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Tim James: On Winelands Fine Dining

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For a while it was indubitably Stellenbosch, but Franschhoek is fighting to reclaim top ranking for grand eating in the Cape winelands. Not that Stellenbosch is declining (like Franschhoek did some years back); with wine estate restaurants like Jardine, Waterkloof and Overture, to name a few, there’s no danger of that. It’s just that Franschhoek village – fuelled by rich residents and swathes of extremely expensive accommodation (is there any other in Franschhoek?) that brings in visitors with lots of money – has come roaring back. Someone suggested to me that there are about 60 restaurants in and around the village; whether as many as that I wonder, but there are a lot, some of them brilliant. And more brilliance is reportedly on the way.

As a not-rich but self-indulgent Capetonian, I’ve been wanting to sample more of them, but reluctant to drive home all that way after a good dinner. So I set aside two nights and a day, staying in Franschhoek, for feasting.

Foliage
Foliage restaurant.

I couldn’t get a dinner booking at Foliage (somewhere I’d eaten before and never forgotten), so that accounted for a solo lunch. And marvellous it was. I decided to have two starters (after all, I was out to dinner than night too), but got carried away by delight and had a third … for dessert. The fact that I then realised I couldn’t find my wallet worried both me and the staff, but I murmured the name of Marc Kent, which soothed them, if not me (in fact, they’d been foraging for mushrooms and other stuff on Boekenhoutskloof where Marc holds sway that very morning). The wallet was later found, and payment made. But an irritating end to the highlight of my glutton’s tour.

The previous evening, Monday, not everything was open, but Marigold was. Marigold is the North Indian restaurant opened a year or two back by Analjit Singh, financial partner in Mullineux and Leeu and also very big in Franschhoek’s hospitality industry. And getting bigger – I learnt that at Leeu Estates on the edge of town, he’s opening a venture with an Italian three-Michelin-starred restaurant – adding a further spectacular element to local eating possibilities. At a great price, I imagine. Marigold is already expensive for what it is (four little mutton knuckles in a Rogan Josh costing R213!), but it’s also really, really good. I’m hardly an expert on Indian food, but have never had better, and I look forward to going again. I was with Marc Kent and discovered again that he can do just about anything he wants in Franschhoek and evoke only smiles, and we were happily allowed to drink his mature Alsace gewürztraminer and more youthful Mosel riesling, which went down just fine with the food.

Room for only one more dinner in this village bursting with inviting options, and it was Chefs Warehouse at Maison, another spinoff from the great Cape Town eatery of Liam Tomlin – this kitchen run by David Schneider, one of Liam’s former chefs in Bree Street. And an exquisite and innovative  tapas-for-two dinner it was. When I expressed pleasure at his continuing the tradition of including a risotto, David told us that he’d once tentatively tried replacing it with gnocchi, but Chefs Warehouse regulars had soon brought him back into line. Wine on this occasion was an extraordinary, profound and finely balanced 1961 Antonio Vallana Barbera from northern Piedmont, and yet another bloody Mosel riesling – gorgeous.

So, a great few days of greed at the highest level. I’ll have to save hard and go back for a week or a month sometime. I hear that La Petite Colombe (formerly Quartier Francais, and also owned by Analjit Singh) is splendid. And Eric Bulpitt, a favourite chef of mine since I enjoyed the splendours of his cooking when he took over the now gone and lamented Jardine’s in Bree Street, Cape Town, is taking over Pierneef at La Motte after a bit too much wandering.

So much great food, so little time and money….

Incidentally, I do wonder how sustainable this Franschhoek restaurant burst will prove. At Foliage, I was the sole lunchtime diner, outnumbered 10 to1 by the staff. Neither Marigold nor Chefs Warehouse seemed more than a quarter full for dinner. Okay, the tourist season is waning, but restaurants can’t survive by relying only on summer visitors. I hope for the best, and wish them well. Capetonians should recognise their great good fortune and start flocking – with a designated driver or a taxi to take them home, sleepy but happily sated.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.

1 COMMENT

  1. An idea to attract more Capetonians to Franschhoek in winter months could be for the town’s tourism body to put together a package of a 2-night stay with 3 meals at different restaurants, something that would be more affordable than individual bookings.

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