(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