I was introduced to the Rambling Vine when staying at the Mount Grace for a romantic weekend getaway last year. While those special moments with my partner and the pampering in the spa were undoubted highlights, our dinner at the Magliesburg’s country estate’s much-lauded restaurant was also a memorable event in itself.

I recently had the opportunity to return to the Rambling Vine and find out if executive chef Franc Lubbe had retained a firm grasp on his establishment.

Little has changed in the d̩cor Рthe blue chairs peppered with oversized crimson wingbacks and elegant wooden screens. The Rambling Vine can seem a little stuffy at the start of the evening with most guests speaking in hushed reverential tones, but as dinner progressed a more relaxed buzz settled over the diners.

The restaurant describes its ethos as “simple food prepared to perfection with uncomplicated flavours, using the best ingredients with a preference for free range meat products and organic vegetables”. And so my partner and I set out to put this to the test.

I kicked things off with a ricotta and black summer truffle ravioli on a guacamole and bay rocket salad finished with beurre noisette (i.e. browned in butter) asparagus spears starter (R45). Most restaurants of this category have an irritating need to offer overly complex descriptions complete with French culinary terminology, but then again this perhaps adds to the mystique of a superior meal.

Unfortunately, this starter was neither mystical nor superior. Thanks to heavy handed use of lemon drenched guacamole, I could taste nothing else; neither the ricotta nor black summer truffle. It was a real disappointment.

My partner made a much better choice: a trio of oysters each served differently; tempuraed with teriyaki sauce, with mango and Spanish red onion salsa and au naturel (R55). Each mollusc was an explosion of flavour. The tempura oyster was a particular revelation. A thin crispy batter with a spectacularly fresh and creamy still-raw oyster in the centre. Delish indeed.

Other tasty-sounding starters on offer included beef carpaccio (with warm mushroom salad and a soy and caramelised onion jelly), pea and basil soup (finished off with white Italian truffle oil and a mint infused foam) , and a blue cheese soufflé (with saffron and hanepoot poached pear).

Things further improved with our mains. I chose the pork fillet rubbed with thyme butter and wrapped in pancetta served with a trio of ravioli and finished with a forest mushroom cream (R140). It was a fusion of contrasting textures, the crispy pancetta beautifully encasing the tender pork, and layered flavours; each mouthful offering a lovely complex experience.

My partner had the dressed Atlantic sole served on a bed of baby marrow ragout and accompanied by a squid ink risotto and finished off with a star anise buerre blanc (butter sauce made with a reduction of vinegar and/or white wine) – (R155). This too was quite delectable. Well balanced flavours and soft, perfectly cooked sole. I polished off his risotto – topped with an unexpected grilled prawn – before my partner could. Once again, the most was made of layering flavours to extend the impact of every bite.

Other main options included Karan beef fillet, green Thai chicken curry, rump of lamb, gnocchi and a butternut risotto. As with the starters, not an extensive menu – but one that offers quality and freshness over quantity.

While the portions are not overly generous, they were filling and so we chose to share a desert. And that would be the coconut crème brûlée served with a lemon Bavarian cream garnished with honeycomb dust and a pink pepper corn tuile (that’s biscuit to you). (R45). I don’t have the world’s most finely tuned sweet tooth but to me this was very acceptable indeed – especially the accompanying Bavarian cream, which was cheesecake-like. My partner gobbled it all up.

When it comes to wine, you can’t go wrong with the Rambling Vine. There’s a very well-selected and comprehensive wine-list on offer and the Mount Grace’s sommelier Milton Makhaza is available to guide you through it. In fact, the Rambling Vine scored a Diamond Award at the recent 2010 Diners Club Winelist Awards.

What I love about the Rambling Vine is that many of the dishes on offer may at first glance seem pedestrian in that they are common on many restaurant menus. But at the Vine they are prepared, presented and accompanied with interesting twists which see them stand out from the rabble. There’s that element of comfort but with a stylish level of sophistication and adventure.

The Rambling Vine is a little out of the way if you’re in Joburg or Pretoria – situated somewhere in-between the two – but it took us less than 50 minutes to get there from Hyde Park. My recommendation is to pair dinner with at least a night’s sleep-over at the Mount Grace (or a whole weekend). It’s a great treat for a special occasion such as an anniversary celebration. Will I be back next year? Most likely – and I look forward to another intriguing and satisfying meal at the Rambling Vine.

The Rambling Vine is open from 7 to 10pm, for dinner only. For bookings contact the hotel reservations desk on 014 577 5600. Visit the Mount Grace website:

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