At Elephant and Co, in Pietermaritzburg’s brand-spanking new Athlone Circle shopping centre, the decor, service and ambience are all top class, getting that complex alchemy that makes for a good restaurant experience just right.
The outstanding element is undoubtedly the decor. With walls and ceiling painted in a brilliant shade of sapphire blue, which contrasts with the black and white herringbone floors, the focal piece is an original oil painting on canvas of an Eden-esque scene which spans the full height of the 5m wall. It was painted by an artist in India and shipped over rolled up in a tube, chef and co-owner Gregg Oosthuizen tells me. It was worth the effort. In combination with the floor-to-ceiling lead-paned windows, enormous, frosted glass lights that seem to float like balloons above the tables, and oversized blue velvet couches, it helps give the feel of a Paris conservatoire - whimsical yet achingly stylish.
The food is good, too – beautifully presented, healthy portions that taste great. Having run popular PMB restaurant Sagewood Café (an equally delightful yet very different spot which they also own) Oosthuizen, along with partners Con and Sue Malherbe, jumped at the chance to create an eatery in the new centre.
On the menu, you’ll find fresh salads, inventive breakfasts (served all day), tartines and a selection of mains which includes staples steak tartine, Madras lamb curry, almond apple pork and multiseed chicken. There is also a good selection of daily specials, such as beef bone marrows, smoked pork ribs, a seasonal vegetable pasta which tempted me and a beef and prawn burger which sounded great.
We went with a portion of Asian fish bites to share as a starter, followed by the yellowtail fillet for my husband and the Madras lamb curry for me. They were all beautifully presented, full of flavour and generous in portion.
The fish bites were tasty, if a little dense, but the coconut sauce made up for that small gripe. The yellowtail was cooked to perfection and the veggies served with it an ideal accompaniment.
Brett wasn’t convinced by the lemon butter masala sauce, not being a fan of fish curry, but remarked that the fish was succulent enough that he didn’t miss a sauce. I’m always nervous to order curry in a restaurant as I don’t like it hot but I was assured by our delightful waitress that I’d enjoy it and she was right. Spices there certainly were, but they were flavoursome rather than fiery, and it was a good choice for a rainy afternoon. I loved that it was served with a fluffy flatbread, which offset the curry, rather than the usual rice.
The restaurant incorporates a bakery where you can purchase artisanal loaves and delicate pastries. We went to the patisserie counter to select dessert which was presented to us all dollied up on a wooden board. The slice of chocolate baked cheesecake and individual lemon meringues were delectable, and if I lived in the area, I would certainly be back regularly for both - and to taste the other treats on those gilded shelves. Fortunately for my waistline, that will have to wait for my next trip inland when I’ll definitely plan a second visit to Elephant & Co.