April, 2017: Just outside Knysna on South Africa’s Garden Route is a rare dining experience. At least, rare in a nation full of die hard animal eaters. It’s intimate, slightly bohemian and… VEGETARIAN. VegTable is a tiny vegetarian restaurant hidden down a small country lane on a small patch of land called Mermaids Rest. We headed there for a cheeky Thursday dinner.
The first thing we notice when we enter the little cottage on Mermaids Rest farm is the twinkle of candle light and the slight hint of wood stove smoke. Three other tables of our fellow diners are comfortably spaced around a small glassed in verandah. The ‘dining room’ is small enough that everyone stops a moment when we enter (we’re last), but only long enough to smile a warm hello before getting back to their conversations. A friendly face appears wearing a chefs apron and a pair of Havaianas and must be chef Brett Garvie. Brett introduces us to Ruth, his one and only sidekick and then shows us to our table. An old school wood stove burns happily in the corner and music lilts gently in the background. VegTable feels like going to dinner at the home of one of your vegetarian friend’s places who is a gun cook. In fact it was Brett’s house.
I don’t know about you, but the first thing I think of when I think South African food is more likely to be a braai full of boerwors and lamb chops. It’s definitely not a menu which proudly features only seasonal fruit and vegetables. This is what Brett offers at his vegetarian dining extravaganza where he combines classic French techniques with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavours. The ingredients for VegTable are sourced from Mermaids Rest itself, local tiny producers, the sea shore or from what Brett finds himself in the forest. With only 4 tables to feed 4 nights a week, Brett can keep things very small scale and be very flexible with his menu. He can take a basket of figs here or a whole bunch of herbs from there and keep it very manageable for just himself and one helper. It’s a very slow food, farm-to-table philosophy and it has been working successfully for Brett for seven years.
Brett has long had an appreciation for gardening and allowing nature to do it’s best work before taking food to put on the plate. From the small chats we had in between him serving up each course, it feels like he is an organic gardener first and chef second. That isn’t to downplay Brett’s culinary skills in any way but you can tell that the priority is on sourcing the most primo ingredient and then treating it with respect in order to deliver something delicious on the plate. Before VegTable kicked off, Brett used to work in permaculture during the week and then in a restaurant kitchen on the weekend. Eventually the opportunity to take a lease on Mermaid’s Rest presented itself. Brett realised that he had the perfect location for a small and intimate little vegetarian restaurant for his two passions. The rest is history.
So what did we actually eat at this vegetarian’s paradise? We started with a trio of eggplant (aubergine); little involtinis stuffed with ricotta and mint and another with babaganoush and then a rich and delicious morsel of eggplant parmigiana which we didn’t want to end. Next was a salad of roasted pears, beans, peas and feta which was fresh and tasty but we felt would have been better held back to come with the rather full on main. Our third course was a super rich and luxurious cannelloni of blue cheese, broccoli and spinach topped with an equally rich and garlicky aillade* sauce. The cannelloni was pretty epic but if you weren’t a blue cheese fan, it might have been a bit of a punch in the face. And, while the aillade sauce was delicious, we couldn’t help thinking that maybe a slightly less rich sauce would have been a better option. Finally was a dessert of baclava wrapped figs, fig and wild honey sorbet and pistachio turkish delight. This was a great way to finish with the filo pastry encasing the fig being perfectly flakey, with just enough buttery, nutty goodness.
As the coffee plunger was pulled away and we finished off the final sups of our wine we were both chuffed with a super lovely evening. While we both left feeling very satisfied we couldn’t help feeling a little like the R400pp price for the four courses potentially set expectations a touch high for the food we ate. The setting and service was bang on and we certainly enjoyed ourselves but we felt we payed for fine dining but instead got a rustic and delicious home cooked meal. Having said that, the overall experience and intimacy that Brett has developed in his little patch of forest is totally worth the visit.
VegTable fine print:
- VegTable is open Wednesday – Friday evening from 7/7:30pm in winter and 7:30/8pm in summer. Given there are only 4 tables and 4 nights of service, reservations are definitely required.
- Brett serves a constantly changing 4 course menu including tea/coffee for R400pp. Cash is required as there is no card facility. BYO all your drinks as only filtered water is served. Corkage is free.
- To get to VegTable from Knysna, you take the N2 towards Wilderness until the Rheenendal road (about 10 minutes). Turn right onto Rheenendal road and then follow it for 5.6km until you see the Mermaids Rest farm sign on the right. Follow the little road until you hit the fence and then keep following it around until you reach the cottage.
*NOTE: Aillade is a classic french condiment of walnuts, garlic and oil. Brett’s version combines fresh and toasted walnuts along with some toasted pecans. Delicious!