The five enormous trees from which Camphors derives its name are national monuments – they were declared such back in 1942 – and the restaurant is situated on the venerable Vergelegen estate, originally granted to Willem Adriaan van der Stel in 1700.
Don’t, however, imagine for a moment that the weighty sense of history and heritage here means that the food is in any way staid, old-fashioned or stuffy. Created by Cape Town-born chef Michael Cooke and his team, the cuisine is resolutely contemporary, with an emphasis on enhancing the flavours of key ingredients, as well as on the creation of flavour profiles that combine the food with Vergelegen’s outstanding wines in innovative – and utterly delicious – ways.
Cooke joined Camphors as executive chef in 2014, and the restaurant has now developed a formidable reputation, having moved into the Eat Out Top 20 restaurants list in 2015. In 2016 it was named number 10, and then in 2017 reached number six, in the Eat Out Top 10. In addition, in 2017 Camphors won the Woolworths Eat Out Restaurant Sustainability Award. (Over 80% of the ingredients used at Camphors are sourced from small producers, many of them local, as well as being responsibly foraged on the estate itself.)
Translating all these flavour, food and sustainability principles into delectable dishes at a recent lunch, Cooke and his team created a multi-course menu that showcased some of the surrounding area’s finest produce. The meal began with an exquisite ‘cheese and wine’ amuse-bouche – of its five delicate separate elements, the smoked Stanford cheese-filled cracker with red-wine mayonnaise was a particular highlight. And the entire ‘snack’ paired perfectly with Vergelegen Estate’s superb Chardonnay Reserve 2015. Sommelier Christo Deyzel had carefully chosen wines to accompany and enhance each course of our lunch, and this is clearly an area in which Camphors excels.
Not only does the restaurant offer wine pairings with its Summer Harvest and Tour menu experiences, but it has also recently introduced a novel offering of multiple wine combinations that is encouraging guests to experiment and explore food and wine flavour combinations. Groups of wines, known as flights, consist of three 75ml servings of wine, rigorously selected to complement varied ingredients and flavours in a dish. What this means is that you can taste three wines with a dish instead of one – with the aim being for guests to experiment, have fun and discuss what tickles their taste buds with regard to wine pairings.
Our first course was one of my favourites: simply billed as ‘rosemary-smoked trout, naartjie, radishes, buttermilk’, it was a subtle yet delicious dish featuring no fewer than three trout elements: lightly smoked trout pieces, a delicate trout tartare (bound with wasabi mayonnaise) and trout roe. Sweet and subtly sour naartjie touches – including bruléed naartjie segments and a vinaigrette made with house-made naartjie vinegar – set off the trout perfectly, with a buttermilk dressing adding just the right creamy element to the dish. The perfect finishing touches? Slivers of rainbow and daikon radishes, as well as pickled daikon and delicate radish leaves.
Similarly superb was a second smaller course, ‘springbok tartare, avocado, rhubarb, rose’ and blended flavours that few might previously have considered placing in the same dish. Featuring rose elements (including a rose salt and pickled petals) foraged from the famous Vergelegen rose garden, it was tasty yet light, and perfect for a summer lunch.
A complex and deliciously savoury main course featured Karoo lamb, also presented in a number of cuts and preparation styles, from lamb sweetbreads to braised lamb shank and ultra-slow-cooked lamb shoulder. The richness of the meat was set off by a creamy fennel purée and enlivened by sweet-tart apricot chutney, rooibos jus and fermented mustard seeds.
Last of all came a superbly innovative dessert called ‘pine/apple’ that combined a delicate pine-needle panna cotta (the pine needles are, needless to say, foraged on the estate) with Granny Smith apple sorbet and slivers of the same apple compressed in pine-needle oil. Served with Vergelegen’s Méthode Cap Classique wine, MMV Brut Reserve 2014, this was a dessert to refresh and invigorate on a hot summer’s day.
Camphors currently offers a Summer Harvest menu at just R450 for three courses and R495 for four courses – really excellent value for such brilliant food – as well as options that include various wine pairings that showcase Vergelegen’s excellent wines. For the ultimate experience, choose the Tour menu with wine pairing – at R1 000 per person, this tour de force of cuisine and wine takes you through eight courses of the very best the Camphors kitchen and Vergelegen estate have to offer.
For more information and to reserve a table, visit the Vergelegen website.