Set in the exclusive residential enclave of Sandhurst, The Saxon evokes a refined elegance that celebrates the South African heritage. It also holds a special place in the nation’s history as the retreat where Nelson Mandela completed his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, after his release from prison. The suite where he stayed is named the Nelson Mandela Platinum Suite, which overlooks the infinity pool and beautiful gardens.
Beyond the hotel’s imposing high-security gates, your eyes are greeted by towering fuchsia bougainvillaea blossoms that grace 10 acres of manicured gardens. The Saxon has only 53 bedrooms, suites and villas, which classifies it as a boutique hotel, although it has the feel and look of a private residence, having been the home of South African-born entrepreneur and businessman, Douw Steyn, who still owns the property. Every nook and cranny is styled with contemporary touches and earthy tones, halls decked with photo galleries portraying Steyn’s life and career, and a collection of African arts and craft. A sense of serenity pervades here, and it’s easy to find your favourite spot – at the Eighteen05 Bar, a cosy sofa in the Piano Lounge, the Spa or poolside terrace dining area. Those seeking more privacy head for one of three exquisite villas linked to the main hotel by a glass-roofed pathway meandering amid lush treetops.
The Saxon has been recognised as ‘Africa’s Leading Boutique Hotel’ in the World Travel Awards 2014 and 2015. Above all, it takes pride in the sensory dining experience offered by its signature restaurant, the five hundred. It starts with the clever use of illumination to add dramatic effect: rows of wineglasses on mirrored stands cast reflections on a dark grey wall; black leather chairs contrast against crisp white linen tablecloths. Much like a theatrical treat, the state-of-the-art open kitchen decked with low-hanging lamps serves as centre stage from which Head Chef Candice Phillips and her team perform their culinary repertoire. From where they stand, the audience (diners) disappears into the darkness, with only the glimmer of standing lamps spotlighting the centre of each table.
Surprises come in many guises, and on this occasion, the pièce de résistance arrives in the shape of an opaque sphere flecked with gold leaves and delicately perched on a bowl. Under strict orders from the server, this ball is to be left alone until the end of the meal. If you choose a six-course menu, the longer you have to wait, although once the dishes start coming at perfectly timed intervals, the surprise is temporarily forgotten.
Five hundred’s six-course menu is a popular choice, and when you count the moreish pre-dinner nibble and post-dessert treat, it adds up to eight. But who’s counting? Not every single ingredient is mentioned in the menu though, which is not a bad thing. Let the taste buds do the talking, discerning nuances in every bite.
Thin slices of tender Cape crayfish mingling with seasonal greens and seaweed make a great start, and being experimental and going against the grain is what makes food here exciting. Scallop mousse? Indeed, this complements the huge West coast mussel, its texture balanced by smoked ‘popcorn’ crumbs. Pork is very versatile, so the Pork ‘taco’, otherwise known as crackling, takes its place in a trio, along with the ham hock terrine and tender barbecue pork cheeks.
Halfway through the menu, the secret ball of gold waiting in the sidelines had shrunk to half its size. Then comes the Veal loin, along with sweetbreads poached in milk and truffled French toast, all topped with grilled asparagus and garnished with apple morsels and herby leaves.
The fifth act is not for weight watchers. Depending on personal preference, Karoo Gorgonzola may be substituted with camembert or brie, served slightly softened and accompanied by prickly pear and a ginger and honey sauce.
An Impala loin in the four-course menu may intrigue more adventurous palates. This is served with pumpkin seeds, guiness braised leg, sweet potato and ginger beer. After all, this is South Africa, where Springbok and Ostrich are specialities.
By the time the table is cleared the mystery ball, as if by magic, had melted into the bowl, revealing a pre-dessert palate cleanser in the form of a refreshing beverage. This wonderfully healthy infusion consists of fennel, ginger, lemongrass, citrus and chilli, garnished with wild flowers from the hotel’s own organic vegetable garden. This is followed by a cool finalé of very light strawberry and watermelon squares moulded to resemble a Battenberg cake.
Don’t put the embroidered linen napkin away yet. If there’s such a thing as a dessert museum, this last act deserves to be in it for sheer artistry. From the chocolate to the gold leaf and sugar ‘veil’, every element is beautifully handcrafted.
Epicures can take the journey further at five hundred’s private dining room, where up to eight guests get special treatment during a Six-course Ruinart Experience involving pairings of champagne with foie gras and caviar. During intervals, it’s worth observing the goings on at the open-plan Chef’s kitchen or perusing the collection in the glass wine cellar just behind.
When guests come to five hundred, they expect something special, and they leave knowing they have taken a pretty special culinary journey that is rare in Johannesburg – and perhaps in the world.