Chris Harvie falls for the food of Franschhoek, but finds that his accommodation is hardly worth a mention.
There are many so-called manor houses in Franschhoek but this one was shoddy to say the least. They know who they are, four stars, no underblankets, diluted shampoo, tangles of disconnected wires sticking out of the kitchen cupboard, no servicing on Sundays and soggy soap in pools in the soap dishes.
Mrs Bauer’s suitcase labels were still sitting in my bathroom dustbin. We wondered how long ago she’d stayed and whether the sheets had been changed since.
We wondered, in fact, whether we were expected at all. Nobody greeted us. Ever. We had prepaid. The first person we saw was the chambermaid on the morning we left.
As we sat in front of the fire later, we mused briefly as to where we had gone wrong.
But we weren’t here to sleep or sit in front of the fire. We were here to test how the goose feels in the run-up to being slaughtered for foie gras, so all we needed was a bed on which to digest between extravagances.
We had planned to partake of breakfast, lunch and dinner in Franschhoek for two days; to eat until we wished we had been part of a Roman orgy, sufferers from bulimia or guests in Gaddaffi’s tent, all of which would have allowed us to have gone out, thrown up, come back and start again.
It had kicked off at iCi at Le Quartier Francais or, as someone had said to us, Icky at Le Quartier Francais.
It wasn’t bad, but somehow, frankly, it missed. My parfait was, well, parfait; the lamb burger was, well, a lamb burger, and the chips were small, like McDonald’s chips; but they forgot one of our starters, the chandeliers were too spiky, it’s all a bit red and the waitress made Vin de Constance sound like Van der Merwe’s cousin.
The restaurant’s shop had too many yellow-beaded stuffed rhinos, the nadir in curio fashion. A question of taste, maybe, but we were a little bit underwhelmed.
Reuben’s was next. We were conscious of the hype over Reuben Riffel and possibly somewhat sceptical.
I had stuck my head into Reuben’s on an earlier visit and been somewhat put off by the design.
This time I fell in love with it. The DC-10 wing that forms the bar is quite the funkiest thing I have ever seen, as are the lights marking the emergency exits.
You have to down your drink in one go, if you don’t it slides down the fall of the wing into your lap; the restaurant was sensibly warm and comfortably under-furnished; the menu taunted us, amongst other less avant-garde dishes, with all the things we couldn’t get at home, steak tartare, calves’ liver and tripe, for example.
Despite my huge lunch, I could have eaten my squid starter, with its addictive chilli zing, a hundred times, and the calves’ liver was just perfect. We had all ordered differently and passed our plates around the table to chorusing oohs and aahs. There wasn’t a disappointing mouthful anywhere.
Over a damned good coffee, we asked the waitress if Reuben was there (under the guise of wishing to congratulate him on his engagement, which one of our number had cunningly spotted in the gossip columns). He was and what a great chap he is. His kitchen is the best in Franschhoek and for all the right reasons.
We darted through the rain to the car and the dodgy sheets and the whisky and settled our stomachs for a few hours until breakfast, a morning bakery raid on Sweetmama! yielding world-class croissants (the sort that fall apart completely in light, peeling shaves) and chubby little scones with soft middles. Had it not been raining we could have walked them off but we had to collapse and read the newspapers instead.
Lunch got off to a poor start when I narrowly failed to run over a couple from Cape Town walking in the rain outside. He made an unnecessarily obscene gesture at me. The restaurant had lost our booking.
The metal, nail-studded table at La Grande Provence was vaguely reminiscent of Reuben’s wing. Even more unusual were the bronze rabbits performing bizarre acts on one another in the exhibition alongside. But from there onwards, it was up, up, up. There were comfortable armchairs at the table. I love that. And Alex, our Zimbabwean waiter, was charming and attentive and clever enough to tell us all about cuttlefish.
I hesitate to describe my starter to you. It was a sort of sausagey thing with other things, described on the menu, rather cryptically, as a ‘tian of stuffed pork with potato galette, sauce espagnole … apple jellies’. The jellies formed tiny bubbles in the sauce. It was utterly gorgeous. So was the baked leek and Gruyere tart.
The main course duck was as crispy as it promised but the roasted fish with asparagus risotto, persillade squid … tomato, saffron sauce was probably the overall winner. We liked La Grande Provence.
The service was so good that we barely noticed it. The menu made sense and wasn’t full of drizzling and splattering. The huge flower arrangements dramatically offset the girders in the ceiling and the rain poured down outside the massive windows.
It was, as Gerard Hoffnung said, at this point that I think I must have lost my presence of mind. I don’t know whether the geese of the Porigord, after a certain point, don’t know when to stop, but we then ordered puddings. Banoffi cheesecake. Blimey. Amazing. It was just as well that Bread and Wine at Moreson was closed for refurbishment. We couldn’t get out of the car without help.
We were sated and more than satisfied. Our three top chefs’ meals had all cost about the same, a very reasonable R200 per head including wine, and we had survived without injury apart from distension of the stomach.
Had the chambermaid met us beforehand, she would probably not have recognised the five, far rounder guests who left the next morning but of course, as it happened, she saw us for the first time then.
And management never met us at all, so they won’t know us when we don’t come back.
We’ll have to stay somewhere else when we return to revisit Matthew Gordon’s Haute Cabriere and his French Connection Bistro. Now, excuse me while I go and lie down for a while (on clean sheets) just at the thought of it.
iCi at Le Quartier Francais tel: 021- 876-2151.
Reuben’s Restaurant and Bar tel: 021-876-3772.
Sweetmama! tel: 021-876-4591
Le Grande Provence tel: 021-876- 8600.