Eating at Nelson Mandela Bay restaurant Muse is more than just enjoying a plate of food: the young owners see it as a sensory experience.
In keeping with its nouvelle cuisine orientation, Muse aims to serve fresh, light food with a strong emphasis on presentation.
Married couple Allan and Simone Bezuidenhout own and run Muse, leaving the kitchen of the five-star Boardwalk Hotel on the Gqeberha beachfront in 2015 to do so.
Pastry chef Simone fashions edible jewels that look too good to eat, while Allan focuses on the savoury.
Both of the Bezuidenhouts, however, are versatile and award-winning chefs which makes Muse one of few restaurants where — even in this laid-back coastal city — you do have to book ahead because the pre-Covid-19 demand is gradually rising once more.
It’s rated number one out of 245 restaurants in the city on one well-used website but, deliberately, does not fall in the category of Fine Dining.
Fair enough, says Allan, who isn’t aiming for a starched linen and cut crystal ambience but for a relaxed setting, where all ages feel comfortable.
It’s been a winning recipe as Muse has weathered the pandemic and is thriving.
“We are missing the foreign trade, but the locals have been wonderful in the way they have come out and supported restaurants,” notes Allan.
Ingredients are everything, with delicate flavours and presentation that are contemporary yet classic, and African yet cosmopolitan.
Touches of molecular gastronomy
“We use small touches of molecular gastronomy to enhance our menu and the diner’s experience. That allows us to take what our grannies and our parents taught us and then just up the style a bit. If you look at our menu, it’s hearty food but it’s plated in a modern way with some molecular twists.”
Lamb rump, Parmesan arancini, olive, corn on the cob, smoked tomato salsa and red wine jus is one of the favourites, for example.
When you think of it, lamb with mealies and gravy sounds old-school Afrikaner food, but there are not many oumas who would present it with clouds of smoke sizzling up from hot rocks releasing the aroma of Karoo fynbos.
There are similarly imaginative choices for fish, chicken, pork and beef while a dish like the deliciously creamy harissa risotto — black rice, brown mushroom, roasted corn, baby marrow and parmesan — will satisfy even the pickiest vegetarian.
Our waiter, Pippa, tipped us off that the Bezuidenhout desserts were spectacular and she was right: the deep-fried almond and cranberry nougat, champagne jelly and rosewater ice cream was exquisitely plated.
The molecular twist in this dessert came in the fragrance of rosewater smoke wafting over the nougat, giving just a hint of eating Turkish delight.
The caramel fondant, chocolate ganache, Maldon sea salt and almonds with vanilla pod ice cream is another to sigh for.
Mousses, foams and smokes are not all there is to molecular cuisine, of course.
“It has come a long way so it is not a new thing, it’s just we've been able to go way out with it, and we try to put a molecular element on most of the plates,” Allan says. “We don’t put it on the menu as the element of surprise also adds to the experience.”
That’s part of the beauty of Muse’s food: it is familiar and yet different, where the “surprises” such as smoke are not the main attraction but rather a tantalising tidbit.
Dining at Muse is also a relaxing experience: “We don't turn tables in the sense that we limit you to the amount of time spent in the restaurant — we don't tell you to book for 6pm and be out by 8pm,” Allan says.
Food as an art form
The name Muse itself also reflects the inspiration the couple take from ingredients — fresh, natural and local as far as possible. They also make their own flavoured vinegars and cheeses.
“We see food as an art form and chefs as the artist. We stay inspired by changing our menu seasonally.
“This keeps it fun and fresh for both our patrons and chefs. It’s more than just food. It is a sensory experience.”
Ethos of foraging
Although the nature lovers do not go foraging on the seashore of Algoa Bay as much as they used to (perhaps a 15-month-old toddler has something to do with that), it is still part of their ethos.
“When we change the menu for winter, I’m thinking of doing some mushrooms and micro-greens, things that we could forage,” Allan notes.
The small restaurant takes up to 32 guests, and if the infamous Gqeberha wind is not blowing, diners also can sit outdoors and enjoy the Stanley Street vibe.
Despite rumours that Muse was moving from this Richmond Hill restaurant strip to Main Road in Walmer, the Bezuidenhouts assure guests “we're not moving anywhere”.
• Muse is open from 12pm from Tuesday to Saturday and the kitchen closes at 10pm. Booking is essential: call 041-582-1937 or 073-991-5011.