Few places set the scene for fine dining as well as The Saxon. Immaculate rolling lawns, top-tier service and understated luxury on what was once a private estate — insurance magnate Douw Steyn’s to be exact.

Hidden behind its Sandhurst fortifications, the hotel has forged a space in local myth, ably assisted by strong personalities who’ve been involved in The Saxon in various ways. From Steyn, who built the property that became the hotel, to Nelson Mandela, who edited his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, there, and an endless stream of celebs and statesmen who’ve stayed the night. On the culinary side, it’s enmeshed with the careers of some of SA’s biggest names. There’s David Higgs (of Marble and more recently Saint in Joburg) and Luke Dale-Roberts, local legend and top performer on global restaurant lists with The Test Kitchen and Pot Luck Club in Cape Town.

Grei at The Saxon opened in April 2018 under Candice Philip, who earned her stripes working for Dale-Roberts and Higgs.

Philip comes across as someone who would prefer to avoid the spotlight. We’re used to celebrity chefs with fiery tempers who are generous with expletives, but that’s hard to imagine coming from the sedate Philips. More humble than brazen, she offers a refreshing lack of pretence. There’s no hype, no public relations barrage and no image she’s trying to manage. It’s about the product, the craft, the love of her work and creativity.

Small talk

The restaurant is intimate. It seats a maximum of 32 people and offers a small private dining area.

And the name Grei? It loosely means "a society of people" in Portuguese. In the phonetic sense of the word, various shades of grey come to life in the textured tablecloths, granite tops and layered fabrics of the space. Everything is subtle. It’s about grey, a colour without colour. This makes sense, given Philip’s intention to keep the décor in the "background and let the food shine through". But it’s worth remembering that Philip was going to study interior design before she made the kitchen her focus.

Oh, and she’s involved in the choice of music you’ll hear. The playlist, like everything else at Grei, is honed so the focus is on the food.

Candice Philip. Picture: SUPPLIED
Candice Philip. Picture: SUPPLIED

Under Philip’s watch herbs are the heroes of dishes. You can choose a pairing menu with or without alcohol. The nonalcoholic option involves sublime, subtle herb juices like melon, mint, cucumber, hazelnut and basil.

Make sure you go with someone (or a few people) whose company you really enjoy because this is no speedy affair. You’re in for a good three-or four-hour meander through a six-course meal. But that’s not all. Expect fun amuse-bouche samplings, which bring added excitement through the element of surprise and showmanship. Like a black honeycomb from which cold smoke emerges. Or glühwein served as a frozen palate cleanser, fashioned in the shape of little marbles.

Each course is a study of three main ingredients. Like goat’s cheese, fennel and fig leaf (for one course on the vegetarian menu), or on the meat and pescatarian menus, langoustines, sweetcorn and coriander; another, kabeljou, aubergine and liquorice. Much like its savoury compatriots, the dessert of guava, beetroot and hibiscus is delightful and an impressive display of visual artistry.

The accolades have been flooding in. The restaurant has been a finalist among the world’s leading restaurants. It was one of only eight nominated for the world’s leading hotel fine dining restaurant last year, against some international luminaries including Le Cinq at the Four Seasons Hotel George V in Paris,Fera at Claridge’s in the UK and Felix at The Peninsula in Hong Kong.

Food nerds may recall that the item that set Philip apart years ago was her pea wasabi mousse with parsnip fudge and lemon curd. She walked away with a trophy for it in Norway in 2014, and it was nominated as the most beautiful object in SA at Design Indaba in 2016. In November Philip was named the Eat Out Nederburg rising star, an award which recognises a chef who has a notably emerging presence in the industry. And all this without making a fuss.