Restaurant Review: DISH has dishy food, but service is not!

I had recently been to the Le Franschhoek Hotel, after an absence of more than a year, to try out its Afternoon Tea.  I met Chef Daniel Botha, and was impressed with the menu for DISH, which I asked to see while I was there.  I liked the look of the Chicken liver cognac parfait (R55) so much that I took some with me, and vowed to return for dinner at DISH as soon as I returned to Franschhoek over the Franschhoek Literary Festival weekend.  It was interesting to hear that the restaurant had changed its name from Relais Gourmand, and allegedly faces legal action from Relais & Châteaux, which appears to have trademarked the word “Relais”!

I arrived without making a booking, and the restaurant only had three tables occupied other than mine, out of the 14 in the restaurant – two tables were hotel guests and another was a 10-person party of media from China, hosted by Eben Lassen, GM of the Le Franschhoek Hotel, and Jenny Prinsloo, the CEO of the Franschhoek Wine Valley tourism association.  For the 17 patrons in the restaurant in total, the service from the 4 – 5 waiters and Restaurant Manager Ruaan Spencer should have been far better than that which I experienced on Thursday evening, especially given the fine food that is offered at DISH.

The Customer Services gentleman of the hotel recognised me, and immediately told me that he had passed my feedback form from my Afternoon Tea, where there was a service issue, on to his boss Mr Lassen.  He escorted me inside the restaurant, and asked his colleagues to organise a table for me.  Ruaan brought the menu and winelist, and asked me to choose between still or sparkling bottled water, and I opted for the fresh Franschhoek version, as I always do.  He then told me about two main course specials, but forgot to tell me that they had run out of duck for the main course, which I was told at a later stage by the waitress.  Busi was the waitress that came to my table the most, and we discussed the wines by the glass, a disappointingly small selection, none being a Shiraz.  Busi wanted to please, and said she had an open bottle of Zandvliet Shiraz 2008, from which she could pour a glassful at R40, and I accepted her offer.  She came to the table with a bottle of Nederburg Manor House 2006 Shiraz, telling me that she had discovered that the Zandvliet had run out, and she was therefore offering me the Nederburg in its place, but at R90 a glass!   I felt this to be unfair, and so she kept the charge at the originally promised R40.  The wine was outstanding.  I was not asked if I wanted to order another glassful when I had finished the first! 

The DISH dining room is large, and the tables are far apart from each other, creating a lack of cohesion and atmosphere.  The lighting from the overhead lamps is very low, but there are a number of candelabras which make the room look very romantic.  In the middle of the restaurant was a portable gas ‘fireplace’.  Each table had a tall candlestick on it, but my candle had been exposed to too much sun, and had become bent, and I could not straighten it.  The tables are covered with a table cloth, and material serviettes and Eetrite cutlery is provided.  My table was not laid with sideplates, and none was brought when the rather ordinary looking home-made white and brown bread was brought to the table.   When the food was served, an impressive heavyweight set of Maxwell Williams salt and pepper grinders was brought to the table.  I missed the touch of flowers on the table, or in the restaurant in general, which could come from the hotel grounds that are blessed with flowers.  Decor is bare in this large room, with only one picture of an angel in one lone corner, and a piano, that luckily was not played.  There was no dishy looking food photography or artwork to link to the restaurant name.   Music was typical hotel-like.

There are about ten starters and ten main courses to choose from.  I started with smoked salmon tartar, which was topped with a quail egg, and was served with two minute slices of ‘fennel and orange rye’ – the punctuation in this description led me to expect fennel and I was not sure about the colour of the rye, but I was told that the rye bread was topped with fennel seeds and orange zest.  It was a small portion for R65, not good value, and the strong onion and salmon tartar did not taste as good on the bread when the toast ran out.  The other starter choices include Pernod shellfish bisque and buttered crayfish and prawn tail, Thai chicken noodle soup, Carpaccio of springbok, Caprese salad, and Duck Rillette salad (R85), all costing around R60, with the exception of the duck salad.  For the main course I ordered Green Pea and Fennel Risotto (R95), that was oddly presented on spinach, with a spoonful in the centre of the plate, and another three around this, making the presentation look messy and clumsy.  I wasn’t expecting tomato in the risotto from the menu description, and cooked tomato is one of the food items I do not enjoy eating.  The risotto was topped with two prawns, and I felt it too saucy, and expensive, yet it was filling.   Other main courses include butternut tagliatelle (R95), Glazed Norwegian salmon (R125), Braised lamb shank (R155), Beef fillet stuffed with wild mushroom and camembert (R145), Thai Green chicken and prawn curry (R170), and Glazed Confit duck with Van der Hum jus (R130).  Desserts cost around R55, and one can choose between Hot chocolate fondant with Romanoff parfait and berry compote, Belgian white and dark mousse with Cape Gooseberry compote, Date stuffed poached pear and almond tart served with a Chardonnay wine sauce (but which had run out, I was told), Baked Mascarpone cheesecake, and Cappuccino crusted Amoretti parfait served with Grand Marnier Sabayon and a raspberry and orange salad, which is what I ordered.  I am not sure where the ‘cappuccino’ was in this dessert, and I thought the fruit salad an odd marriage to an otherwise nice dish.  The cappuccino I had with the dessert was made with Avanti coffee, which I had not heard of before, and was served in a cup with a logo that looked suspiciously similar to that of LavAzza.

The focus of the kitchen was to serve the media table of ten, and the Restaurant Manager never came back to the table again, except to wish me ‘Bon Appetit’ when I started eating the main course.  He did not check on the enjoyment of the starter.  He had company, it appeared, and sat himself at a table in the restaurant to chat, rather than focusing on what was happening, or rather not happening, in the restaurant.  At this stage Mr Lassen came over to introduce himself, and he said that he had not been given my Afternoon Tea feedback form.  He asked if all was okay. My feedback must have led him to address the Restaurant Manager, and he was far more attentive thereafter, even spontaneously coming to stabilise my table, but I had not felt it wobbling at all.  Ruaan told me that he grew up in Malmesbury, where his family owned the local Wimpy, and felt that he had experience in the hospitality industry from this.  He went to the UK, where he worked and then studied Tourism at Bournemouth University, he told me, and then returned to work at Beluga, for only six months, due to the poor treatment of the staff by its owner Oskar Kotze.  From there he moved to DISH a year ago.

The light was so low in the restaurant, that I asked the staff to let me photograph the dishes at the serving area.  It was hilarious that the staff let me carry my plates for both the starter and the main course to my table, and I felt like a waiter!  The GM and the Restaurant Manager were in the restaurant all the time, and did not react to this.  The waitress had no idea what the Cappuccino dessert consisted of, and went back to the kitchen twice to check with the chef (unfortunately chef Daniel had the day off) how this dessert was made.   I don’t think she had been asked so many questions before, and said that this dessert was a recent addition to the menu.  

The winelist cover is black leather, and it has no link to the starter/main course and dessert menus in preparation or look.  The winelist is printed on nice silver paper, but the pages are heavily worn.  What I loved about it, but it seemed an odd place to see these, was the old black and white photographs of the hotel, when it was still called the Swiss Farm Excelsior, and I remembered it fondly from many visits there in my childhood.  On the first page of the winelist is a wax seal of the Three Cities hotel group logo, the management company that runs the Le Franschhoek Hotel.  None of the wines have a vintage provided, but the region it comes from is specified, as is the Platter star rating.  The seven wines by the glass are inexpensive, and include Haut Espoir Sauvignon Blanc, Dieu Donné Unwooded Chardonnay and Dieu Donné “Cab/Shiraz” (all three at R25), Beyerskloof Pinotage R32, Pinehurst Cabernet Sauvignon (R36), Pierre Jourdan Brut (R43), and Boschendal Sauvignon Blanc (R45).  It must be noted that the hotel belongs to Mr Maingard, who owns a number of hospitality interests in Franschhoek, including Dieu Donné. Ten champagnes are offered, starting at R340 for Tribaut Brut, up to R3000 for Veuve Cliquot La Grand Dame.  MCC’s start at R170 for Pierre Jourdan Brut, up to R420 for Graham Beck Rosé Brut.  There are about eight wines offered per variety, and the Shiraz selection starts at R125 for Vrede en Lust, up to R290 for Glen Carlou Syrah.

Busi was willing to do what she could for me, but her knowledge about the menu was constrained, and her training poor, as she stretched in front of me regularly to add or remove cutlery, even when I asked her not to.  The final service failure was my request for the bill at the time that my dessert and cappuccino were brought to the table.  I finished both, and it still had not arrived.  My waitress had disappeared from the restaurant, and I asked another waiter to bring it.  The waitress reappeared, left again, and in irritation I got up to look for the bill.  The Restaurant Manager had left, it appeared, and my irritation showed when I waited for the bill at the entrance to the restaurant, the GM coming to see if he could help.  Then the portable credit card machine had to be fetched from somewhere else.  I felt that the waitress was completely out of her depth, and she received no support from her Restaurant Manager.  Mr Lassen did invite me to share a cup of coffee with him when next I am in Franschhoek, and he did offer to comp the meal due to all the service problems, but I refused his latter kind offer.  

I could not help but to compare DISH with Le Bon Vivant in Franschhoek, where both restaurants have quality chefs working hard in creating above average cuisine, but the service from the waiters destroys all this hard work.  It is such a shame, as DISH has good potential.

DISH, Le Franschhoek Hotel, Franschhoek.  Tel (021) 876-8900.  www.lefranschhoek.co.za. (The website is very disppointing in respect of DISH, it mentioning that it has a winelist, but there is no link to it.  There is no mention of the menu at all, and a mix of photographs of the venue and the food at La Verger and DISH restaurants can be seen,  The site is generally out of date, a section referring to events for 2010).  Dinners only, Monday – Sunday.

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com   Twitter: @WhaleCottage

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