The Tasting Room

Dinner for two at the Tasting Room is R2 300 before the tip. Even Munchkin, my dining partner, blanched. Was a four-hour dinner at this restaurant in Le Quartier Français in Franschhoek worth it?

Everyone will have their own answer, depending on their priorities, pockets and preferences.

The restaurant is internationally renowned. Tourists know it is not a cheap meal even compared with European prices, but nowhere outside of South Africa will they get such a nine-course dinner and wine pairing for €110 a head, half the ticket price of a good seat at the Paris Opera and almost as theatrical.

Some readers of this column have expressed moral outrage at the more upmarket restaurants reviewed here. But restaurants with prices like these are great redistributors of wealth. A small army of kitchen and waiting staff — far more workers per customer than any proletarian fast-food chain — support Dutch-born chef Margot Janse.

She has been the executive here for nearly 17 years and the restaurant has just reopened after a complete makeover to provide a new stage for Janse’s culinary performances. Her cuisine reflects a refined and subtle palate.

Many chefs and the foodie people who follow them savour food with the same intensity as a wine taster, but can become jaded. Some chefs continually seek to make flavours progressively more concentrated, to the point that the dish turns too rich and overpowering. Janse, however, maintains her reserve. Teflon palates may be disappointed and may find some dishes even bland, unless they pay attention.

The menu constantly changes and the account of the African tasting menu that follows should not spoil the surprise.

We are started off with a Môreson Pink Brut Rosé méthode cap classique and an amuse-bouche of chicken liver parfait cubes, prawn cigars encased in crystallised black squid ink (resembling maki sushi), fingertip-sized biltong sandwiches with coriander and, standing playfully in a field of grass, shiny vermilion lollipops made, incredibly, out of chakalaka.

“Do you think the chef trained at Nasa?” asked Munchkin. “This is space food, like a futuristic pill for an astronaut that releases all the flavours of a full meal.”

Sweetcorn bread arrives baked in a miniature Lucky Star Pilchard tin with brown butter from Janse’s personal dairy cow, Daisy.

A glass tumbler containing a sprig of buchu for aroma accompanies a beetroot-and-onion purée sponge ball; in its centre is spinach.

A spoonful of creamy buttermilk labneh, delicately grated dill and cucumber granita flank this pretend beetroot. It is matched with Graham Beck Reserve Chenin Blanc. A Roman emperor would take such a morsel in his stride; someone kidnapped from the 1950s would be utterly perplexed.

Munchkin and I do not always get the same dishes. Next up for me is a transparent watermelon and tomato consommé poured over baobab and fennel “pollen”, with a glass of Excelsior Viognier. We amuse ourselves by imagining how our meat-and-potato friends would respond if confronted with edible baobab.

Munchkin is given a lightly smoked mushroom flan with parsnip and spekboom in an orange Le Creuset cocotte. An unwooded Groote Post Chardonnay complements it.

The third course is wonderfully unexpected. In a white bowl are vegetable cornflakes (beetroot, butternut, parsnip), lovage, sherry caramel and in the centre an organic egg yolk cooked to exactly 64°C, just the temperature at which the proteins denature and are about to set. Silverthorn Genie Brut Rosé adds to the intrigue.

The fish course, matched with Stony Brook Semillon Reserve, is conventionally nouvelle; a rectangle of curry-dusted monkfish with yellow dhal, kale, braised spices and confit tomato.

I get L’Ormarins Terra del Capo Pinot Grigio with a West Coast crayfish tail in a rich bowl of pumpkin seed oil with coconut and plum.

Architectural wonder
Next is a round of rabbit ballottine under a slice of fermented garlic nougatine on which is stacked salt-baked yellow swedes (turnips). La Motte Pierneef Shiraz-Viognier accompanies it.

Munchkin is served a busy plate of Swartland guinea fowl (a little rare for his taste) with fennel, porcini, liquorice root and a glass of My Wyn Cabernet Franc.

I thought I had been put off goat for life after having some from a spit on Easter Island, but the slow-cooked kid leg with cauliflower, amasi and radish, although the least appetisingly presented of the dishes (shredded and covered in oleaginous beads), wins me over. Springfontein Pinotage is exactly the right choice to cut through the oiliness.

Munchkin seemed relieved to get familiar Klein Karoo springbok as “main course” with onion purée, translucent potato chip wafers, red wine vinegar and baby vegetables, so small they might be more accurately described as foetal carrots. The Anthonij Rupert Merlot is delicious, but seemed not the most obvious match.

At this point, things become blurry. There was port (red and white) and more bubbly; an architectural wonder of cheese boards with mebos custard and pressed rusks; milk cookies, ice creams, sorbets, butterscotch, chocolate, black sesame brittle, cakes and cones.

Fortunately, most of the dishes are designed to perform vanishing tricks; the food itself dematerialises, leaving one with only its flavours. This is something of a blessing, given a dinner of such dimension.

Reflecting on the overall experience, I did feel I wanted once or twice a little more textural contrast and variety, something to get my teeth into. Yet dinner at the Tasting Room is certainly one of South Africa’s great culinary experiences. So to answer the question initially posed — yes, it’s worth it.

The Tasting Room at Le Quartier Francais, Franschhoek. Tel: 021 876 2151.

First published in the Mail & Guardian September 2012.

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