The small art- and wine-rich town of Franschhoek in the Western Cape already has the atmosphere of a holiday destination, even for Cape Town locals. Add in a subtly elegant hotel and a five-star fine-dining experience and visiting the valley – even for a night – becomes a luxurious affair.
A 21-room boutique hotel, Le Quartier Français is set amidst perfumed gardens and surrounded by majestic mountain views. While wandering through the hotel, an imaginative art collection catches the eye, and the Everard Read Gallery next door hosts even more artworks from their stable of local talent where, currently, Lucinda Mudge‘s Pixel Vase Collection is taking centre stage.
The sumptuous rooms, all arranged around an outdoor relaxation area, are filled with top-notch amenities and accessories – including the biggest, fluffiest white towels I’ve ever seen. With interiors that respect the integrity of the hotel’s Cape Victorian architecture, each space is intimate and welcoming, with a modern edge. The herb garden, featuring a very friendly cat and a variety of sculptures, separates the living areas from the social Garden Room, bar and much-anticipated La Petite Colombe – the main focus of my stay.
After undergoing renovation, Franschhoek’s newest big-hit restaurant, La Petite Colombe, has taken the place of chef Margot Janse’s The Tasting Room. Run by Eat Out‘s 2015 Chef of the Year Scot Kirton alongside James Gaag, the kitchen is packed with talented cooks, including head chef John Norris-Rodgers, who previously worked at the original La Colombe. Set in a glass conservatory with dark steel framing offset by light wood in the ceiling, La Petite Colombe is a feast for the eyes… and I hadn’t even spied the food yet.
Upon seating, I was advised to dive into the nine-course tasting menu, which includes a wine pairing. It’s a little steep at R1 600 per person, but absolutely worth it, considering what you get. The culinary experience begins with a neat helping of sourdough bread and home-churned butter, as well as Cape Malay pickled fish, smoked snoek, piccalilli and salsa verde. Ordinarily I’m not a fan of pickled fish and even cringed a bit when I saw it on the menu but, as expected from a sister restaurant to La Colombe, it was mouthwateringly good. After this I was treated to a poached West Coast oyster, presented as a delicate, precious object that looked almost too good to eat. Asian-style salmon – complemented by the light and crisp Fable Mountain Vineyards’ Jackal Bird 2014 – followed promptly after.
Soon, more delectable dishes such as beef tataki made their way to the table. Barbeque quail – my favourite offering of the evening – coupled brilliantly with scallops, mussels and bok choi, while a moreish glass of Black Elephant Vintners’ The Back Roads Viognier brought all the flavours together perfectly. In the past, the quail was accompanied by langoustines instead of mussels and scallops and, while I can’t comment on the change in terms of flavour, this new option is certainly more environmentally sustainable.
An innovative touch to the menu was the addition of the Chef’s Table. This gives guests the chance to take a short break from their extensive meal and get a first-hand glimpse of the talented chefs bustling in the kitchen. Of course, nothing in this restaurant comes without food, so I happily consumed a steaming bowl of ramen while enjoying a voyeuristic experience of La Petite Colombe’s backstage. But the night was far from over, and citrus-glazed linefish, pork belly and lamb (cooked on a mini-braai at the table) followed rapidly in succession.
By the time we’d arrived at La Petite Colombe’s sweet offerings, I thought I couldn’t consume any more, but I quickly changed my mind when I nibbled on the first dessert: asiago cheese, pear and pecans atop Japanese cheesecake. Light, delicate and rather unexpected (the cheesecake came in the form of a mousse), the flavours of this dish are unusual, but delicious overall. The second dessert option of stone fruit, Valrhona Dulcey chocolate and nougat was just as tasty.
While I had no trouble with the desserts themselves, I couldn’t bring myself to finish the sugary-sweet dessert wines paired with these final two dishes. Fortunately I was so sated from the previous fare that nothing could put a dampener on my experience at this point. As a special finishing touch, each diner was given a selection of gourmet chocolates in a miniature treasure box – putting the figurative cherry on top of a glorious nine-tier cake. Nine courses of food and accompanying wine later, I retired to my cosy room where I was enveloped by pillows almost as big as me as I drifted off into dreamland, mind swimming with the memories of scrumptious culinary delights.
Before I left the next morning, a wholesome breakfast from Le Quartier Francais’ Garden Room prepared me for the road home. The space opens up onto a manicured courtyard (with another appearance from the very friendly cat) and large windows allow the winter sun in on colder mornings such as this one. The buffet option offers home-made granola and pastries, seasonal fruit and juices, but I opted for a cooked breakfast of creamy scrambled eggs with smoked trout and chive cream cheese – divine!
With a wave goodbye from the super-friendly staff, I headed back to reality. Although I was sad to leave the luxurious yet homely hotel, I revelled in the knowledge that it was only an hour and a half’s drive from Cape Town and I could come back any time. All in all, Le Quartier Francais, and the delectable La Petite Colombe make for an ideal staycation for locals and a welcoming taste of South African luxury for overseas travellers.
For more information or to make a booking, visit leeucollection.com.