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

Food & Home - - Joburg Dining - PHO­TOGRAPHS BY BRUCE TUCK

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

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