HOMAGE TO HERITAGE
Synonymous with fine fare, exceptional wine, art and history, Franschhoek’s growing list of top-notch restaurants combines all that this picturesque setting has to offer. Jenny Handley visits one such gem, Le coin Français, to experience a touch of je ne
The beautiful valley of Franschhoek is known by many as the gourmet capital of the Cape – it boasts top-class restaurants that make the most of sweeping views of the Wemmershoek, Groot Drakenstein and Franschhoek mountains, from one of the oldest towns in South Africa. Franschhoek’s original inhabitants were the San people, hunter-gatherers who had lived there long before the Khoikhoi settled on the land. After the arrival of French Huguenots in the 17th century, the valley became known as le coin Français (meaning “the French corner”) which, after Dutch settlers had arrived, was changed to Fransche Hoek (the Dutch translation for “French corner”) before it was shortened to Franschhoek. In keeping with this, Le coin Français on the town’s main road may be discreet, but it stands out for paying homage to Franschhoek’s history by serving superlative food. Showcasing the essence of the valley in more ways than just the cuisine – which creatively marries tried-and-trusted French techniques with cutting-edge methods – the decor and ambience exude French finesse, with crockery, cutlery and the music all being French.
The wine list is an impressive roundup of the best on offer in the valley – it has been carefully selected from the wine farms on their doorstep – with a separate section of French wines selected by sommelier Munashe Kwaramba (known to many as Nash). Internationally acclaimed in his field of expertise, Nash likes to tweak the wine list when he spots something unique, and there’s only one wine per estate listed to ensure a wide variety of options. Award-winning chef and owner,
Darren Badenhorst, is not new to the valley – locals have enjoyed following him from Grande Provence Heritage Wine Estate, where he was the executive chef, to a place he now calls his own. Here, he takes diners on a culinary journey conceptualised with nostalgia and served to offer art on a plate.
In his younger days, Darren was a sponsored spear fisherman and, from the age of eight, he was catching fish and filleting them with his pen knife. It’s no surprise then that he now owns a commercial fishing boat – he loves the sea and when he travels, he chooses islands on which to relax. Now 33, Darren has already flexed his entrepreneurial muscles successfully, being involved in a few aligned fishery businesses.
While planning his venture, Darren had been looking for premises in Cape Town, nearby Stellenbosch and on wine estates for a while, but knew that he wanted to stay in “the village”, as locals endearingly call Franschhoek.
After dining at the establishment that was previously housed on the property, Darren intuitively knew it was an ideal spot for a restaurant.
When he later learned the eatery had closed, he swooped in. “I knew exactly what I wanted ages ago, but was waiting for the right space. When I found it, I just had to refine it. Meanwhile, I was worried that someone else might do it first, as it is such a simple concept, and I was surprised no one had done this before. I had a vision of a restaurant that has clean lines and is light, bright and inviting, creating an ambience of relaxation and calmness.
“I roped in my parents, who live in Durban. My mom, who is very artistic and has a knack for decor – proven in her watercolour and oil paintings – was given a brief for the interior design from pictures I had saved on Pinterest. My stepdad did the lighting and created our bar counter with the help of a friend, and a family friend made the wooden tables. It really came together as a team effort,” Darren says proudly.
New floors were laid both inside and out, and ceilings and a custom-made fireplace were crafted with a dash of speed. Only the original staircase remained, and after hard work spent transforming the space into Le coin Français, it was time to open the doors in October 2017, after Darren finished at Grande Provence the month before.
Darren received impressive mentoring and guidance from Darren Roberts, ex-head chef of Grande Provence, who facilitated Darren’s move from his hometown of Durban to the valley. “He is my ‘industry dad’, and I am immensely grateful to him for bringing me here.
“I love how this town accommodates tourists and appreciates its artistic inspiration. Moving to Franschhoek gave me my culinary clarity. While at
Grande Provence, I learned the value of being creative, interactive and theatrical. My food has fun elements and I like to evoke nostalgia. Dishes need to remind me of things and allow me to reflect. A diner must be able to see what is important to the chef,” Darren elaborates.
His flair was evident from a young age as he started to play and collect instruments, favouring the guitar
– for visual inspiration, he turns to his surrounds and ingredients.
During Darren’s dinner journey, he presents two of the courses at the table and accommodates only 10 tables to ensure exclusivity and attention. To encourage interaction, guests are invited to stand at the counter and watch this culinary wizard hard at work with his team, who are welcoming and friendly, and geared towards giving an experience. He pays tribute to their talents and says they have been unwavering in their dedication, like Nash, who previously worked at Grande Provence, where he started out as a runner and then waiter, before becoming a junior, and then a senior, wine steward.
When it comes to his staff, Darren believes in investing in people, which is proven no more than in the case of the restaurant manager, Jasper Venter. “I maintain that the whole is only as strong as its parts, and Jasper is the epitome of the strongest part of the Le coin Français team,” he shares.
Local suppliers are the first choice, with some of the ingredients supplied exclusively and others from once-off buys. If not in the restaurant, Darren will be fishing, foraging or visiting farms nearby to pick the finest produce.
One can see a tinge of Asian and Italian influences on the menu with ingredients like Indonesian soya glaze, shimeji mushrooms and edamame, and dishes like guanciale-and-spinach risotto, and semifreddo; yet, he doesn’t limit his food to a specific cuisine or culture. “I am not above picking what I like – Asian acidity, food that is light and fresh, or that reflects South African heritage. I use local ingredients to create international cuisine in some dishes. For example, Italian fare gives a feeling of being welcome and homely, but French is what I always use as the building blocks,” he explains.
Darren shows enviable restraint in never overworking or complicating his food. He lets it speak for itself. Some creations are intricate, others simple. Lunch and dinner show a similar style (lunch is à la carte), with certain dishes being challenging and others
more approachable. Either way, he allows diners to experience quality and sophistication.
At home, Darren favours hearty, one-pot cooking – comfort food he associates with his grandparents, who are excellent cooks. At the restaurant, the bread that welcomes guests is evocative of his gran’s kitchen. “It’s a tribute to her ‘cheese puffs’, which I’ve tweaked to fit the style of cuisine at Le coin Français,” he smiles.
His “chef’s taster” is remarkable: cold-smoked monkfish served on a glass plate under a dome with black ‘lace’ made of vanilla and squid ink; caviar and a string of naartjie zest that has been cooked four times, the last time with a little sugar added. With such attention to detail, it’s only served as part of the “chef’s journey” menu.
Never one to steal the limelight, Darren is quick to compliment other restaurants and chefs in the village for what they are doing to raise the culinary bar. And when asked about his offerings, he describes his food as interesting, honest and approachable yet challenging. Others say exceptional.
PORCINI-CURED SPRINGBOK TARTARE WITH CARPACCIO OF BEETROOT, HORSERADISH AÏOLI, RAISIN EMULSION, TOASTED CORIANDER, PICKLED MUSTARD AND WILD FLOWERS
“RORSCHACH FOR THE SOLE”: POACHED WEST COAST SOLE WITH ELEMENTS OF CITRUS AND SQUID-INK RORSCHACH SPRAY
CHEF’S TASTER: COLD-SMOKED MONKFISH SERVED WITH BLACK ‘LACE’ MADE OF VANILLA AND SQUID INK; CAVIAR AND A STRING OF NAARTJIE ZEST
ELEMENTS, PERCENTAGES AND TEXTURES OF CHOCOLATE