Johannesburg - The quiet of dusk descends and the shadows chase the sunlight up and off the face of the hill in the distance. A last defiant ray of the sinking sun spears through the windows of a tower… or is it a minaret?
I’m having an Omar Khayyam moment:
Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:
And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultan’s Turret in a Noose of Light.
But it’s evening, and it’s the day that has been put to flight. The ramparts of the fort are still clear and I expect fearsome robed warriors to come thundering over the horizon on Arab stallions.
Reality check. Thirty kilometres outside Pretoria?
Yes. The Moorish-style architecture of The Orient initially jars on the senses, sprawled as it is on one side of the Crocodile River Valley. As you wind down the tarred driveway, you are greeted by a massive entrance portal, closed by a huge, carved, heavy wooden set of doors. No portcullis, no moat.
At first glance, it appears tacky. Another Montecasino type development with all that entails in terms of faux culture and kitsch. Once you’re inside, though, it’s anything but. The furnishings and the style are top class… there is no other way to describe it. From the carved wooden floors, bed headboards and window shutters (acquired from all over the world, including India, Indonesia and Malaysia) to the Persian carpets and the original artwork, via the silks, velvets and pure cottons of the cushions, sheets and bedspreads; there is an aura of good taste and elegance.
The restaurant at the hotel, Mosaic, has been exquisitely crafted, with fine wood, upholstery and etched glass and mosaic work which is a copy of an eatery on the Champs-élysées in Paris.
There are 11 individual suites, each with an Eastern theme. The one we stayed in featured a four-poster bed that was 150 years old. There is grandeur, but also a sense of relaxation as if to reinforce the truism that real elegance is a natural thing.
An elegant way to while away the time is in an art gallery… and The Orient has a unique collection of the sculptures of Tienie Pritchard in a museum on the premises. Pritchard was one of controversial figures of 1970s South African art, shocking the cultural and political establishment with his figures (often of nude people, especially women). One of the most famous was banned soon after it was erected outside the Pretoria municipal offices, following protests from groups such as the Vroue Federasie and others who believed it was the work of a depraved mind. That statue – and it is a massive and intriguing bronze of a family – now occupies pride of place in the courtyard at The Orient.
The museum houses a few dozen other pieces, all collected over the years by The Orient’s owner, businessman Cobus du Plessis. He and his partner Mari have collected the various artefacts over the years of travels across the globe.
Elegance, relaxation – and an “escape in the city” (where you can chill out and be pampered a short drive from home) – are what The Orient is all about.
As the evening descends, and we sit with sundowners on the balcony of the suite, we watch zebra moving about almost soundlessly. The Orient is on the Francolin Conservancy, and there are a number of animals, including kudu and giraffe, which wander the area.
The treat of the evening – and the highlight of any visit to The Orient – is the seven-course “dégustation” menu in Mosaic, presented by Mari’s daughter, Chantel Dartnall. After high school, she enrolled in the Prue Leith College of Food and Wine in Centurion. After graduating, she worked in London for chef Nico Ladenis at his restaurant, Chez Nico. At that time, Ladenis and Marco Pierre White were the only chefs in London to earn three-star Michelin Guide recognition.
To call Chantel a chef is almost to devalue her stature: she is simply an artist who works with food. And, lest you think I exaggerate, first indulge yourself at Mosaic… then (try to) call me a liar.
I am no foodie, but every single course is superb – and the food is matched by the presentation and in the exquisite attention to detail… such as the plates shaped like a Japanese Zen garden (complete with protruding rocks) which accompany a scintillating fish dish.
Each course is paired with a suitable wine – and here The Orient knows what is it doing, having been honoured recently with a diamond Diner’s Club award.
Du Plessis plays a major role in keeping the cellars stocked – not only with the local greats but also with tastes from afar. He and The Orient’s sommelier, Cape Wine Master Junel Vermeulen, have a choice of around 25 000 bottles in the cellar.
Each course looks beautiful but, in the beginning, I wonder whether what look like tiny helpings will be enough. It’s misleading, though, to think that. Chantel says she often has parties of people which include big beefy rugby player types who say they will be left hungry afterwards… and she offers to cook them anything on the a la carte menu for free afterwards if they’re still peckish. She’s only had to do that once.
We spend over two hours eating, tasting, savouring and talking. This is what fine dining is all about. Time and taste. When we finish, we are satisfied in so many ways.
Breakfast is a follow-on… and, for me, a treat: a designer meal to kick off the day. Superb ingredients, combined in a left-field sort of way, open up new culinary vistas. And this is breakfast…
The Orient is not a cheap place, but then top quality never is. The tasting menu is an experience to treasure and, seen like that, well worth the R700 or so per person. Staying over, just for a night, is the icing on a tasty cake – again not cheap but a unique experience and a way to forget the stresses of the city.
On the brochure for The Orient is its catchphrase: Sanctuary for the Senses. For once, this is not hyperbole.
l Brendan Seery was a guest of The Orient boutique hotel.
Phone 012 371 2902/3/4 or 083 600 0231; www. the-orient.net - Saturday Star