Editor's note: head chef Margot Janse resigned in October 2016.
Le Quartier Francais is a boutique hotel in Franschoek, The Tasting room being its flagship restaurant. Head chef Margot Jansa has been running the kitchen here since 1995, moving here after a two year stint at a Johannesburg restaurant La Cucina di CIro. The ground floor dining room is quite informal, with no tablecloths and fairly well spaced tables. The room can seat up to 52 diners, and opens only for dinner. There is a view out at one side of the room to the gardens of the hotel. The eight course tasting menu was ZAR 850 (£40) per person, which is a lot by South African standards but in Mayfair these days would barely buy a main course at a smarter establishment. The kitchen will happily accommodate dietary preferences, which is why you will read below about more than eight dishes, as our menus deviated from one another at times.
The all-local wine list had labels such as Waterford Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 at ZAR 380 compared to a UK shop price equivalent of ZAR 418, the excellent Hamilton Russell Chardonnay 2014 at ZAR 830 compared to a retail price of 471 ZAR, and Raats Cabernet Franc 2011 at ZAR 990 for a wine with a current market value of ZAR 446.
An initial nibble was onion-preserved lime tuile with black pepper snow, which was unusual and whose flavours came through quite well. Fynbos (the term for the vegetation of the Wesern Cape) rice cracker was pleasant, and a butternut steamed bun was well made, as was a tasty curried beef bun, offered with foam of sweet potato on tomato purée and seaweed foam on a bed of prawn crumb, prawn rusk and powder (15/20 for the nibbles).
Corn bread was brought next, which good texture and plenty of corn flavour. A dish designed to be reminiscent of a little stewing pot (known locally as potjie) contained sweet corn custard, popcorn made from Madagascar peppers with wild pea shoots and discs of kohlrabi pickled in hibiscus. This was topped with a "lid", a crisp of corn pulp and black sesame seed, topped with kohlrabi steeped in hibiscus and a garnish of pea shoots. The corn flavour came through well and the mix of textures was quite effective (15/20).
Tomato and fried potato came with green salad, garlic and tomato sorbet and buchu (a local herb) sorbet along with tomato dressing and tomato powder. The sorbet in particular was very good, the flavour of the tomatoes coming though nicely (15/20).
Broccoli textures included blanched, crisp and purée, along with confit of tomato moss with sorghum cake with broccoli stem, cashew nut and crispy butter crumble. I found the overall effect too dry, and although I actually quite like broccoli the overall dish seemed to me to need something more to relieve the monotony of the main flavour (barely 13/20).
A warm salad of octopus had involved freezing the octopus and then cooking it with red wine corks, which allegedly tenderises the flesh. This was served with a warm salad of daikon, quinoa, an octopus flan, nori and a consommé of cucumber and horseradish. Octopus is a difficult thing to work with, and even in Japan I have encountered stubbornly chewy specimens, The one tonight largely avoided that issue but the overall flavours of the dish seemed very muted (13/20).
I much preferred beetroot “soup” that was really beetroot jelly with liquid beetroot inside. This came with almond brique pastry, almond jelly, pickled Granny Smith apples and pickled beetroot. The pickling brought enough sharpness and the beetroot had excellent flavour, so this was not just technically clever but tasted good too (16/20).
Abalone was cooked sous-vide for just 15 minutes, served with deep fried parsnip, a local sour fig, nasturtium leaves and lime zest. The abalone was not as tender as I have eaten in Japan but avoided rubberiness, and the parsnip was crisp (14/20).
Hake brandade came with crispy salad of fennel and tapioca, and marula nut crumble. This was quite pleasant, the mix of textures working well together and the hake not aggressively salty (15/20).
The dish of the meal was a “quail nest”, with a quail egg to one side powdered with burnt potato, the nest itself containing yoghurt of buffalo with braised seeds, quail confit, granola of lentils and buckwheat and dandelion flowers. The quail had excellent flavour and the blend of textures was lovely (17/20).
Cod was seared and served with kale, mussels, almond and mussel crumb. This was a puzzling dish after the careful judgment of textures in some of the other cooking, as the overall effect here was very dry indeed, the fish itself cooked alright but badly needed something other than its collection of dry accompaniments (12/20).
Angus beef brisket from Stellenbosch came with badly undercooked green cabbage, parsnip and celeriac purée, fermented garlic purée, and red cabbage in the form of powder, gel and crisp. The beef itself was reasonable and the celeriac was fine, but there was no getting past the wildly crunchy green cabbage (12/20).
Cacciota usually describes farmhouse cheeses from central Italy, but this was local rather than travelling from Europe. The cheese was soft and served with smoked honey, olive oil emulsion, red apple jelly, turnip chutney, lamb sorrel and lentil seed cracker. A local goat cheese came with pear, grilled red onion, mebos (a dried apricot preserve) and curry flakes. Not all of these flavours seemed particularly harmonious, though the cheese was decent enough (13/20).
For dessert a coconut shell was dusted with honey bush and baobab powder and served with butterscotch caramel inside of which was coconut ice cream with caramelised macadamia nuts. This combination just tasted strange to me (12/20). What was intended to remind diners of a Dutch potato in African soil had “mud” of caramel with dark chocolate, the “roots” being white chocolate and cardamom, the rest of the dish involving passion fruit white chocolate, buchu sorbet, sorrel and grains of paradise. This was another dish that seemed to me too clever for its own good, the sorrel in particular a clanging flavour intrusion into what might otherwise have been a reasonably enjoyable dish. To the end of a lengthy meal this diner at least is looking for something comforting and sweet rather than a dish with a complex backstory (12/20).
Given some of the other good quality coffee I encountered on this trip, serving Nespresso seemed a bit of a cop out, especially given how elaborate some of the other sourcing must have been. Service was enthusiastic, the waiters clearly well briefing about the complex dishes. The bill came to ZAR 2,525 for two, which works out at £59 per person at the current exchange rate. It is admirable in many ways that the chef is pursuing native ingredients and trying to avoid just replicating the classics of French cuisine here but I just wish the level was more consistent. Certainly the best dishes – the quail, the beetroot - were original and enjoyable, but some of the other dishes felt rather gimmicky for the sake of it, and the woefully undercooked cabbage should be revisited. Overall it was certainly an interesting meal, but one where I felt there was room for improvement.