The annual list of the Top 50 Restaurants in the World was released this week. Like most people, I was interested in seeing whether Ferran Adria or Heston Blumenthal snatched the top spot (it was Ferran – better luck next time Heston!). But unlike most people, my eye scanned down the list looking hopefully for an African connection (unlikely, you might think, given that we are such tiny minnows in the world of international fine dining). But there it was – just in at no. 47, but in nonetheless: Le Quartier Francais outside Cape Town.
Le Quartier Francais is a gorgeous Relais & Chateaux hotel (or rather auberge, according to their site ) in Franschhoek, named as "Best small hotel in the world" by Tatler in 2005. If you’re wondering about the distinctly Francophile name of the hotel, it’s no mystery once you know the history of Franschhoek. In 1685, after Protestantism was outlawed in France, a group 277 of so-called French Huguenots arrived by ship at the Cape of Good Hope and were given land by the Dutch government in a fertile valley outside Cape Town then called Oliphantshoek (literally "elephants’ corner because of the large herds of elephants that roamed the area – hard as though that now seems to believe). The are soon became known by a new name – Franschhoek which in fact means "French corner" in Dutch. So not only is there a distinctly French tradition of wine-making in the area, but there is also still a strong French Cultural influence in the restaurants and vineyard names (La Motte, Plaisir de Merle, L’Ormarins and Chamonix, to name but a few). They even hold a Bastille Festival and boules tournament each July!
There are two restaurants at the Le Quartier – the more casual space is called Ici (more French!) and has a relaxed menu to match its ambience, but the star of the show is definitely the fine dining restaurant The Tasting Room. Diners are in the safe hands of chef Margot Janse. Margot was born in the Netherlands and had no formal training as her first career choice was not food-related at all: she spent a year at theatre school in Maastricht. However, when she applied to the Amsterdam theatre school the following year she was told that she needed to to do some travelling and experience the world before they accepted her. This led to a trip to Africa in 1990 with her boyfriend, a South African political journalist living in the Netherlands. She spent time in Zimbabwe and Zambia and obviously fell in love with the continent, because in 1990 she arrived in Johannesburg, still with the intention of pursuing a career in theatre.
But in 1992 she realised that her real passion lay in cooking. Not wishing to tie herself down to a three year catering diploma, she started working as a waitress. This eventually led to a job in the kitchen at La Cucina di Ciro Johannesburg where chef Ciro Molinaro recognised her potential and encouraged her to become involved in creating menu items and hone her skills. In 1994, Margot moved to Cape Town, working briefly at The Bay Hotel before being appointed sous chef at Le Quartier Francais. When executive chef John Huxter departed not long after, she stepped into his shoes and seems to have gone from strength to strength ever since. Both the restaurant and Margot have a string of accolades to their names, including Margot’s selection by Wine magazine as Best Chef in South Africa in 2004.
The Tasting Room is only open for dinner, Monday to Sunday, and diners have a choice of a four- or six-course a la carte menu, or the eight course menu gourmand. Both options perfectly showcase Margot’s affinity for melding the cooking techniques of Europe with the unique ingredients of Africa. I was drooling over the oyster and vanilla nage with a crayfish and avocado mousse; the ballotine of wood pigeon, duck and foie gras with peach and rooibos chutney; or the sugar-cured springbok and confit rabbit terrine with cabbage marmalade. And we won’t even mention desserts like white chocolate and citrus terrine with a passion fruit and cherry foam… Even better is the price – the eight-course menu gourmand with matching wines comes in at a laughably reasonable £55 per person.
At that price, it almost pays to fly to Cape Town for dinner…
The Tasting Room
Le Quartier Francais
16 Hugenot Road
Tel. +27 (0)21 876 2151
Fax. +27 (0)21 876 3105