FOLLOWING the disastrous flooding of Lavender Barn on the Seaview road last July, Port Elizabeth chef Mauro Nettl was forced to find new premises as his dreams – and his costly kitchen equipment – lay at the bottom of a newly formed lake.
Only his new spot is not so new at all.
Regular restaurant goers will be familiar with iconic country restaurant the Elephant Walk, which for many years was helmed by feisty Belgian Nadia Damseaux. Most who dined here adored her food, particularly the mussels (the few who didn't, might have found themselves frog-marched out the door).
Nadia's decision to outsource the restaurant side of her business to concentrate on her other initiatives – an organic farm stall, antique shop and small indigenous nursery – at the Colleen Glen haven (calling it a "centre" would reduce its charm) dovetailed with Mauro's needs, and so a new partnership was born.
Husband Salvelio and I headed there a few Saturdays ago, but stupidly chose the route around the lake at Lake Farm (when the sign said "flood damage" I imagined a few potholes, not a river across the road.) Of course the water still had not entirely subsided in places and so we had to turn back and drive through Seaview to get to Colleen Glen. This took about an hour from when we left home and so we were famished by the time we got to the restaurant.
We found it fairly quiet for a Saturday night but enjoyed the warm welcome from Mauro and his staff.
The décor appears mostly unchanged (Mauro said he first thought it ugly, but now it has grown on him).
Certainly there's not a trace of the white leather sophistication of Mauro's earlier venture at McArthur Baths. But this place is a different animal; a rustic gem with a heart and genuineness you might struggle to find on a city beachfront.
It had been a while since I ate Mauro's food and so my starter had to be crevettes, the dish he considers his signature. I had it years ago when his restaurant was still in Newton Park and remember thinking to myself: This is the best starter I have eaten in my life. At R59, the crevettes – six prawns bobbing in a tantalising cheese and wine sauce and oven-grilled for added smokiness – were every bit as good as I remembered.
Mauro told us about sculptor Anton Momberg's recent visit – Anton had one portion of crevettes, immediately followed by another. The dish, Mauro said, was inspired by holidays to Mauritius, where it was made with oysters.
"Silver oysters, they were called. It took me a long time to match the taste, and I finally figured out it came from the cheese you use," he confided. Now if only I could have got him to reveal which cheese it was...
For me, it's the little things that make all the difference: toasted ciabatta rubbed with garlic for flavour as the Italians do; Mauro taking the time to personally help us decide on our orders; and spot-on service from waitress Adele.
Another surprising plus was the ready availability of reading glasses, as Salvelio had forgotten his at home. What luck that Mauro's father is a well-known optometrist and an Elephant Walk regular.
Salvelio's starter oozed enjoyable Italian flair (Mauro is part Italian and his small but not uninspiring menu is themed accordingly).
It was a tri-colour treat: a sumptuous pancake filled with ricotta and spinach and topped with béchamel (R39).
Hubby's main course was the dish of the evening: expertly made pork scallops (R89), cooked with mushrooms and marsala, an Italian dessert wine that gave the sauce a very distinct flavour.
My fillet Caruso, 250g beef fillet topped with creamy spinach and bacon (R130), was most enjoyable too, though I found the sauce slightly too salty.
The beef was impeccably aged though, making it one of the best fillets I'd had in the last year.
All of this goodness was washed down by two glasses (R20 each) of Allee Bleue's affordable chenin/sauvignon blanc blend that we enjoyed so much we will be hunting some down for relaxed meals at home.
We shared an excellent crème brulee (R35) for pud and then headed home, bellies full and happy to return in future.
The Elephant Walk is on (041) 3721470. The address is 25 Doorly Road, Colleen Glen. This review visit was unannounced and paid for in full.