Within the dramatically beautiful mountain landscape of the Cape winelands the travelling gourmet can find many “adequate” destinations.
Besides the countless wineries that are welcoming visitors, also a good amount of restaurants are supplying patrons with memorable dining experiences.
The small town of Franschoek, only 15 minutes away from Stellenbosch holds a particular place in the gastronomic scene of South Africa. Here, the country’s probably most acclaimed chef, Margot Janse has build up her small culinary universe, the “Quartier Francais” which comprises a hotel and 3 restaurants.
We had a table reservarion for The Tasting Room, which represents the fine dining section of the Quartier Francais. Interestingly, this one is featured among San Pellegrino’s controversial list of the Top 50 restaurants of the world, on rank 31 after such illustrous names such as Noma, Oud Sluis or Pierre Gagnaire and before equally illustrous names like The French Laundry, Martin Berrasategui, Alain Ducasse at Plaza Athénée or Harald Wohlfart’s Schwarzwaldstube, to name a few.
The list’s controversy emanates from the fact that some of the world’s most acclaimed 3 star restaurants are mixed with creative but casual bistros such as Momofuku Ssäm Bar in NY or Le Châteaubriand in Paris. But admittedly, a funky list like this also has something refreshing and including a restaurant from a continent that is not covered by Michelin also represents something quite positive. But the truth is, such an award also raises the bar of expectations much higher. I was very curious of how The Tasting Room would perform.
We were handed out the menus and even though reading the regular a la carte dishes (pictures above) did make my mouth water, we went for the 9 course African surprise menu which supposedly shows all of Margot Janse’s passion for the produce and traditions of her home country. We also opted for the accompanying wines, disengaging from the task of picking bottles we didn’t know much about anyway and also hoping for some interesting discoveries.
The dining room was empty when we arrived and we were a bit surprised since it was hard to get a reservation and the restaurant insisted we arrived half an hour before reservation time. But soon, many patrons showed up and it got packed by the time we finished to order. The atmosphere of the room is modern and cozy although some felt it maybe isn’t intimate enough. Anyway, we were now all set for our first genuine South African fine dining experience.
The first Amuse arrived quickly in front of us, accompanied by a South African sparkling wine. There’s some Buffalo cheese on a stick, as well as mayonnaise within a cone of dried tomato. These were enjoyable and playful with contrasts in texture and taste. The acidic touch of the tomato responded well to the mellow freshness of the Buffalo cheese. There were also some crispy pork skin chips on the side.
Then, as it somehow is the custom in South Africa, bread comes first! (This is litteraly some kind of custom there; and they take it away before the first course comes – no chance for a sauce-freak like me! ;) ). Corn Bread is presented in a colorful tomato tin which instantly had me think of Ferran Adria’s caviar tin. The butter which we identified as probably lightly flavored with tomato was topped with black salt. Some kind of flat bread was attached to a clip: that one was tough to break without having shrapnel flying around the table. The “bread course” actually tasted as you’d expect it to taste: good, but nothing exceptional as the “spectacular” tin presentation might have suggested.
Lightly smoked luderitz oyster, chorizo, cucumber and granadilla – Manis pale dry sherry -This was the first course also mentioned on the printout menu we received (All printout names in cursive throughout this posting). The oyster apparently stems from Namibia and is resting on cucumber shavings. Since it’s a bit big, it is hard to get all the elements on one fork or spoon, not making it easy to describe how all the elements worked together. But a tasty and fleshy oyster it was.
Lemon poached west coast crayfish tail, prawn wafer, marshmallow – Graham Beck brut – The crayfish is in the middle of the plate and of excellent quality, swimming in a luscious butter-lemon sauce. The wafer on the right is filled with some kind of prawn cream. On the left, the marshmallow is a funny gimmick: it is partially made of squid ink and has that typical earthy and powdery ink taste, but once you chew the slightly acidic and fruity taste of the inside shows, reminding a bit of grapes. While all 3 elements on the plate were well executed and also showed creativity, I couldn’t understand how they were supposed to work together. Sure, some seafood in each one was a common denominator, but flavors were too scattered on the plate and a meaningful interaction didn’t happen.
Northern province foie gras custard, african soil, suur vy – Cederberg bukettraube 2010 – Nice play on textures with this dish featuring a virtual African soil. The Foie Gras, prepared as a custard has a very creamy texture which feels quite unusual to my palate. Also it shows a quite pronounced Port taste. The slightly shiny splash under the Foie stems from African sour fig (“suur vy”) and adds a nice acidic accent while the dried crumbles account for a crunchy texture. The whole dish is a nice idea although I would have preferred the Foie a bit less unctuous, but then, the whole texture dynamics wouldn’t work as planned.
Sous vide paradyskloof quail breast, truffled quail egg, asparagus – Vergelegen vin de florence 2009 – Finally a genuine highlight. The quail breast is of excellent quality and perfectly cooked. The yolk of my truffled quail egg isn’t liquid anymore but it seems to be for the rest of the table. This doesn’t change the superb taste of the combination which is united by a delicious Madeira sauce in the center. Some might argue that it is somewhat of a classic but it shows how keeping flavor matches simple sometimes just works best. A flawless and delicious dish.
Eight hour “wonder bag” samo, buchu, sunflower – Haute cabrière pinot noir 2007 – For the next course, a so called “wonder bag” is put in front of us. It is an hommage to traditional African cooking: stews are kept at sufficiently high temperature within the bag to maintain a slow cooking process for several hours. African mothers could thus leave the house and follow other occupation while dinner was preparing itself in an energy-saving way.
Here our wonder bag contained a tiny cocotte filled with what felt like the most African dish of the menu to me. While I didn’t quite understand what Samo was – some kind of rice I presume – I enjoyed the comforting character of this one. We’re at the soulfood part of the menu with a creamy, oozy sauce, that is fragranced with the eucalyptus like freshness of the Buchu plant (see picture above). The sunflower seeds within add a playful crunch, but also their distinct flavor. I really enjoyed this one, probably also for being something totally new to me.
The accompanying Pinot Noir, 2007 Haute Cabrière, was much lighter in colour and weight than most Pinots you would encounter in SA. Also it had a quite complex nose reminding German dark bread. A wine I liked a lot on its own , but also worked well as a pairing, adding acidity to the course.
Braised, free range klain karoo lamb breast, chakalaka marmalade, basil, salted grapes, roast garlic – Idiom zinfandel
Some disappointment here. While the flavor combination worked very well and showed good creativity, it was sad to have some pretty dry lamb meat within that cube. I suppose the frying killed the meat’s juiciness and I wonder why texture wasn’t added by some other means. Not the first time I see restaurants are forcing a nice presentation to the detriment of quality.
Swissland drakensberg, roasted beetroot, organic black figs – Môreson pinotage 2009 – Obviously, even if Swissland Drakensberg sounds like Chinese to you, this is the cheese platter. A beautiful course, color-wise, but also taste-wise, even if the black malt or sugar beet reduction in the middle appears overly sweet. The purple dots of beetroot cream add a nice acidity. Nothing to complain about here, we all enjoyed this one.
Pear and baobab parfait, lemon verbena, verjuice, pistachio – Silverthorn genie brut rosé 2007 – The first dessert, paired with the third sparkling wine. I didn’t take any notes on it, but I remember I enjoyed it. Now that I read the name of the dessert, I wonder how the baobab actually tasted like; I didn’t realize I was eating something so exotic.
Orange and buttermilk cannelloni, jersey milk sherbet, fennel – Rickety Bridge natural sweet chenin blanc 2009 – Second dessert and end of the meal. Also a nice combination. Adding fennel ice creamhad a nice effect on this dessert.
So that was the final course of the menu and to be honest, we were all quite full by now. But more importantly, Margot Janse’s African inspired surprise menu left us very entertained. The fun was there with the discovery of new ingredients and colourful dishes. And some courses such as the quail breast and the wonder-bag were true highlights. But I also have to see that there is room for improvement. Sometimes the creativity is there but the different elements on the plate have vague interaction. Also, a technical flaw such as the dry lamb meat needs no further comment. As for the wine pairings, there were some nice discoveries, especially for someone who doesn’t know much about South African wines. The only thing that bothered me a bit is that we had 3 sparkling wines, at least one too many for my taste. That said, for European visitors this restaurant represents a good value for 770 Rand and the wine pairings (380 Rand) did even include all beverage consumptions such as water and coffee.
But now back to the San Pellegrino list. Can this restaurant truly be among the 50 best on the world? When comparing to all the Michelin starred restaurants in the list, I certainly have to concede that The Tasting Room is much closer to a 1 Star Restaurant than to a 3 star restaurant. But when seeing the list from a diversity point of view, this restaurant definitely adds some color on the world restaurant map and thus at least some media presence seems justified. So on one hand I guess that the gourmet used to the Gagnaire’s and Berasategui’s of this world might be terribly disappointed if he dines at the Tasting Room with the expectations built up by that list. On the other hand, if going there with no preconception, he might at least be entertained by the variety of produce and combinations he’ll find on his plate.
controversial the list is indeed.
Finally, I have to thank Louisa for reserving this table and being able to share a great evening with friends. I end this post with a few more views of the premises.