Restaurant review #2: Harvey’s

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I think for many people in Durban, Harvey’s is perceived as one of those ‘out of reach’ restaurants, one of those ‘don’t even think about it, it’s too expensive’ restaurants, and possibly one of those ‘God, can you imagine how pretentious it must be?’ restaurants. And hey, I’ll be the first one to put up my hand and say, that Harvey’s is one of the few restaurants left in Durban that I hadn’t already been to for most of those reasons. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind expensive restaurants, especially for special occasions, but for the above reasons, Harvey’s never seemed to be top of mind when we were deciding where to go out for dinner. I also don’t have a problem with getting glammed up every once in a while for fine dining, but I’ve been to pricey places where the best dressed feel out of place and the waiter (even though he earns so much less than you) is looking down his nose at you. But then I thought to myself, “Lauren, really, this is Durban, you’ve been dressed to the nines in a smart restaurant twice before in Durban and you sat next to customers dressed in their neon tracksuits and running shoes. So how snooty could Harvey’s really be?” And having spent an evening in a 2 Michelin Star restaurant in Rome (don’t worry, that story will come soon), and paid those prices, Harvey’s couldn’t possibly make our pockets feel lighter than that. Beside the point, my birthday was coming up and what a perfect excuse to get the hubby to take me there to see if our suspicions were well founded.

I checked out the menu online, as I always do before going out for dinner. Gotta be prepared. The first thing I get drawn in by is this beautifully styled photo of what looks like a prawn salad, then what looks like a dragon roll, then some kind of tuna steak and vegetable tartar. Oh my gosh! I’m hooked! Next I notice how many different menus they have. Eeeek! Exciting! So many choices! They have the a la carte menu, the café menu and the set menus each consisting of their own types of nibbles, gourmet burgers, canapé style dishes, pastas and incredibly complex and modern main meals. In January 2016, they are even introducing a Gourmet Tasting Menu. Totally going back for that!

As if they hadn’t already won me over, I see Fresh West Coast Oysters at the top of the starters list. How did they know??!! I had just been telling Craig that the smell of Tabasco on my fried egg was making me crave oysters like crazy. So off we went.

Obviously I had to get dolled up because it was my birthday, and because it was Harvey’s and because, hell, I’m thirty two now – how much longer am I gonna be able to wear outfits like this and still be able to semi-pull it off?

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We arrived and with totally anticipated professionalism we were greeted at the door and asked if we would like to have a drink at the bar first. Hell yes! Two very cool barman welcomed us in and suggested a few of their favourite cocktails, but we decided instead to try a Gin called Hendrick’s Gin that we had been wanting to buy a bottle of for quite some time now. Double Gin & tonic for two please. Go big or go home! (Psst..if you like gin, hey even if you don’t and you’re keen to try something new – Hendrick’s Gin is described as having a lovely but peculiar flavour, infused with rose and cucumber and made in a remote Scottish distillery – It’s good. Really good. Not convinced? Check out their quirky website http://www.hendricksgin.com)

I always find I’m a little bit nervous at new restaurants, a mix of anticipation, and excitement and fear of the unknown, who knows? But I think only people who love food and dining as much as me can really understand that feeling. The gin & tonic helped. We sat and chatted for a bit and admired Harry’s (Yes, not Harvey’s) Cocktail Bar. The whole one side is stacked up with black shelves filled with old books and trinkets and mirrors and skulls which is apparently a glimpse into the mind and a taste of the interests of the Owner, Andrew Draper. Sometimes very dark, but very cool and mysterious maybe? For the summer evenings, they have an outdoor area as well which I would imagine comes standard with one of those scary looking bouncers guarding the velvet rope. Fancy!

We were then escorted to our dinner table through the main dining area, which again was adorned by dark shelves up to the ceiling filled with antiques and huge mirrors and kitch-collectables. Above us hung the hugest crystal chandelier I have ever seen, which combined with the overall lighting and décor, really made me feel like we had been invited to a dinner party in the 1920s or 30s. How awesome!

The next thing I noticed, and yes I know this is weird, was when I sat down, I felt like I was just the right height above the table. Only short people will understand this, but how often do you go to a restaurant and sit down and feel like the table is just that little bit too high and your arms are permanently in unnatural positions trying to coordinate knife and fork movements, while subsequently trying to avoid knocking your elbows against the top of the table? Kind of making you look like you are doing a slow-mo chicken dance. No? No idea what I’m talking about? OK, well it’s just me then. But my point is that it’s the little things like that – putting thought into table to seat height and customer comfort – that can take your overall dining enjoyment from average to great.

Our waitress was super friendly and chilled and a breathe of fresh air really. She could tell us what her favourites were and explain any detail of a dish to you. I always need to know how my Duck breast is going to be cooked, so these kinds of waiters are my fave. So fussy. I know, right?!

We had a huge wine list to choose from, and having spotted our bewilderment, our waitress asked if we would like to step into the Wine Cellar to select a wine. Why not? It wasn’t a massive wine cellar/ fridge but it was still quite a huge selection, and it’s pretty cool being able to walk into a room and select something based on appearance and label, and not have your choice skewed by the price. It reminds me of a restaurant in Cape Town called the Famous Butchers Club. If you wanted steak as your main meal, you were ushered to the butcher’s block and fridges to select a piece of meat based on maturity and appearance and then you requested an exact grammage. The butcher could provide you with the exact weight without even needing to place it on the scale (But of course they did, just to show you how good they were) Having a say in everything and have many choices makes you feel very important doesn’t it? And in a world where we can often be made to feel insignificant and like just another employee number, I really don’t mind paying a little bit extra in a restaurant to be treated as a VIP.

After going for an old faithful, Hartenberg Merlot, we returned to our seats and ordered 4 West Coast Oysters, served with a red wine and shallot vinaigrette; chicken livers in a garlic & thyme butter on a parmesan polenta crouton with roasted garlic puree and napped with a port and chilli jus; and grilled garlic prawns served with avo, lime & basil panna cotta and a light tomato jelly salsa. Ya, that was only the starters!

The oysters were lovely! Just what I was needed. No grainy bits and the perfect fresh but slightly salty taste of the ocean. The chefs even go to the effort of detaching the oyster from the shell for you, but leaving it in the shell, ready to just slide down your throat! All that salty, squishy oyster needed was a squeeze of sour lemon, a few drops of hot Tabasco, and a little bit of that acidic, crunchy shallot vinaigrette.

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Craig loves chicken livers but usually they come in some hot sauce, which to him is the perfect accompaniment. So he was a bit hesitant about ordering a dish that had no hot sauce and instead, some unusual flavours. But I convinced him to take a chance. It’s Harvey’s right? It’s gotta be good! He didn’t regret it. And neither did I (from the little taste I got). The flavour combinations of the iron-rich, meaty, pink centred liver, the garlic & thyme butter and the port & chili jus was just delicious! And don’t even get me started on that Parmesan polenta crouton. Crunchy yumminess! And flavour! Mmmm..mmm.. This dish really hero’d the liver where other dishes have such intense flavour in their sauce that you can barely taste the actual liver. The liver is also usually cooked right through. These livers were A grade quality, cooked to perfection, and very lightly complimented by the other flavours on the plate. Craig said that the chilli could have maybe had a bit more of a bite, but otherwise it was amazing.

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My starter was recommended by the waitress, but I definitely had my eye on it before she even mentioned it was her favourite. I’m so intrigued by dishes that incorporate a dessert element into a starter, or looks like breakfast, but is actually a dessert. Panna cotta & jelly as a starter? Yes, please! The only thing holding me back was the prawns. Often prawns are overcooked and tasteless in restaurant dishes, either because it sat too long waiting for the waiter to collect it, or the sauce was too hot so the prawns continued cooking on the way to the table, or the chef just wasn’t skilled or experienced enough to cook them right. Not at Harvey’s! But wait. There’s more. This dish was not only tasty, it was beautifully presented too. It looked like a seafood salad extravaganza with zesty tomato jelly salsa complimented perfectly by a sweet soft avo, lime & basil panna cotta hiding underneath.

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The starters were pretty big portions combined with the oysters, which those who are big on value for money will really appreciate. I hardly had space for mains, but the food was so good, I HAD to carry on. And how long would it be until we went back to Harvey’s? Make space tummy!

For mains, Craig had the Seared Venison Fillet in teriyaki and encrusted in sesame seeds. This was served on a potato & beetroot rosti with a soy & ginger reduction and crowned with wasabi and sake butter. The Venison of the day was Eland, which we had never had before. Yay – new stuff! He was advised not to order the meat any more well done than medium rare because the game meat had no fat whatsoever, so could easily dry out. When I asked Craig what he thought of his main meal, he said “One word – phenomenal” He was so happy that the waitress steered him towards rare because it was perfectly juicy and he would have been bummed with it cooked any other way. He said that this dish is one of the few that he will tell people about for years to come, and would make him go back to Harvey’s. The only thing he said he didn’t like was the excess of sesame seeds in the crust and that two potato and beetroot rostis smothered in wasabi & sake butter was waaay too few for his liking. He could have eaten a whole plate of those!

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I HAD to order the duck. I would not forgive myself otherwise. I’m a huge duck fan. But I also have mastered the art of making a perfectly crispy seared duck breast at home, so my standards are very high. I’ve also had very average duck leg confit in restaurants before so here goes. The dish was a Slow Cured Duck Confit and Roasted Duck Breast with a lime & basil aioli on a spiced pepper & raspberry puree, garlic wilted greens and confit baby onions. Stunning. In presentation and taste. Masterchef said smears were so last season. Not in my books. The leg meat just fell off the bone and the duck breast was just how I like it, crispy on the outside and slightly pink still on the inside. Gorgeous! The only thing I felt like I needed to balance out the flavours is a little bit more sweetness. I’m used to having my duck with hoisin sauce or orange sauce so I’d maybe up the raspberry intensity. I only managed to eat half of my meal because I was so stuffed from starters. No worries. There’s always lunch tomorrow. And it was good. All. Over. Again.

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You can never be too stuffed for dessert though right? Especially when you see what they have on offer. They have the warm winter comfort options of Chelsea Bread & Butter Pudding infused with apricots and bitter orange marmalade served with spicy cinnamon ice-cream and Crème Brulee with a decadent crème fraiche, ginger & rhubarb ice-cream. Then they have the cool summer refreshments of homemade sorbet and their signature chocolate mousse ice creams. It was hard. But we chose. And it got even more exciting when the waitress told me that I didn’t have to choose between the 3 chocolate mousse ice-cream flavours. I could have them all. Happy Birthday me! And then they even brought it to me on a plate rimmed with happy birthday written in chocolate sauce (the waitress overheard Craig telling me the wine was my choice because it was my birthday – so thoughtful of them!).

The chocolate mousse ice-cream flavours were roasted white chocolate & lavender, milk chocolate with pralinettes & dried pear, and dark chocolate with nutmeg and ginger. O. M. G. I have never tasted anything quite like it. I can’t even explain what the mid-way mark between ice cream and chocolate mousse feels like rolling onto your tongue and melting in your mouth or the complexity of those sweet and savoury flavours. You actually just have to get yourself to Harvey’s to test this for yourself. You owe it to your mouth. Seriously. I don’t think I’ve ever sent such high praises to pastry chefs the way I did that night, because they really outdid themselves.

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When Craig asked what the sorbet flavours of the day were, the waitress cautioned us that the texture of their sorbet is quite different to what we are used to, but that the one scoop would be prickly pear, freshly picked from one of the waiter’s gardens and was guaranteed to be tasty. The other flavours were lime and passion fruit. Wow! Refreshing beyond words. The sour flavours, icy temperatures and gooey textures accompanied by the sweetness of the strawberry bits and the palate cleansing bursts of the mint were just incredible.

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I couldn’t have asked for a better end to the evening, nor a better way to spend my birthday dinner. Thank you Harvey’s for making us feel so special, and for all the creativity that your pour into your food. From only one night and 7 of their dishes, we understood why they have won Best Restaurant in Natal International Wine & Food Society for 13 years and the SA Top 10 American Express award for excellence for 15 consecutive years. Don’t trust me? Trust that!

Harvey’s does not over-promise and under-deliver. They do the exact opposite when you think of the all the possible misconceptions of a fine dining restaurant. If you have some extra cash to spend, and it’s a special occasion, spend it here. Their atmosphere is so relaxed and welcoming and waiters are not too stuck up to treat you like a guest of honour, but at the same time as one of the family. Their plating up demonstrates that they are more than just great cooks, that they are artists too. They treat each dish with the respect and passion you would award a painting you plan on giving the person you admire the most in the world or whose opinion you hold in the highest regard. Keep it up Harvey’s. We will definitely be back, that’s for sure.

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The Bill / The end

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