, a 60% Sauvignon Blanc and 40% Semillon blend, I was unable to focus on anything except the food on my plate.
This was followed by grilled, matured Karan beef fillet – my only complaint being that the portion was too generous! Served with escargot, bone marrow, smoked butter and potato puree, and some crispy truffle onion rings, this hearty dish said ‘welcome winter’ in strident tones. Served with a 2011 Dalla Cia Giorgio, I was sad to have to leave a little of the meal on my plate, but was determined to have room for what was still to come.
The sacrifice was worth it as I bit into the Fynboshoek Farms cheddar cheese biscuit, served with slivers of the robust cheese, pickled plum, pear and plum sorbet, and a delicious NV Ambeloui Rosanne Method Cap Classique, perhaps my favourite wine find of the night. This dish was also the most challenging for me, pairing flavours and textures that surprised me; I'm not sure I managed to reconcile the flakiness of the biscuit with the sorbet.
The Felchlin 49% chocolate bar was amazing – salted cashew nut brittle, lime and milk chocolate ‘aero’, and the most amazing salted caramel ice cream – served with a 2009 De Trafford Straw Wine, its honeyed tones evident in taste and appearance. It was a delight to eat, a finale of flavours that each held their own and teased my palette.
Just after the chocolate truffles and petit fours were served, chef Murray came out to chat to my table. I was both tongue-tied and effusive. He was charming and warm, and spoke with an honest and under-stated passion (a word I rarely use) about his approach to preparing his menu, his dedication to using local and organic produce and products (his chocolate and his truffles aside), and how in the 10 years that he’s been living and working in Knysna he’s built up friendships and relationships with suppliers. He sang the praises of his team (who earlier had been singing his) and spoke of his love for the forests and the sea.
In the same way that great artists can make you experience something with completely fresh eyes, chef Murray’s menu allowed me to experience food – and through it Knysna – in a completely new way.
In my opinion, he absolutely deserves his reputation for being able to infuse his food with a sense of place and seasonality. I’m not a foodie or a food writer, but I loved that nothing I ate was predictable or expected. In the same way that great artists can make you experience something with completely fresh eyes, chef Murray’s menu allowed me to experience food – and through it Knysna – in a completely new way. He’s creating a dynamic, delicious narrative of a region; it goes way beyond cooking – it’s art.
Category: Food & Wine