The Tasting Room at Le Quartier Francais
When I first went to Le Quartier Français in Franschhoek around 10 years ago I was blown away. Since then its chef Margot Janse has become one of the world’s most high profile chefs and the food more experimental. Would the experience be as memorable?
There was one dish - one of the ‘boks’ with a sweet, spicy cure - I was so impressed by that I persuaded her to give me the recipe and adapted it to a Chateaubriand in my book ‘Steak’ (now sadly out of print*).
This time the meal took place in a smartly designed room with a neon sign outside from a no-choice 8 course ‘surprise’ tasting menu for which we were advised we should allow 3 1/2 hours - although I think we managed it in 3. Surprise is the right word. It was a roller-coaster of an experience involving a kaleidoscope of different colours, tastes and textures.
You’ll be relieved to know I’m not going to talk you it through course by course, specially as my companion had a slightly different menu which meant I tasted 13 dishes in all - plus amuse-gueules. But the highlights for me were:
- one of the simplest dishes, described as 'a summer walk through Franschhoek' (right) a fresh-tasting salad of young vegetables and salad leaves that went perfectly with the subtle, delicious 2011 Reyneke Chenin Blanc we were drinking.
- a marron (crayfish) with gooseberry water and lemon verbena - a delicate accompaniment pitched just right for the super-fresh shellfish
- quail with amasi (a yoghurt-like fermented milk) savoury granola, shallots, corn puree and sprouts - my favourite of the main course dishes - I liked Janse’s use of grains
- Karoo Wildebeest loin with wild grains, sorghum, rainbow carrots and celeriac purée (right) - the prettiest dish of the meal
- Swartland guineafowl with fennel, porcini and liquorice root - again, a great looking dish. Meat and game are clearly Janse’s forte
- and two really inventive cheese courses - a gooey, fondue-like Dalewood lanquedoc custard with vinegar ‘flings’ and crisp shards of leek and jagged hunks of Klein river gruyere with rusks, mebos (dried plum) custard and raisins (below).
I was less wowed by a slightly tortured starter of a beetroot sponge ball with buttermilk labne and dill and cucumber granita which had lost touch with its beet roots and a rather messy looking dish of oyster with a thick vichyssoise purée and roasted cos lettuce where again the flavour of the oyster had been lost in translation. And the service, while charming, was almost too full-on - a bit like being jumped on by a labrador puppy. It would be hard to go there and have a an intimate meal.
But my main reservation - and this is my beef with most fine dining restaurants - is that there was too much repetition of favoured techniques. Too many crumbs, smears, blobs and pools of puree. Although many were visually arresting it was all rather overwhelming but that may say more about what I’m looking for from a restaurant these days than Janse’s undoubted prowess in the kitchen
We could also have had wine pairings with each course - they looked well chosen but cost another R400 (£29) a head and I’m not sure it wouldn’t have made the meal even more of a sit-up-and-pay-attention performance. After the Chenin we drank a deliciously gamey Eben Sadie 2010 Sequillo - a Rhoneish blend of Syrah, Mourvedre and Grenache which worked particularly well with the game dishes.
Interestingly although Janse continues to pick up awards she no longer appears quite as consistently in the San Pellegrino top 50 as she did in the 'noughties', an indication, perhaps, of how much the restaurant world has moved on since then but also of the fact that staying at the top is tough as chefs seek new ways to grab the critics' attention. I’m not sure I didn’t prefer it the way it was.
If you’re a fan of top-end fine dining experiences you should add it to your bucket list but there are other restaurants in the Winelands where you'll get equally good food and a slightly more relaxed vibe. I'll be writing about some of them shortly.
I ate at Le Quartier Français as a guest of the restaurant. The menu is R770 (£56), R1170 (£85) with wine pairings - expensive for the area but not by comparison with similar restaurants internationally.
Le Quartier Français is at Cnr Berg & Wilhelmina Streets Franschhoek, Western Cape, 7690. Tel: 0027 21876 2151. You'll need to book well ahead.
*actually I was expecting to find, like most of my books, that it was selling for 1p on Amazon but turns out the UK edition is fetching £48.99. Should have kept more copies!
Apologies for appalling pix, due to the low light (though why should chefs light their restaurants for customers who want to snap their food?) Here’s a slightly better set from a similar meal by blogger Jason Bagley
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