Having eaten my way through many of South Africa’s top restaurants, Five Hundred at the Saxon Hotel is my favorite; rivaling other fine dining experiences I have had in Europe, New York, and San Francisco. There is an element of theater at fine dining restaurants movements are choreographed and efficient from the kitchen to the service, dishes are served with flourish and no where in Johannesburg is this more on display than at Five Hundred. The main dining room is dark and modern with light provided by a spotlight lamp next to each one of the eight tables in the main dining room. The real action takes place in the front of the room where the kitchen is lit up like a stage so if you find your dining companions not up to par, you can always avert your attention to the food preparation. The food is inventive, artfully presented, focuses on fresh produce, and is sublime. Dishes often incorporate a South African herb or plant giving the food a unique African spin. This is a kitchen that is willing to take risks and of the three occasions I have eaten here, there was only one dish (a desert no less) where the novelty trumped the overall taste.
When we arrived and our handbags were promptly given tiny stools so that they would not have to be placed on the floor and the incredibly knowledgable sommelier offered us a glass of champagne to start. Service is deliberate and diners are given ample opportunity to savor the experience and not rush. You can choose between a tasting menu or a four course meal with a wine pairing. While tasting menus are the best way to appreciate the skills of the kitchen, I find it is often too much food. Ditto, on the wine pairing as the end of the meal can become a bit hazy. Given our early morning wake up call, our table opted for four courses and a glass of wine with the main the course.
Dinner starts with a choice of two types of bread, three butters, and four salts allowing diners to mix-and-match and chose favorite flavor combinations. Given my love of butter, it was hard to restrain myself especially around the smoked butter. For the first course, I chose the impala tartare with pea oil and tiny leaves of various plants from the garden, but the stunner was the prawn dish my mom ordered. It was plated to resemble a fish bowl. I don’t often have food envy but with my recent shellfish allergy, I often find myself wishing I could order differently. The impala was followed by a dish that showcased the the kitchen workhorse, the onion. For a main, I ordered slow braised lamb that was accompanied by a small slice of foie gras, samp, and celery root. My banal descriptions don’t do justice to the layers of flavor and myriad components that go into these complex dishes. Everything was amazing. I finished off the meal with a sweet take on a beer shandy. The kitchen doesn’t send out a lot of small bites which is fortunate since there is more than enough food. There was a beautiful one-bite palate cleanser before dessert and some small treats (gelees, caramel) that pays tribute to the city of gold with a glittery skyline. I even found a few of those gold flakes on my forehead the next morning. And, as you leave you get a small box with a treat to be enjoyed later – a reminder of a fantastic dinner.
Reservations are a must at Five Hundred and I often make mine more than an month in advance. Go early and enjoy a drink outside. The food is expensive by South African standards, but this is place to splurge for a special occasion or entertain foodie visitors.