If something ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Right? Well, apparently not if you’re Margot Janse. She has recently re-launched the already world-class The Tasting Room at the (also world class) Le Quartier Francais Hotel in Franschhoek. She spent hours/weeks/months labouring and conceptualizing each dish. She hand-selected unusual wines to go with each course. She trained the staff in the extra experiences that each ingredient of each plate brings to the customer. She flew her brother out from Holland to give the room a facelift.
But that was the easy job.
I’ve got to try and explain it to you.
Normally it would be a cinch. To gush over this meal would be a walk in the park. But you see, half the fun in eating at The Tasting Room is the fact that the menu consists of a choice between five courses and eight. That’s it. In other words, you have no idea what you’re about to eat. And that’s the beauty of it. For me to ruin the surprise by explaining each dish would be the culinary equivalent of telling all those Dallas fans what really lay in store for JR all those years ago.
So what can I tell you? Well, I can say that it is by far the best display of South African ingredients that I have seen. Staying on the right side of cheesy, liberal uses of ingredients like buchu, granadilla, waterblommetjies and venison will please international visitors looking for a “unique” South African meal, but it will thrill any local food fan too. You see, what Janse does so well with the new menu is what she has always managed to do: she tells a story through food.
And it’s a wild ride. The whole thing is as experimental as any meal I’ve had in South Africa and, instead of playing around with just one or two textures (a gel or a foam here), or cooking techniques (savoury custard, porcini dust etc.) the entire plate is a bit of a gamble. It’s a night where you’ll shake your head in admiration and find yourself with a stupid smile on your face. More than once. A meal where you eat rocks, cigars and a bowl of cheese will do that to a guy.
The pride for the valley is a theme throughout the menu, with the staff taking great care to explain the origin of the produce. The wine pairings too, are local for the most part and are presented in a laid-back way. Forget alcohol percentages, terroir details, pH levels etc. Instead you’ll hear about the one farm owner’s pet dog and the other’s Muay-Thai hobby and fledging TV career. It’s pretty awesome. The wines themselves are worth a mention, as dinner allowed us to try a wide range of unusual varietals. All nicely weighed up against the ballsy flavours and textures shown with each dish.
The space is seriously cool too and Margot’s brother, Herbert, deserves a big high five. Globally there has been a shift away from the stiff, white-linen fine dining brigade and the whole mood in this place says very clearly that they aren’t taking themselves too seriously. Indeed, the décor is as unexpected as the food, with a multi-coloured rope (reproducing the silhouette of the Franschhoek valley) taking centre stage as a feature.
Perhaps the best compliment to pay is a simple, short word. Asked the next day to describe dinner I used it. The night was: fun.
On a night where Caster Semenya was busy running her 800m final at the Olympics somewhere between my third and fourth course, I was kept up to speed on her progress by our enthusiastic waiter tapping me on the shoulder with updates he was getting from the bar next door. Caster came in second on the night and brought home a silver medal. Looking at each dish and hearing international guests at adjacent tables in raptures about our local talent in the cooking world, I would probably put this meal one rank higher. Solid gold baby.
Go forth and eat,
(The above article was first published on the Eat Out website. For info and contact details for The Tasting Room head over to www.eatout.co.za)