Finally, back to Le Quartier Francaise and its venerable The Tasting Room, one of the most lauded restaurants in the country and the world.
I knew the restaurant in the early 1990s when John and Susan Huxter took over what already had been a restaurant that had won many awards. With John in the kitchen and Susan’s managerial skills keeping everything ticking over, it soon became clear that the place was as good as ever, and awards rolled in. When John Huxter moved on, Susan appointed a young member of the kitchen staff, Dutch chef Margot Janse, to run the kitchen, at what was to be the start of a brlliant 16 years of success after success.
I had not tasted much of Margot’s cooking in recent years, so went to find out just what it is that makes The Tasting Room so special — what makes the UK’s Restaurant magazine rate it so highly in its annual restaurant awards.
They are being very brave, and one thing they deserve full marks for is their willingness to push the boundaries, both in the food they serve and their edgy approach. Edgy? Offering a surprise menu — you have no idea what you’re getting — is the restaurant industry’s equivalent of bungee-jumping. It’s out-there stuff, and pretty exhilarating if you’re prepared to harness up and fling yourself over the culinary edge.
I absolutely love the approach as it lends a sense of drama and excitement to what would otherwise be merely dining out. Six years ago a brave decision was taken to install a purely tasting menu, before any others had gone that route (it has since become fairly common at this level of fine dining at the Cape). There was a degree of resistance and scepticism at first, but gradually the idea sunk in and diners would book for the experience of doing something different.
Then, more awards rolled in. This season, they’ve taken it a step further, to its logical conclusion if you like: you do get a menu, but you are given it at the end of the meal, as a souvenir, a reminder of what (I’m pretty sure) you’ll think of as one of the restaurant experiences of your life.
Now I have been debating with myself endlessly ever since my evening at The Tasting Room. The question: Is this the finest estaurant at the Cape at the moment (in my experience and in my opinion) or woud I rate The Greenhouse, at the Cellars-Hohenort hotel in Constantia, higher? The affable and down-to-earth Susan Huxter, over breakfast next morning, gently tried to coax me on the subject, and found my response a little cagey. But that Greenhouse meal only a few weeks ago was simply sublime from the first morsel to the last. It was wow factor all the way.
Let’s relive the Tasting Room’s eight-course menu while I finally decide. First up, even before the actual eight-course menu (once they’d served a welcome flute of Môreson bubbly, was a platter containing a squid cigar with a gorgeous soft centre of prawn and avocado, a delectable little ‘biltong sandwich’ and a chicken liver parfait bon-bon rolled in chicken skin crumbs. The only off moment here was the crumbs, which I did not like at all. Making up for this though was a brilliant ‘chakalaka stokkie lekker’ (lollipop) which is ironically very similar to an amuse bouche I had had at the Greenhouse. Lovely.
The sweetcorn bread that comes before the actual meal begins is contained in a Lucky Star pilchards tin. Brave and good. The bread was absolutely yummy and served with the most exquisite caramelised Jersey milk butter and Kalahari salt. This is the sort of detail that sets the Tasting Room apart from even the rest of this fine dining pack.
Finally, the meal itself. First up was a round, wobbly beetroot sponge with a centre of spinach and onion cream. Alongide it, brught green dill granita sprinkled with buchu powder. The buchu won the day, its unmistakably strong scent and flavour dominating in a way that must be almost impossible to avoid. But, brave. And they bring out a show-and-tell dried buchu plant.
Course 2: ‘Egg yolk’. A free range egg yolk slowly cooked for 40 minutes at 63degrees. With it, lovage puree, root vegetable cornflakes, and sherry caramel. Combined: a punch of flavour.
Third: A foie gras custard with ‘African soil’ (buckwheat and barley) with sour fig glaze, sprinkled with orange powder and rooibos powder. The night’s first 5-star dish.
The fourth course was curry-dusted kingklip with kale and a yellow dhal puree, with braised poppy, fennel and mustard seeds and confit deskinned cherry tomatoes. I have never known kingklip slice to effortlessly, like a perfectly tender steak.
Course 5: I wrote down ’10 stars’ for this impeccable farmed guinea fowl cooked sous vide and served with waterblommetjies, artichoke, liquorice root and liquorice glaze. The least photogenic of the dishes, but utterly wonderful to eat. Gorgeous reduction glaze, and the guinea fowl meat was like soft veal. Loved the crumbs too, this time.
Six: So, this meal is just getting better and better. The Eastern Cape blue wildebeest was magnificent and came with fabulous accompaniments including superfine potato crisps, red wine vinegar ‘flings’ – like Ghost Pops – baby veg and onion puree.
That really amounted to the ‘main’ course of the eight, and was followed by a cheese course: Tatton Hall cheddar (from George) sandwiched between pressed rusk (sunflower, caraway and molasses), with mebos custard, currants, confit tomato and pickled onion. It looked ike a ship about to set sail.
And finally, the piéce de resistance and a fittingly excellent way to end this memorable meal: ‘Milk cookie’. Another 10-star dish, this was a very white affair of milk with a crunch — how clever is that? Two percent milk is foamed and dehydrated to make what resembles softly crunchy Chinese prawn crackers. It comes with apple gel, white sesame seed foam, verjuice granita, sweet avocado mousse, black sesame seed brittle and malt ice-cream.
All of which served with many excellent wines makes for a meal of singular excellence and daring. There is no way I could rate this any lower than I do the Greenhouse, because, while the latter’s meal was one wow factor after another, there is so much edge-of-the-seat daring in the Tasting Room’s menu that they deserve extra points for pushing the boundaries and venturing into territory where few chefs would, or could, go. I am filled with admiration for Janse’s cooking and, not least, her kitchen spirit. Brava.
First published in The Sunday Independent October 2011