One step into the posh, intimate space of 5 Rooms was all it took to send the week’s woes slinking off into a corner. Ella Fitzgerald’s balmy ‘I Get a Kick out of You’ soothed our tired brains as we eased into a toasty fireside booth, and the listed preview of Chef Charl Coetzee’s upcoming new menu whispered promises of a gastronomically gratifying evening.
First, a word on the setting: the kind of organic ambience one finds at 5 Rooms is difficult to muster, let alone match. Three hundred years of history lends a classic flair to the Cape Dutch manor house in which the restaurant is situated, and the layout of five adjoining rooms – from which the name is derived – is such that you get the best of both worlds: a sense of privacy while still feeling connected to the rest. The room around us was small but not crowded, softly lit to reveal the oil painting portraits on the walls and the antique tiles outlining the fireplace. It drew out cosy conversation while, from our sequestered perch, we could catch glimpses of the swanky bar in the main room and make out the muted chatter of socialites two rooms over.
5 Rooms could thrive on ambience alone, but lest we thought victuals were an afterthought here, it was nothing less than Himalayan pink salt that filled the salt grinders at each table, and our server Songezo was able to recommend spectacular pairings from the book-length wine list despite the fact that he had to consider a new menu not yet in circulation. My Goats Cheese Panna Cotta was topped with a mild cranberry sauce, silky smooth for spreading on the rye toast. It also came with a smattering of salad items drizzled with fragrant olive oil, roast baby beets, and toasted walnuts, which worked to curb the creaminess between each bite, as did the Warwick White Lady Chardonnay (2011) with its oak-textured citrus notes. Speaking of creamy, the Grilled Scallops featured three kinds of creaminess – from the delicate texture of the scallops to the buttery cauliflower purée and the yeasty Asiago dumplings – rounded out by a few sprigs of watercress and toasted almonds. Aside from the fact that I had hoped for chewier dumplings, I was pleased to see that both dishes were faithful in delivering exactly what the menu indicated.
“We’re not trying to compete with the fine dining establishments,” Chef Coetzee told us. Instead, what’s important to the recently appointed Executive Chef is delivering a straightforward, satisfying meal. To this end, the portions are unstinting, and the balanced design of each dish is cognisant of the fact that some will opt for a single main dish instead of a full-course meal. The Lamb Rump, as an example, was a sizeable order highlighting lamb cooked two different ways. I say “highlighting” here because despite what he said, Coetzee’s thematic focus and execution for each dish still exuded distinct whiffs of culinary poise. One slab of meat was a steak, the other braised to extraordinary tenderness then breaded and fried like donkatsu. The variation on the meat kept the dish interesting while the minty white bean salad – cleverly light-tasting despite its ricotta content – paired up with watercress to freshen the taste buds.
Likewise, the Beef Fillet, which came looking like a Caesar-salad-themed spring dish, turned out to be deceptively substantial. The concept seemed simple and cheery enough, but with the anchovy hollandaise over the fillet and the bacon as well as the soft-boiled eggs and parmesan, it actually turned out to be a serious protein meal. Recommended to match was the Glen Carlou Grand Classique (2007) with its evenly rounded cherry-chocolate flavour. As with the others, we found the dish to feature a well-executed cast of components which boosted the focal point – a faultlessly medium-rare fillet – to its full potential. Although Coetzee did mention that he’s working on some portion adjustments, it was very clear that each dish had more than just volume working in its favour.
Then came the Chocolate Peanut Butter Fondant. At the first break of that glorious molten centre, my husband and I demanded that our stomachs expand to make room. The fondant was velvety and dense, as every fondant should be, and we found it to have just enough of a peanut butter presence to enrich the dark chocolate. My only qualm was that the accompanying ice cream was plain vanilla (if I may cite my preference, vanilla bean would have done beautifully).
Also found at the Alphen are the Rose Bar and La Belle Bistro & Bakery, but if what you’re looking for is a fuss-free alternative to the usual fine dining experience, 5 Rooms might just be the place. Between the well-aligned flavour profiles on the menu and the warm, sophisticated ambience, it’s certainly a worthy way to spoil your significant other. The new seasonal menu is set to debut in early October.
by Esther Lim
Five Rooms, The Alphen Hotel, Alphen Drive, Constantia
Contact: 021 795 6313 or firstname.lastname@example.org