A little bite of Joburg, a little bit of Cape Town, but all Plett
A modern take on the chef’s home-cooked favourites makes this family-run dining room a Garden Route hit
Despite its summertime reputation for being Johannesburg by the sea, Plettenberg Bay the rest of the year is more like a mini Cape Town: it’s laid back, the people are outdoorsy, the landscape is spectacular and the restaurants are first-rate – a recent addition in particular.
The food at Nineteen89 – named for the year in which its chef/owner was born – manages to be both hearty and arty, each dish ready for its close-up. Eggs Benedict is given a reboot with harissa and orange-infused hollandaise sauce; a grilled cheese sandwich is cut in half and dunked like two icebergs in a wide expanse of roasted tomato and basil soup; snails are “flamed” in Jameson whiskey and made cheesy and garlicky with locally sourced fynbos cheddar.“I’ve been making cheesy garlic snails since I was 11. Everyone’s favourite recipe in my family is snails,” says chef Jason Whitehead, describing one of the homespun recipes he has adapted for the menu.
His parents worked in the hospitality industry so Whitehead and his brother grew up largely having to cook for themselves. “Instead of cooking basic food, we experimented as often as we could,” he says. As a result, a lot of the dishes on the menu, like the snails, are ones Whitehead has been cooking for years and has now “modernised” for the restaurant.
And then there are the desserts. The “Life Changing Oreo Milkshake” and salted caramel popcorn cheesecake are elevated by ice cream from Plett producers Ice Dream Land and Ice Palazzo. Not only are the flavours custom-made – such as cardamom and Knysna burnt honey, Earl Grey, roasted marshmallow – but Whitehead prescribes a double cream base.Before opening Nineteen89, Whitehead had never cooked in a kitchen other than his own at home. From the age of 14 he worked as a waiter in Randburg and Greenside eateries in Johannesburg. He left school at the end of grade 11 and became a manager just before he turned 18. He then ran a restaurant in Cresta before moving to Plett with his wife, Brigitta (“Bricks”), and their son Aiden, now six.
Neither Whitehead nor Bricks had been to Plett before they moved there, but Whitehead’s mother Marian had been living in the area for a year working in events management and marketing, a role she continues at Nineteen89. “It was also out of desperation to get out of Joburg”, Whitehead says, citing hours spent battling rush hour to and from work and long hours at work, which left little time for home life.
When they drove from Johannesburg to Plett, Aiden didn’t complain once about being in the car for such a long time, Bricks says. But now when they drive to Knysna (32km away), Harvey, now three and not schooled in the ways of Johannesburg traffic, doesn’t stop complaining.Upon arrival in Plett, Whitehead “found his feet” with stints at The Dunes Hotel & Resort, The Lookout Deck and Roost Café. Then a serendipitous meeting with a property owner whose plans for a Belgian-styled restaurant didn’t pan out, led the Whiteheads to take over the site.
“What everybody wants when they go to a restaurant is comfort: having really good food that’s modern and healthy,” he says. “But the first thing about our restaurant is that everyone gets to know the family.” Except for the day of the week reserved exclusively for Aiden and Harvey: Sunday Fun Day.Visit Nineteen89 at shop 7, Hill House Building, corner Strand and Main Streets, Plettenberg Bay. Call 079-165-3576 or 081-306-2618.