la_petite_colombe_by_claire_gunn_27.jpg Franschhoek is often called South Africa’s culinary capital and it’s not hard to figure out why. Per square metre, the central village offers a number of quality simple and upmarket restaurants, wine and activities. In between the formulaic cafes and curio shops tripping up tourists in the main street, there are quality dining destinations and delis, plus charming suites and cottages offering luxurious beds.

So it’s logical to draw a link with one of the country’s acclaimed restaurants opening in Le Quartier Français boutique hotel in August. La Colombe restaurant put Constantia on the global culinary map. Its chef partners Scot Kirton and James Gaag had similar objectives for La Petite Colombe restaurant in Franschhoek’s main road — for diners to enjoy a special, leisurely wine and dining experience in a country setting.

20171101_133531.jpg My lunch began with a simple Luderitz oyster poached in creamy Champagne velouté, with verjuice gel and dill oil. Simple and comforting, it was served in a beautiful bowl shaped like an oyster shell. There were hits of citrus freshness, sago for texture, then micro-diced apple in yuzu dressing adding tartness. As a wine pairing the Morena MCC, from Franschhoek, was spot on.

“I like to think we serve food that is a little lighter than La Colombe,” says Head chef John Norris-Rogers. He may be only 26, but he’s been schooled in La Colombe style since 2013, during his third year of Silwood School of Cookery. “The styles are very similar as we use classical grounding, but with playfulness that allows us to be creative. So we have the basics for a good sauce but the creativity to play around and make the sauce unique.”

Asian-style tuna was an artwork demanding to be admired. What appeared as a translucent disc of yellowfin tuna was shavings of blast-frozen fish. It rested on a creamy, umami base of miso and orange zest mousse. Scattered on top: avocado, assorted blobs, creams, gels, and pickled seeds including miso-glazed aubergine, tart citrus calamansi gel, spicy kimchi, delicate shaved fennel. Flavours and textures balanced one another beautifully.

la_petite_colombe_by_claire_gunn_24.jpg Seafood is something this restaurant does particularly well. “We have more fish dishes because they’re light enough to allow you to enjoy more courses,” says Norris-Rogers. “It brings clean flavours and freshness to a menu.”

He balances those with “comforting” meat dishes. A standout example was the seared, grass-fed beef tataki slices, contrasted with herby marinated beef tartar. Dominant flavours included soya sauce, smoky chipotle, pickled Jerusalem artichoke, red onion, coriander. There was fun in a puffed sago crisp; subtlety in creamy avocado. A surprise too: grated, frozen foie gras melted in the mouth. Rainbow’s End Cabernet Franc 2014 offered delicious sweet fruit.

Probably the most memorable part was being invited to leave our chairs and “meet the chefs” while eating a course, standing, at a counter. Chef Kieran Gatenby took us through an interactive dining experience while facing the open kitchen. “Today you’re having traditional Japanese ramen,” he instructed. In a sphere-like bowl of an earthy, soy-based reduction with dainty noodles, soft-boiled quail’s egg, and edible extras, Gatenby poured over a warm broth of juiced celeriac and aromatic oils. Fresh, then woodier notes came to the fore.

img_2375.jpg In summary, La Petite Colombe offers a food and wine journey. Complex, attractive dishes incorporate a layering of tastes, in a setting that opens to a garden.

“I think, when you’re coming up with something of this nature, you just want to address all the senses,” says Norris-Rogers of his menu approach. “But above all it has to be flavoursome.”

LA PETITE COLOMBE, Huguenot Road, Franschhoek. Open for lunch and dinner daily. At night, many splurge on nine courses for R1,100 (R1,850 including wine). A reduced menu (five courses at R795) is popular at lunchtime (R1,250 including wine).
Tel 021-202-3395, La Petite Colombe

A version of this appeared in Business Day Homefront in December 2017