The Kitchen and Tasting Room at Maison has been operating for almost three years, and during its recent two month winter break, a number of changes were made to the interior, to the menu, with further changes on the way.
Ten days ago I visited Maison after a long absence, mostly due to the winter closure, and my less frequent visits to Franschhoek in the winter months. In walking to The Kitchen and Tasting Room at Maison it was a delight to see that the uncomfortable stony entrance walkway has been replaced with very comfortable walkable wooden decking. Tables and chairs have been set up on the front lawn, to allow for overflow of unbooked guests. Inside, the ceiling near the pass has been redone with wooden cladding, as has a wall alongside the fireplace. New lamps have been hung, looking like seahorses to me. Lamps have been erected above the pass, with shelving above it, and the pass exterior has been wood-clad as well.
The biggest change is that a Deli is to be introduced in the winetasting section, on the right as one enters the building, with a bar counter, at which one will be able to taste six to eight Maison wines (the number is still to be finalised), each paired with two tapas-like bites reflecting some of the dishes which Chef Arno Janse van Rensburg has on his main menu. Sommelier Alice Mfundisi was excited in sharing this development, as she will be in charge of The Deli. It will cater for 20 – 30 visitors, wanting to taste the Maison wines and for those that cannot get a table inside or on the deck or lawn at the back. Manager Julian Smith told me that they are talking to the Franschhoek Wine Tram to get their boutique winery added to the route, and their clients will be accommodated in the Deli too. The Deli will also sell Chef Arno’s charcuterie, preserves, and breads. Currently Alice serves six Maison wines at the tastings, pairing its Blanc de Noir 2013 with a white chocolate and pistachio truffle; the Shiraz 2011 with biltong; the ruby port with dark chocolate and peanut truffle; and the Straw wine with blue cheese. The Chenin Blanc 2013 and Chardonnay 2012 are served unpaired. The cost currently is R50, which is good value.
It was a lovely 25°C day in Franschhoek, and the restaurant was well occupied, with patrons sitting on the deck and on the lawn. A birthday party was visible with a bunch of balloons, at which was seated a Twitter ‘friend’ that I have yet to meet, I was told later! A bunch of Boules balls was lying on the lawn, ready for patrons wishing to play Franschhoek’s favourite sport. I was told that Chef Arno had traveled in Portugal and Spain for his honeymoon in June, and had visited Melbourne in July, during the period in which the restaurant was closed. His trips have influenced his new menu, which he amends weekly. The main menu is printed on A5 sheets of brown paper, with a blackboard advertising additional dishes and specials. Another change at Maison is that the winelist contains five non-Maison wines for the first time, under the heading of ‘Chris Weylandt‘s (the owner) Wine Selection‘, which include Iona Sauvignon Blanc, Waterford Cabernet Sauvignon, Thelema Merlot, and Bouchard Finlayson Galpin Peak Pinot Noir. Another new introduction is spirits, with Dalla Cia grappa, Bombay Sapphire gin, and Glenmorangie 10 year Highland Single Malt. Cape Brewing Company craft beers are also available.
I ordered a delectable sounding starter of confit kreef tail, kreef aoili, and nori (I had requested that the chili be excluded), beautifully served on a rock from the ocean (R90). I ate it slowly, savouring every bite! The new menu contains quite a number of terms that I had to send Alice back to the chef for, to explain them. Starters also include braised octopus and crumbed lamb sweetbreads, and the price range for the five starters is on the high side at R65 – R90. Main courses offered are beef tongue, monkfish, maasbanker, beef short rib, and a vegetarian soy custard dish with turnips, fennel, lettuce, and shiitake, but these did not feel as expensive, in a price range of R115 – R125. I was impressed that each dish has a different unique set of accompaniments. The selection of sides is also presented with unusual combinations of ingredients, but this makes them more expensive, at R45 upwards. Three desserts cost R65 – R70, and were poached guava, apple terrine, and a gooseberry tart. Three cheese dishes are also available now, at R65 each.
After the service was completed, Chef Arno came to sit down at my table and chat about his overseas trips. Spain was one of his highlights, as he went in search of the magic formula in what makes the Jamon Iberico hams the best in the world. Chef Arno is a keen charcuterier, making coppa, hams, and pancetta, having taught himself through trial and error, he said. He gets his pigs from Glen Oaks, the same supplier which Neil Jewell and Richard Bosman use. At Iberico they use black pigs, and the taste of the hams was exceptional, he said. He was not able to get into the production plant, but they do have an Iberico Museum, which he visited, and from which he learnt a lot. The Iberico hams are aged in underground cellars, and are so sought after that they can cost €600 – €800! The honeymoon also included Portugal, with stops in Lisbon, Oporto, and the fishing village Tavira. They ate a lot of seafood, he told, me, with sardines prominent. He was impressed with the freshness of the ingredients, coming from impressive markets, focused on citrus and tomatoes. Service is less impressive, but he liked their simple presentation of food. The cover charge soon irritated them, which is meant to cover service and bread, which they declined eventually.
In July Maison owner Chris Weylandt flew Chef Arno to Melbourne, where a Weylandt’s store has opened, with a The Kitchen too, but not at the same level as in Franschhoek. His task was to assist with their Autumn Harvest Menu, which has a strong South African influence, serving pies, bobotie, and more. He had received permission from Chris to do a stage at a top restaurant in Melbourne too, and Cutler & Co (a top five restaurant in Melbourne) accepted his application for a ten day stint in their kitchen. He laughed when he shared that at 29 years he was older than most of the other chefs in the kitchen, and that they offered him a job on the second day, not having had a stagier work as hard as Chef Arno before! He was impressed at where the other chefs have worked in the past, at such top international restaurants as Attica in Australia, D.O.M in Brazil, Mugaritz in Spain, and Dinner with Heston Blumenthal in London. He feels that South African cuisine is not far behind that which he experienced in Melbourne, and mentioned how expensive it is. They use good beef (Wagyu and Black Angus), as well as fresh fruit and vegetables, all of which they source from the Melbourne Market. Eating out is big in Melbourne, and when he could, Chef Arno ate at restaurants, including Supernormal (which belongs to Chef Andrew McConnell, who also owns Cutler & Co) on Flinders Lane, Cumulus Inc, Flower Drum, and at other Asian fusion restaurants.
It is clear that Chef Arno has returned from his travels inspired by the Spanish hams, the fresh ingredients and small fishes in Portugal, and the Asian fusion he experienced in Australia, influences which he is incorporating into his menu. The Moroccan lamb, octopus, and mussel tempura dishes currently on the menu reflect his travels. While some may say that Maison has become significantly more expensive, the new Deli will offer good value. I loved just having one special crayfish dish, even though it was on the expensive side for a starter, not only for its simplicity and taste, but also for its presentation and rarity.
Disclosure: Manager Julian Smith generously comped my crayfish starter and two iced coffees (they make the best iced coffee in the country, using Terbedore).
The Kitchen and The Tasting Room at Maison, R45, Franschhoek. Tel (021) 876-2116. www.maisonestate.co.za Twitter: @MaisonEstate Wednesday – Sunday lunch.