Tuesday 14 December 2010

Loving Le Quartier Francais

(The Common Room - which while it may be communal, is really anything but 'common')

Susan Huxter, owner of Le Quartier Francais in Franschhoek sent me an email a while ago inviting Jacques and I to stay at Le Quartier Francais. And upon receiving it I smiled for two reasons. The first was obviously, joyful anticipation, and the other was that I recalled a fabulous day spent with her and Victoria Mather - writer/travel journalist/globetrotter/fabulous raconteur) who introduced us quite a few years ago. (Read what Victoria has to say about her friend Susan here). I remember lots of laughter, a fair bit of wine, and inspirational conversation. I also recall Victoria telling us the story of how the late, great, Dominick Dunne greeted her at Steve Wynn's party, attended by the Filthy Rich and Fabulously Famous, when he opened The Wynn in Las Vegas ' Ah, Victoria, ' Dominick said approvingly,' you're the only one here wearing inherited jewels!'
At Le Quartier it doesn't matter whether your jewels are inherited or otherwise, or even if you don't have any jewels at all, because the minute you pass through the scented, wildly disobediently, gorgeous garden, you are made to feel welcome. Jacques has a theory that the reason the hotel is so successful and why there is such attention to detail in a non-fussy friendly way, is because of the three women who are so committed to it. Susan Huxter (owner) Margot Janse (celebrated and award-winning chef) and Linda Coltart (General Manager) I think he's right. All three are consumate professionals and perfectionists, they are talented and dedicated yet delightfully irreverent. And it is this irreverence that prevents Le Quartier from ever being regarded as stuck up or exclusive, or aspirationally French, despite its name, this is no Desperately-trying-to-be-like-Provence -bonjour-et-bonsoir-hotel. From the brightly coloured Common Room (the place for delicious breakfast, impromptu lunches, and casual, but exciting, dinners), to the sweetcorn bread in Pilchard tins served in the internationally-recognized The Tasting Room, to the bright and bold bedrooms ( I loved our orange bathroom), to the ostrich leather seats in the small yet glorious cinema right through to the genuinely friendly staff, this establishment proudly proclaims its individuality within a South African context. Those contemplating a stay here (and you would be well advised to do so), should be aware that while this is no member of a large, opulently splendid hotel chain, you will not be sacrificing any luxury whatsoever. It is divinely decadent in it's own exclusive way.
But the piece de resistance (if I may be excused for for feeling the whole Franschhoek French Vibe, anyway) is a dinner at The Tasting Room. We had the 9-course Surprise menu, focussing on South African flavours and ingredients, where each dish was pared with a glass of impeccably chosen wine. Now without giving too much away, because that would spoil it for those wanting to experience the blissful moments of the serendipitous delight of every single course for themselves, but this was one of the most memorable and pleasurable meals of my life. All to often wine paring is a haphazard affair, the term is used loosely, a case of choosing a wine that won't horribly jar with the dish. But not here. We were introduced to wines that are rare and beautiful, interesting and surprising, and yes, each glass (and we asked for small amounts of wine in order to do the meal justice) perfectly complimented the flavours that Margot conjured up in the kitchen. This was not simply a meal, or even a great meal. This was a culinary experience, an adventure, an education in the most pleasurable way. Perfectly executed, beautifully presented and incredibly delicious. Not only does Margot deliver 9 intricate courses, but each dish has a combination of flavours that linger on the tongue and the memory. South Africans will recognize the ingredients (baobab, fennel, chakalaka, buttermilk, crayfish, granadilla, buchu) but marvel at the way in which Margot introduced other flavours to complement them. And as with the best of chefs, the result is enchanting not alienating. Equally enchanting is the enthusiasm of those serving each course. With yet another stroke of creativity, the waiters change as the meal progresses, and so you hear different people's take on the dish presented to you. The stories are personal, in the manner of 'growing up in the Eastern Cape, we used buchu for our medicine', or when presenting a dish involving crayfish, a shared reminisce about weekend at the sea, or a telling of the story of fresh farm eggs. None of this is intrusive or laboriously rehearsed or even over-familiar and annoying, it is only charming and left me feeling warm and fuzzy about both the flavours and the peoples of my country. More so, when someone noticed my fatigue and insisted that instead of foregoing the handmade chocolates, I take them back to our room, packaged in a small white box, with line-green satin ribbon to enjoy later. Which I did. At 7am the next morning, with my coffee, before going back to bed for a couple if hours. In order garner enough strength to start the whole magical culinary journey again in The Common Room.
And for the record, this is no humdrum, hotel breakfast affair. Oh no. It is incredible, well worth a drive in from Cape Town...I'm tempted to do just that soon. But then I'd want to stay for lunch. And dinner at The Tasting Room. And then I'd have to be dragged, kicking and screaming away. Again. As I did when we got into the car, and I immediately started nagging Jacques about planning another romantic gourmet break for us. 'Soon. Please', I pleaded, annoyingly. And then stopped, because I realised that he too, had left a piece of his heart somewhere in between walking in the fragrant garden, being inspired by the bold colours, and enjoying the enticing presence of three strong women, (four if you included me) who made him laugh over breakfast. Of course we'll be back...

Le Quartier Francais
16 Huguenot Road
Telephone: 021 8762151

The Tasting Room & Common Room
Telephone 021 876 8442


Thursday 9 December 2010

A French Toast to Bree Street

Two confessions:
What follows is a press release, but as I wrote it I feel I can post it as is. I also derive great satisfaction from doing so, because it is so not done. I wrote it for friends. My first press release ever. A lot harder than I thought, I think I prefer the lazy ramblings of my own memories, imagination and issues.
Secondly, I adore John Harrison, one of the partners in this venture. When I started out in this industry, he was kind to me. A girl doesn't forget a thing like that.

Bree Street is fast becoming a major culinary hub and the latest addition is one more reason to celebrate. French Toast wine and tapas bar is a typically French wine bar, specializing in both local and international wines and offering a wide variety of generously sized tapas to accompany their impressive wine list. The city now boasts its own sophisticated 'local - a place where you can meet after work for a quick drink, have informal meetings, enjoy an evening out with friends, or simply drop by after a movie or a quiet night in for a glass of French Chablis, South African port and a dessert.

This elegant wine bar is situated in what was once an old city warehouse and has been transformed into a sophisticated venue reminiscent of Paris in the 1950s. Sumptuously comfortable chairs, private leather banquettes, luxurious sofas, oversized light fittings, exposed brick walls, industrial beams and an incredibly beautiful bar counter which begs to be lounged at all create an atmosphere of easyelegance.French Toast is the culmination of partners John Harrison and Karin Visser’s appreciation for fine wine, great food and l’art de vivre as typified by Mediterranean lifestyle. Previously a stockbroker and the MD of Table Mountain Aerial Cableway, John is a practical dreamer, who had the vision and the drive to turn a barren space into a sophisticated venue for those who share his love for wine and food. Karin, a qualified biokineticist with a passion for wine, left her medical career to team up with John to create this wine bar that provides the city with a pleasant lunch spot or a good night out. French Toast caters for all manner of pockets from reasonable to the blow-the-budget crowd. Patrons can indulge in a glass or two of old favourites or taste and enjoy a few new ones from an impressive selection of more than 80 wines by the glass of both local and international origins.

The charmingly professional Gidi Caetano – ex-Showroom, and Salt – is the General Manager of French Toast and brings with her 14 years of hospitality industry experience, expert knowledge of cuisine and an excellent wine palate. John, Karin and Gidi are a strong presence in the restaurant, their menu and wine recommendations are always spot on, and you would do well to try out something new or special as recommended by them.

There are few places that offer so many fine imported and local wines by the glass, and French Toast can do this because of their Le Verre de Vin wine preservation system, which reseals wines by removing oxygen from the bottle. This enables you to indulge in that much longed-for glass of Prosecco, or to enjoy a glass of excellent Italian Pinot Grigio, a German Riesling or that glass of beautifully subtle French Chablis. Their South African selection of wines is equally impressive, allowing wine lovers to flirt between several estates and vintages.

Before heading up the kitchen at French Toast, Head chef Jannie Melis, co-owned Two Dogs restaurant in East London, and has gained valuable experience working for high profile brands Constantia Uitsig and Bushman’s Kloof in the Western Cape. He is enjoying the challenge of preparing an ever-changing selection of Mediterranean-style tapas. Reasonably priced and generously portioned these tapas can be enjoyed alone or shared among dining companions. Patatas bravas - perfectly fried Spanish-style potatoes with a homemade spiced tomato sauce - accompanied by a delicious bowl of spiced sautéed calamari, served with lemon is particularly noteworthy.

The albondigas - cumin and coriander spiced meatballs, slow cooked in tomato sauce are delicious as is the warm chevre salad. The cheese platters, as is the French Toast way, offer an interesting and impressive selection of cheeses served with locally made fruit preserve. In addition to the wonderful selection of charcuterie (Italian montanara salami, Italian parma ham, Spanish chorizo and jamón serrano) served with olives and caper berries, the French Toast menu also offers a wide variety of vegetarian options.

The deserts are magnificent, and while by no means tiny, are small enough that one could order several to share. Be sure to try the churros con chocolate (cinnamon dusted doughnut twirls-to-be-dipped-into-chocolate) that the Spaniards enjoy for breakfast or indulge in the signature desert – French toast drizzled in honey and served with almond ice-cream. For something a little lighter, the grappa pannacotta served with seasonal berries is pure genius.

French Toast is where you will feel compelled to celebrate. You can do so with some great tapas and either bottle of French Champagne, a glass or two of South African Méthode Cape Classique, a mean mojito or classic cosmopolitan, some wine, a very decent cup of coffee and then you can remind yourself that life is too short to drink poorly.

French Toast Wine and Tapas Bar is located on 199 Bree Street, Cape Town.

Telephone 021 422 3839

Website: www.frenchtoastwine.com