I’ve long been puzzled by the disconnect between our country’s thriving foodie culture and its world-renowned safari experiences. It seems that for most of these lodges when it comes to food and wine, it’s often an afterthought, secondary to the rest of the experience.
So, I was eager to see what chef Monaheng Moloinyane had been serving up at Fifty Seven Waterberg – a lodge which not only seemed to be promoting their food offering but actively highlighting it as a key part of the experience they offer.
Moloinyane, who attended the Steyn’s Culinary School before taking up a position at Pretoria’s much-loved Black Bamboo restaurant (which has closed in recent years), is as exciting a young talent as we have in South Africa right now. As executive chef, he has done a fantastic job of bringing his fine-dining techniques, skills and seemingly natural flare for flavour to the bush. Creating a diverse and interesting culinary program which elevates what one has come to expect from a lodge dining experience.
Those avid game viewers who fancy an early morning wake-up will have it made all the more worthwhile. For in addition to Welgevonden’s abundance of fauna, flora and wildlife, there’s also the possibility of a breakfast in the bush. The chef and his team serving up both a continental and hot breakfast within the natural surroundings. Think a selection of in-house baked sticky buns and flapjacks with rich creamy yoghurt and a selection of seasonal fruit.
It’s then on to the chef’s “57 breakfast” – in all respects a classic breakfast was it not for the addition of a game sausage, in this case eland, bringing a sense of place to this plate. (Bush breakfasts can be organised on request and are weather dependent)
While at the lodge, breakfast is taken up a notch, after the continental breakfast (this time with a selection of sweet and savoury pastries) is served, guests have the choice of five hot breakfasts, including prosciutto benedicts with creamy hollandaise or a superb little breakfast pot – a 63-degree sous-vide egg is served with meatballs, a tomato ragu, pesto and parmesan.
The slow cooked egg most often found on fine-dining menus rather than breakfast ones, has been perfectly cooked and the consistency of the toffee-like yolk works wonderfully with the intricate flavours and textures of this dish. It’s a smart yet deceivingly simple bit of cooking.
As the days warm up and people tend to be enjoying the luxury lodge’s other amenities -including solar heated private pools and in-room massages – the chef opts for a more casual menu. Each day, he serves up an ever changing, revolving selection of café style dishes.
There’s the kingklip served atop a bed of bulgur wheat and roasted butternut, dressed in a chimichurri, or the Asian inspired ramen bowl with melt-in-your-mouth pork belly and a deep, rich onion broth. Another day may offer up a crispy fried chicken thigh burger, served on a homemade bun, topped with melted cheese and a spicy chili mayo and accompanied by more-ish thick cut fries.
It's simple food that shines for what it is, big flavour, easy eating. Perfect for lazy days on the deck overlooking the water hole.
Here’s where the chef really shines, pulling out all the stops to offer an array of different dinner services depending on the day and occasion.
The highlight is the four-course celebration menu – which featured some of the best dishes I’ve had this year. The multi-course menu is a showcase of the chef’s prodigious skill. Start with a hearty slice of freshly baked focaccia – a crisp salty crust, giving way to a light fluffy crumb, simply served with a garlic butter.
This is followed by delicate slivers of fennel cured salmon, served with burnt apple puree and fresh spekboom. The dish is completed by a pour of cucumber gazpacho – it’s a tasty and well composed dish, classic ingredient combinations playing so well together.
Next comes the cauliflower - a revelation – just a few humble ingredients delivering hefty, gob smacking flavour. A roasted cauli-steak is served with pickled cauliflower slices and a cauliflower dukkah while an apricot chutney balances the spices, and a touch of mint brings an element of freshness to this seriously solid dish.
A duck main is up next, the tender breast is served with interesting textures of watermelon and lumpfish roe – the watermelon curry sauce, admittedly surprisingly, worked so well with the duck and the lumpfish roe brought a touch of saltiness to the dish. Once again, a demonstration of the chef’s knack for flavour building and balancing.
The meal culminates with a crème brulée, the rich custard base with its hard caramelised sugar top is served with Chantilly cream, fresh gooseberries, oatmeal crumble and a mango sorbet. Clean, refreshing and just sweet enough, it’s a fantastic dish with which to end the meal.
In addition to the four-course, the chef also offers a three-course with an option of two heartier main meals, as well as the game lodge favourite, a boma dinner. The fire-side meal, once again elevated, includes a glorious open-flame cooked ostrich fillet with an harrisa topping and sprinkle of chives, and homemade sausage together with hassleback potatoes and a beetroot, rocket, butternut and feta salad.
Overall, a phenomenal safari experience. One where the beauty of the luxurious suites and African bushveld has been met with a very clever culinary offering. It’s modern, considered cooking, which still manages to fit comfortably within its natural surroundings – no need for gels or foams or theatrics. An impressive exercise in restraint where the constraints of cooking so far out of the city are stretched to magnificent proportions. It’s a trip worth making for the food alone.