Despite just missed out on the Top 50 elite spots of San Pellegrino’s Best restaurants in the world and placed at No. 53, The Tasting Room remains the top restaurant in South Africa that many still unable to get in without a booking months ahead.
The Tasting Room is the most lauded fine dining restaurant in South Africa, housed inside the Relais and Châteaux Le Quartier Français Hotel in Franschhoek. Led by The Netherlands born, executive chef Margot Janse for over 17 years, The Tasting Room has continued to thrive, luring serious diners from around the globe to come to share her culinary creativity. And I, was one of them. I was fortunate enough to have my first experience in this restaurant during my media trip to South Africa last year and surely enough, it was one not to forget.
The restaurant had just been through a makeover when we were there, white table linen cloths stripped down revealing Scandinavian design glossy wooden table; the decor is now in a cohesive exotic colour theme of passion red, orange and black, from chairs, art sculpture to the wall mural. The whole design was conceptualised by Dutch set designer, Herbert Janse, who also happened to be Margot’s brother.
Margot believes that food is constantly evolving; nostalgic dishes should always have an element of surprise within. With this approach allows her to take you through a 8-course African inspired degustation menu that will capture your heart and imagination.
First came a wooden serving board adorned with a selection of mini appetisers. The white fluffy pillows were actually olive marshmallow on a crunchy bed of wild ricecracker. Tiny pieces of foie with choc nibs were like a block of chocolate on steroid, they were decadent and creamy. The classic African Chakalaka (also known as South African ratatouille) had been transformed into cigar-like sticks filled with powdery substance that tasted just like the classic dish. The black pebbles were possibly the most innovative, inside the crispy squid ink shell was filled with sharp buffalo yoghurt. If that was the only appetisers, we simply couldn’t wait what they have installed for us.
This was possibly the most unusual yet fun way of serving house bread that I’ve ever seen.
Instead of normal bread, we were presented with cornbread which was actually cooked inside the Lucky Star pilchard tin can, the light and fluffy bread was still piping hot, studded with plump corn kernels that added another layer of texture, and the quenelle of caramelised burnt butter was seriously addictive that I could simply eat it on its own!
The waitstaffs here were exceptionally knowledgable, not to mention super friendly. He told us that the butter was made with fresh milk from a cow called ‘Daisy’ at a local farm here in Franschhoek.
Dining at The Tasting Room was a sensory experience, we were encouraged to touch, feel, sniff and analyse. Before bringing out the next course, our waitstaff handed over a little twig of native bush called Buchu and instructed us to give it a rub and sniff. The buchu plant had a strong aroma of blackcurrant, and it is commonly used as a natural herbal remedies for detoxing while other parts of the plant can also be used to produce fragrance. The plant would also be used in our next course this evening.
The third course was one of Tasting Room’s signature dishes, the presentation was strikingly exciting, a sphere of dark red beetroot mousse was ethereally light as feather, filled with green onion puree, a mound of chilled green dill and cucumber granita was refreshing and smoothing, served on a schmear of buttermilk labne that added a hint of tartness to the dish. There was only a tiny sprinkle of buchu powder on the board, just enough to lend its sweetness to the dish without overpowering.
The fish dish was curry dusted monkfish, the turmeric tainted fish was cooked to perfection with tender and juicy white flesh, paired with wilted kale and yellow dahl puree with a trail of braised spices. The confit tomato was packed with umami essence which brought out the sweetness of the fish.
When you are in South Africa, drink a lot of pinotage!
The last meat dish was Klein karoo wildebeest loin served with a healthy mix of kamut wheat and sorghum grain. Who’d have thought the one of the ugly fives can be so tasty? I would have to stay the wildebeest loin is a cross between beef and venison, the pink meat was surprisingly tender but the flavour was as rich as venison. The trail of grains and wheats were nourishingly chewy, rainbow carrots added the crunch and a creamy celeriac puree rounded up the dish perfectly.
It is not common in Australia, but we were presented the cheese course before dessert, along with a sweet Allesverloren fine old vintage tawny port. Thin slivers of crumbly yellow Klein river gruyere has a strong tang with earthy, nutty flavours that lingers on the palate. The nuttiness was enhance with a rubble of pressed rusk, currants with dollops of sweet mebos custard and pickled onion.
The Pièce de résistance of this evening had to be our dessert course. It was also the dish that inspired our dessert degustation pop up event last year. We were presented with a huge white dome sitting fragilely on a wide plate. Our waitstaffs informed us not to touch it as there were more to come.
He came back with a tray of science conical flasks filled with hot caramel, this theatrical table service could not get any better.
In synch, the hot caramel sauce was poured onto the dome as it drips over the side lava-like. Nothing happened, we waited, just about to feel disappointed with the underwhelming pouring show, the dome caved in and collapsed in front of our eyes. There was a roar of gasps and cheers around our table in harmony.
The white chocolate dome coated in desiccated coconut slowly melting away, revealing another small dome inside which was coconut ice cream infused with honeybush. Surprisingly the dessert wasn’t overly sweet, the caramel sauce actually had a pleasant tangy but slightly sweet citrus flavour from the baobab tree. This exquisite dessert definitely rounded up our fantastic meal at The Tasting Room perfectly.
We left with the last course of petite fours to sweeten our night away; there was an eclectic fun mix of stained-glass-like lemongrass tuile; the chewy tangerine jelly was sharp and tangy, M&M’s sticks were made out of South Africans’ favourite rooibos tea, and also a coffee ganache cake filled with orange mousse with a mushroom dome of meringue marshmallow looked irresistibly tasty inside a mini glass cloche.
It was a memorable meal, in fact, it was a memorable trip. For the first time, a group of eight journalists, editors and writers had not only taken lots of fond memories from South Africa with us, but also a valuable friendship that we will cherish for a long time.
The Tasting Room
Le Quartier Francais
Cnr Berg & Wilhelmina Streets
Franschhoek, Western Cape, 7690, South Africa
P: 0027 21876 2151
Tuesday to Saturday for evening dinner only.
The Tasting Room only offers 8-course degustation menu at 770 Rand (AUD$83)
With pairing wine is 1170 Rand (AUD$126)
[A Table For Two visited The Tasting Room as a guest of South Africa Tourism]