South Africa is not all soul-rattling African food, simmering collisions of historical immigrant food, nor flaming braai (the South African word for grilling). Oh, those things are enough to keep ME interested. But South Africa’s growing collaboration with the rest of the world (since the cessation of apartheid in 1994), her booming class of international financial folks, and, above all, her dramatic presence on the global map of fine consumption (due to a first-rate wine industry that’s only getting better year by year)–well, put it all together, and you’ve got great modern restaurants on the rise. And their high status is not some end-of-the-earth dream; the best of South African high-end establishments appear regularly on those lists that purport to announce the world’s finest dining destinations.
Big-deal dining, and big-deal hospitality, are realer than real right now in South Africa. And, excitingly, you’re not likely to see these fine establishments working hard on Asian ingredients, or other fusionista obsessions. The obsession today, in South Africa…is defining a cuisine that seems truly South African…drawing on local ingredients, of course, but also on already-fusedSouth African traditions!
If you’re aiming your gastronomic travel sights at South Africa, your main concentration should be Cape Town and environs, in the far southwest corner of the country. The city itself, South Africa’s second, is heart-stoppingly beautiful, of course, with a rash of trendy new restaurants (like The Test Kitchen, which I missed)–but its location is just to the west of the most tourist-conscious wine regions, and just to the north of one of the world’s most beautiful drives.
If you’re warming up slowly to the pleasures of South Africa, take that drive, in any weather, making sure to hit the auto-advertiser’s favorite shooting site, Chapman’s Peak Drive (Amalfi? Big Sur? possibly better!). My drive was on a blustery, early spring day–but no less beautiful for the bluster.
This is the Cape Peninsula you’re driving on, and there is terrific fresh and local seafood all over it. If you go to the southern tip (only an hour or so from Cape Town), you’ll reach the Cape of Good Hope, named long ago by Portuguese seamen for some reason no one agrees about. The Cape is near, but it is not, the most southerly point in Africa.
Residents climbing over the rocks at the Cape of Good Hope
(residents also known as “jackass penguins”)
If you’re hungry, you’ll do what almost every other visitor does at the site: get lunch at Two Oceans (named for the collusion of Atlantic and Indian that takes place nearby). They dragged me kicking and screaming to the “tourist” restaurant–but, to my surprise and delight, it was so much better than it has to be!
Okey-doke. All warmed up? Good. Get back to Cape Town and get a rest. It is now time to immerse yourself in the wine-growing village and valley to the east of Cape Town (just an hour or so) that has long had the reputation as South Africa’s restaurant capital.
We speak, reverentially, of Franschhoek–or French Corner, so named for the late 17th-century French Huguenot settlers who helped develop it. Intriguingly, to this day, Frenchiness abounds–from the names of towns and establishments, to the pretensions of local menus, to the elegant style of many Franschhoek wines. Ask any habitual visitor to South Africa who has been visiting for a few decades–and he or she will likely tell you that Franschhoek is the spot of choice, if ya like yer luxury.
Just getting there is awe-inspiring. It is ringed with soaring mountain…
I was privy, on my trip, to a list of twenty South Africa restaurants…that is currently being narrowed down to ten by the most respected South African food magazine, Eat Out. The ten will be revealed by the magazine soon, comprising the much ballyhooed Eat Out list of South Africa’s Best Ten Restaurants.
I discovered that three of the twenty restaurants on the prospect list are in Franschhoek. And I further discovered that one of those three–The Tasting Room, which is part of a Franschhoek hotel complex known as Le Quartier Français, member of Relais & Chateaux–is regarded by foodies throughout South Africa as the best restaurant in the nation. El Bulli resurrected, South African style.
So I did the impossible, and nabbed a reservation at The Tasting Room–a task, I’m told, that usually takes three months of planning.
I did not meet the chef, the blonde-and-beautiful, Holland-born Margot Janse, who has become a rock star in South Africa…but I did get to spend a good deal of time with the lovely South African owner, Susan Huxter….who, reservation included, treated me extremely well. I had lots of reasons to love this place–and, Scrooge though I may be when the subject of ooh-la-la creative food comes up, I recognize that one time out of a hundred in the hands of the right chef this kind of post-modern predilection is going to blow me away. I fully expected The Tasting Room to blow me away.It didn’t.
Cornbread in a can, with caramelized-milk-solid butter
(the pilchard can, one of South Africa’s icons, has nothing to do with the bread)
The caramelized butter pictured above was, indeed, insane; it was literally impossible to stop eating it. And about three other things, in a blow-your-mind kind of Ferran Adria way, were also insane. But I’ve been at El Bulli dinners where every dish blows me away, 30 in a row; at The Tasting Room, alas, the great preponderance of the 25 things or so I tasted, at least on the night I tasted them, did not have the “it” factor.
Some of the dishes had a kind of technical brilliance, like the beet balls…
This creation had a real character to it–sort of Russian-Jewish!–and wonderful textures (though, frankly, we’ve all seen the vegetable ice before).
A few other dishes shone on another front, the locavore/seasonal one…
And, once, the sheer quality of the main ingredient drew notice….
For the most part however…at least on the one night I was there…there was a kind of forced quality about the innovations….and that’s when they wereinnovations! The end result was a kind of dullness in the food, which reached down to the production level as well; many things were not bursting with that kind of “eat me! eat me now!” urgency that you’ll find in the work of an Adria, a Robuchon, a Bras. Quite a few of the things I tasted truly seemed like the kitchen, as well as the diner, was planning this meal three months ago. This was low-wattage high-end cookery, to be sure…so much so that I’m eager to return and try to figure out what happened on my night!
Happily, lots of good things did happen to me at Le Quartier Francais all around the Tasting Room disappointment. Just outside the entrance to The Tasting Room is The Common Room…
….a wild, jazzed-up, retro-cool kind of room in which such things as roast chicken and filet of beef are served…excellently, according to what I hear. During my starter drink in The Common Room, before The Tasting Room, I snacked on their Tempura String Beans….which was the best bite I had under that roof all night, with the best sauce (a high-end Asian dipping sauce with real personality!)
I also returned to The Common Room a few days later for the highly-touted breakfast…which, in my book, deserves all the touts.
The marquee item is the Sticky Bun, which is what drew me in……
…but the general quality of what I saw was profound, even on the buffet of fruits and juices.
Furthermore…the hotel part of Le Quartier Francais…with its swimming pool, private cinema, shop, museum and 15 spacious, relaxed rooms…is absolutely grand, one of the highest-end options in Franschhoek. A few other places I know may match it in the category of luxury sprawl…but those places are in the Franschhoek countryside, not downtown in proximity to all the Franschhoek action. “Le Quartier Francais forms the heart of Franschhoek,” wrote Condé Nast Traveller…and I cannot help but agree.
But enough critical ambivalence. Let’s give it up for two establishments in “rural” Franschhoek (just outside of Franschhoek town) that I would cross the Atlantic for, all 14 1/2 hours’ worth of flight, any time.
For starters, Babylonstoren–a “farm hotel”–is absolutely breathtaking.
Truth be told, the only meal I was able to take at Babylonstoren was breakfast….
Free-range eggs (from the farm) with crisp back bacon, Babylonstoren sausage,
grilled tomato, and flash-fried Babylonstoren mushroom
But if you’re getting the idea that almost everything at this “farm hotel restaurant” is raised or foraged on the farm, you’re right. If you’re getting the feeling that the quality and care here are tremendous, you’re right again. And, lastly, if you intuit that Babylonstoren is one of the three Franschhoek establishments on Eat Out’s short list of the twenty best restaurants in all of South Africa…bingo again.
Just to emerge from the dining room and look at the farm fields is a thrill…
The clivia path alone (clivia is a forest undergrowth plant found only in South Africa) is practically a national monument. Here’s a walk down it at Baylonstoren:
Of course, for me…and for Babylonstoren too…it always comes back to food.
And, as if all this were not enough…Babylonstoren, like Le Quartier Francais, is one of the finest places to stay in the Franschhoek area.
One of the cottages on the property, next to fruit trees
(suites have one bedroom, cottages have more)
Do you think we’ve peaked? Not yet. For far and away the greatest restaurant I visited on my nine-day South African excursion…a fancy restaurant that even towers above my beloved funky restaurants…was Pierneef à La Motte restaurant, at La Motte Winery. If there were a Michelin red guide to South Africa, this place would get two stars on a bad day. And, of course….it is the third Franschhoek restaurant on the secret Eat Out list of twenty.
La Motte is a historic Franschhoek site, with huge 17th-century importance in the then-gathering story of the French in South Africa. But it is one of the only places I know in contemporary Franschhoek that consistently displays the extraordinarily elevated aesthetic sense the French are known for…a sense that’s even hard to find in France today!
And the restaurant itself? It blew me away. Why? Of all the places in the world that talk about locavore, this is truly one; the owner of The Tasting Room even brags that her vegetables come from La Motte’s farm. Of all the places in the world that claim to be non-interventionist with the great raw material, this is one; the truest, most natural flavors roar forth time and again. And of all the restaurants in the world that have forgotten the notion that a great kitchen must support its dishes with great stocks and profound bases–this is not one. At this place there’s flavor breaking out everywhere below the line, as it were…and annoying flavor excresences, above the line, breaking out nowhere.
This starter was perhaps the greatest vegetable terrine I’ve ever had, a combination of tomatoes (sweet and intense), roasted cherry tomatoes (even sweeter, and with the texture of meat), baby spinach (wildly vernal), crystallised hazel nuts, peppered salt, honey, and a rose vinaigrette, all flavors contributing to a tomatic-orgasmic kaleidoscope.
Again, the superlatives flow; have I ever had a better piece of rare poultry (in this case, duck) imbedded inside a terrine? Has a quail egg ever stayed this runny? Has the depth of meaty essence ever underpinned a mixed-meat terrine so? You can’t even see the local gruyère soufflé, the spiced brioche, the cranberry-litchi-saffron purée that surround…all of which add the touch of gamey licentiousness that’s so often overplayed. But not here.
I know you can’t see the flavor, here…but trust me that the insides of animals are singing from deep within this dish. The juices, andouillette-like, burst through the caul fat, caught by the roasted kohlrabi and carrot mash, lifted by the pickled onion and butternut relish on the side. Only in France do I taste fifth-quarter wizardry like this.
And here’s the kicker: of the many hundreds of wines I tasted on my South African adventure…some of the greatest were made right here, at La Motte Winery. They have a lovely range of Shiraz wines, but my heart was especially captured by two whites: the scintillating 2012 La Motte Pierneef Sauvignon Blanc (organic), and, perhaps, one of the only non-French Chardonnays I’ve ever truly loved, the 2010 La Motte, a shimmering sheet of icy mountain water, as graceful and finely etched as you could ever wish a wine to be.
Some words for the future on the subject of Franschhoek…and Stellenbosch.
Just over the mountain from Franschhoek is South Africa’s most famous wine region, Stellenbosch….which is kind of like the Napa Valley of South Africa. I have long been a fan of Stellenbosch wine, though I have long heard that the restaurants of Franschhoek are superior.
The times….they may be a’changin.
Lots of South African foodies now say that the baton has been passed to Stellenbosch. I can tell you that the town of Stellenbosch is much more charming to me than the town of Franschhoek today:
As to the gastronomic competition: late in my visit, I got the staggering news that Stellenbosch actually has SEVEN restaurants on Eat Out’s list of twenty, compared to Franschhoek’s THREE. I got across that mountain lickety-split, and ate at Majeka, one of the Stellenbosch seven. I dined with the near-miraculous French/South African couple who own the restaurant/hotel–they’re my new best friends, fun and knowledgeable beyond belief–and I have no doubt they have created one of the great hotels of the country.
But the food? Three-star in form. Disappointing in reality.
Let the deliberation continue! I think it’s time for YOU to vote with your palate!