Review: The Tasting Room, Franschhoek, South Africa


While food is always quite good in South Africa, there are pockets where it is downright interesting and innovative. With an up and coming dining scene, there are lots of opportunities to try interesting restaurants for a rising middle and luxury class.

This post is one chapter on our trip to South Africa, a Safari in the Maasai Mara in Kenya and Mauritius. This trip was redeemed through Air Canada’s Aeroplan and through Starwood Preferred Guest (Marriott Bonvoy) and Hyatt Gold Passport. For more information on how this trip was booked, please see our trip introduction here. For other parts of the trip, please see this index.

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Review: The Tasting Room, at Le Quartier Français, Franschhoek, South Africa

“Our experience moving through a ten dish tasting menu celebration, with no road map, by one of Africa’s most decorated chef’s”

During the time of our visit, in the restaurant research for the area, I focused in on The Tasting Room at Le Quartier Français by Relais and Chateaux. The Tasting Room is marketed as Africa’s most decorated restaurant, having won several awards and a spot on again at the time of our visit on the San Pelligrino Top 50 Restaurants in the World for 8 years. 

The write up from the website read as follows:

The Tasting Room at Le Quartier Français is South Africa’s most lauded fine-dining restaurant. It is the stage to award-winning Relais & Châteaux Grande Chef, Margot Janse, and her unique African Inspired Surprise Tasting Menu.

Here, in this intimate setting, serious diners have the opportunity to experience a true journey of taste. With a menu that continues to evolve and astonish The Tasting Room, and its African Inspired cuisine, creates a dining experience unlike any other. One where surprise and nostalgia take centre stage.

In The Tasting Room every African Inspired dish is exceptional and engaging. Truly refined with a distinct feminine touch and, at the same time, unexpectedly exciting … exhilarating in fact. It is this contradiction that results in The Tasting Room menu’s outstanding balance and ensures that the cuisine is nothing short of a theatrical masterpiece.

In The Tasting Room the journey extends further than just phenomenal cuisine; it moves fearlessly into the captivating realm of stories and magic. A place where each plate, and its African inspired elements, have the ability to captivate the hearts and minds of diners.

The Chef, Margot Janse was highly decorated and has been credited for introducing tasting menus to South Africa. She has spent time underneath chef Thomas Keller at The French Laundry; a chef that also features elaborate tasting menus at his Yountville, California, United States restaurant.

Given the description, we were eager to enjoy a nicely wine paired menu, featuring the best of what South Africa had to offer. We’ve been fortunate enough to experience food at many top rated restaurants across the globe. Each one offered a different vision on what fine contemporary dining was to them. Needless to say, the Tasting Room was an interesting contrast to our previous experiences with some unique nuances.

Fine Dining Awaits!

Inside the The Tasting Room:

We arrived to an 8 PM reservation. We were among the last tables to be seated for the evening. With me being aged forty years old at the time we visited, we were also appeared to be the youngest ones in the restaurant. The décor was dark but modern contemporary along with the lines of the rest of the Le Quartier Français resort.

We were presented with a glass of Cape Classique (local sparkling) wine to start along with 3 amuse bouches in a rapid fire delivery similar to what you’d get when your order is placed on a tray at a McDonald’s restaurant counter. Three servers dropped off a wine list, amuse bouches and a server stopped by to explain the dinner process. The first impression was one of flurry and of a rushed delivery.

Cape Classique Starter

The Concept:

In practical terms, the concept of the surprise tasting menu is a great idea. The goal of the restaurant is to feature local ingredients, presented in unique ways. Unfortunately, we felt a bit dissuaded by the whole dining experience. 

The meals are each presented verbally as they are delivered, along with the paired wine. As you’’ll see at the end of the post, the ingredients are hard enough to say in clear English without any accent at all. Having the menu items explained through thick accents by a different server ever time made it a bit challenging to decipher what it was exactly that you were eating. The plating was also different, in that it was sometimes hard to interpret what was being served. Perhaps you’’ll be the judge when you look at the photos. 

The meal should note that no menu is presented at this time, or at any time at all during the evening. We had to ask for a souvenir copy for ourselves after the cheque was paid. The idea is the meals are supposed to be a complete surprise. This makes choosing a bottle of wine from the wine list a little difficult, as you don’t know whether it will pair with whatever you are ordering. Thankfully, the meals ended up being paired with appropriate glasses of wine to accent the food.

Since we can do things any way we want on the blog, here is the menu of what enjoyed this evening.

The Surprise Tasting Menu – The Tasting Room
The Tasting Menu with a slight variation since MrsWT73 had a slightly different meal – The Tasting Room

Our first starter was a black snow with an onion crisp, accompanied with Foie Gras Chocolate and another dish that I can’t recall, nor reference of what it was; it was off menu.

Black Snow with an Onion Crisp, accompanied with Foie Gras Chocolate 
Unknown Bread Square Starter with our Main

A bread serving was presented in a Lucky Star Tasty Fish can. I might have the spelling or type wrong of the Tasty Fish. We were given the “international” explanation (that the presentation of the bread was meant to remind patrons of how fortunate we were to be dining here in contrast to the Lucky Star Tasty Fish can.

For those that aren’t South African, the Tasty Fish can was a product purchased by many poor people in South Africa as it was the cheapest canned fish available. Mrs WT73 found this concept to be a bit “off putting” when this was explained to us by the staff. I had a different take and actually found it to be an innovative and neat presentation of the bread course.

A Sample The Tasty Fish Can

One the Tasty Fish can was removed, a delicious baked corn bread was found inside the can. 

Delicious Corn Bread Presented underneath a Tasty Fish Can

The first item on the menu arrived, which was Beetroot, buttermilk labne, dill and cucumber granita, presented with Graham Beck The Game Reserve Chenin Blanc 2013.

Beetroot, buttermilk labne, dill and cucumber granita

The first course was followed by a salad described as: A spring walk through Franschhoek, poured with Altydgedacht Gewürztraminer 2013. It was probably the freshest salad I’d ever tasted and was deliciously tasty.

A Spring Walk through Franschhoek

The third course was a small fish plate. Tonight’s serving was Eastern cape marron, cape gooseberry, lemon verbena with Terra Del Capo Pinot Grigio 2012.

Eastern cape marron, cape gooseberry, and lemon verbena

The menu continued to be a total surprise. However despite dining for two, the meals were not the same and actually two versions of the menu were presented with different wines poured as well. 

Also, not knowing the menu in advance made it a bit challenging to know where you were in the meal process. Two starters? Two fish courses – is one of them supposed to be a main? Two desserts? One cheese plate? Migrandeses? It is all a surprise until it’s placed in front of you.

Our fourth course was presented. I had no idea what this was when it was presented, but it was called: Saldanha Bay oyster, vichyssoise, sour fig, roasted baby gem with Excelsior viognier 2013

Saldanha Bay oyster, vichyssoise, sour fig, and roasted baby gem

Our fifth serving was another dish which I had no idea what it was… it was described after the fact as Swartland guineafowl, waterblommetjies, porcini mushroom, liquorice root paired with My Wyn cabernet franc 2011. It looked like a car accident in space, if I speak truthfully.

Swartland guineafowl, waterblommetjies, porcini mushroom, liquorice root

Our sixth course was Paradyskloof quail, amasi, sweetcorn, granola and a glass of Haut Espoir rose 2010

Paradyskloof quail, amasi, sweetcorn, granola

Our seventh course was Baleni salt and kapokbos roasted guava, confit suckling pig, broad beans, fynbos caramel and Haute Cabriere unwooded Pinot Noir 2011

Baleni salt and kapokbos roasted guava, confit suckling pig, broad beans, and fynbos caramel

For the eight course, MrsWT73 enjoyed the nicely presented cheese plate, described as: Dalewood huguenot cheddar, rusks, mebos custard, currants and Allesverloren fine old vintage port 2009. The taste and presentation of the cheese was outstanding.

Dalewood huguenot cheddar, rusks, mebos custard, currants

Whereas, I finished with a chocolate dish of Madagascan chocolate, cape lemon, holy basil. This was a two stage dessert which collapsed when sauce was added. It was served with a glass of bubbles: Morena brut savage.

Before – an intact bubble
After – a bubble under the weight of it’s sauce

As if that wasn’t enough, we had another round of Cake and sweets… It was presented in a whimsical toad stool format.

Whimsical Cake and Sweets

In terms of the wines enjoyed with the meal, the wines paired were general wines and not speciality or limited release or first growth wines. I suppose you could argue that all the wines in South Africa are special as they are unique to the region but for the top restaurant in South Africa, and possibily the continent, it was a different .. I was perhaps expecting nicer wines than ones that sold at the nearby Cellar Doors of the winery for R80 ($8) a bottle. Perhaps local reserve wines or something similar… 

At this level, we felt a little underwhelmed about the whole experience. Despite this, the dinner presents value. It’s only $130 per person with wine. However, adding a spot for a gratuity at the end is strange when you have 8 servers bringing the plates out along with a head server and assistant server. How does one divide a tip 10 ways? I think an all in pricing would have been more appropriate at this level.

Overall, it was an interesting experience, although I don’t think either of us will be in a rush to return.

Our experience at The Tasting Room:

This was indeed an interesting meal. While it was meant as a surprise and delight, I personally found the concept a little strange. Despite the hundreds of fine dining meals I have had, this one did remain in the fore ground of my memory as a result of its unique presentations, innovative service and some bizarre dishes. In a restaurant branded as “The Tasting Room”, this measure of success was indeed achieved.

Perhaps as a person that likes to understand and examine the food, I personally would have preferred to follow along with a presented menu. Our experience felt a little like the challenge on Gordon Ramsey’s television show “Hell’s Kitchen” where aspiring chefs are asked to blind taste various foods. As a thoughtful and analytical person, I would have perhaps approached the execution a little differently.

Editors Note:

Since our visit, The Tasting Room continued to enjoy great success under the steady leadership of Margot Janse for twenty one years. She left the restaurant in 2017 to focus on Isabelo; a charity focused on reducing hunger in children in the Franschhoek, South Africa area. The restaurant space has since been re-branded into another format.

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