Anyone visiting Knysna these days will be impressed by the town’s aggression in aiming high when it comes to attracting tourists. It may be a small seaside town, but its culinary ambitions seem to know few limitations. The cheeky Lush is one of Knysna’s most extravagant restaurants; camp, memorable, pricey and seeming more suited to Cape Town or Joburg.

Lush is the newest creation of Knysna businessmen Leslie Pieters and Charles van Tonder, owners of two of the most successful restaurants in Knysna, 34º South and Drydock Food Company. First impressions are mixed thanks to past experiences: Opulent and ‘oohing-and-aahing’ décor often disguises weak food and almost always ensure exorbitant prices. Thankfully, Lush is not a case of style over substance.

Nevertheless, the restaurant is quite something to look at: While impressive during the day, it’s at night when the welcoming lighting – including the much hyped fibre-optic lights – comes in to play that it should be visited. There are giant candelabras, leather studded walls and ruby red finishings that give Lush the look of a set from the film Moulin Rouge. It’s quite decadent, and the dramatic ambience certainly plays a role in ensuring that the Lush experience is a special one.

It’s located in the new Thesen Island development, a seaside Melrose Arch (the Joburg district) if you will, which combines stores and eateries with exclusive residences. It’s an eerie sort of ‘Stepford Wives’ development – all the buildings and homes have variations of the same exteriors – but also undeniably pretty. This tasteful Lego-style aesthetic however has no place in Lush’s lively interior.

As we visited the restaurant during the Pink Loerie Festival, our party of five was offered refreshing complimentary watermelon-based pink cocktails. Good to see Lush playing its part in promoting Knysna as a gay destination Рalthough its d̩cor is camp enough to not really need much more effort.

Executive chef Jason Millar’s menu has much to temp the imagination and seemed especially apt for the winter weather outside. Starters include grilled squid with chorizo, chili, dhania and wakame, green curried black mussels with lemon and coriander leaf and the obligatory oysters; served with grated radish, lime granite and chili, with an optional tomato “konfyt”. I settled on the roasted carrot and cumin soup with minted yogurt and green masala; one of finest soups I’ve had in some time, rich and well balanced, roasted and spiced without overpowering the carrot. Others were impressed with the tiger prawn and coriander tempura with soya-sesame dip and plum sauce.

Judgment on the main courses was more mixed. I found the kabeljou, brushed with harissa, baked over wild fennel, little leaks, plum tomato and green olives to be superb. The fish was perfectly cooked and the flavours appropriately complimented the quite delicious kabeljou. My fellow diners were less impressed with the popular choice of the fillet of karan beef, rosa plum tomato, herb butter and confit garlic mash; it being declared competent, but nothing special. Unfortunately when in such extravagant surroundings, expectations are raised and a merely ‘good’ meal is just not good enough. The extraordinary is expected – especially when paying dearly for it.

In fact, the restaurant’s pricing – a side effect perhaps of its grand ambitions – came under some criticism: starters range from around R40 to over R80, with a R74 vegetarian pasta being the low and a R110 loin of springbok the high of the main courses. While we certainly appreciated the astonishing décor, it’s not really our place to have to pay for it.

The service was very good, offered by an engaging and experienced waitron that was well-versed with the menu and ingredients and made well-judged recommendations. I vaguely remember seeing him at one of the Pink Loerie parties later that evening – but considering that the rest of the night was an alcoholic blur, I can’t absolutely confirm it. (The restaurant wasn’t the only lush that night.)

We were surprised at the number of empty tables, especially as this was during the Pink Loerie weekend, and wondered about the restaurant’s sustainability in a town that is victim to the seasonality of tourists. This is a pity, as high prices aside, Lush is certainly an experience of the senses; coming very close indeed to matching the uniqueness of its décor with a culinary experience that makes it one of the must-visit destinations in Knysna – if not the Garden Route.

The winelist, selected by wine fundi and manager of Lush Katie Barrat, is described by management as “varied and interesting”, and we certainly had no lack of choice. It includes a range of strong South African options, including a number of Cape Winemakers’ Guild Auction Wines.

There’s another Pieters and van Tonder eatery on the water’s edge, around the corner from Lush, that’s worth mentioning (it seems that monopolies are part of any small town landscape). Sirocco, while not as opulent as Lush, is still exquisitely fitted out; more sleek lines and contemporary styling. A little less pricey, it’s also worth visiting; and includes an absolutely stunning view of the lagoon perfectly framed by enormous windows.

Reservations: 044 382 7196

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