Of all the restaurants that I have visited and reviewed, newly opened Dutch East in Franschhoek has been one of the most difficult to come to grips with, to categorise and to review.   It appears to not have a focus, and to be all over the place in terms of what it wants to achieve.

When we spoke to co-owner Sainkie du Toit, the front-of-house manager, she immediately emphasised the South African nature of the restaurant, but with an Eastern touch.  We could not see the “Eastern” touch at all, and in fact there was little South African about it, except for a BBQ one can order, as well as offal.   Sainkie tried to correct herself, and referred us to the menu, in which the restaurant describes itself as “contemporary, with a South African influence and an Asian touch”, and “Fresh local ingredients infused with eastern flavour combinations”.  Our party of three could not see the Asian, South African nor contemporary descriptions in the menu items at all.  However, the menu had some French names, and a “chimichurri relish”, which is South American, is served with the squid starter.  Sainkie could not explain how they had got to the name, or why they chose the name out of about 40 options.

The problem is the menu.  I’m all for creativity and doing things differently, but when a new restaurant sets itself up in a space of a restaurant that was frowned upon by many of the locals (Burgundy), one cannot move too quickly or too radically until one has a following.  It was the grouping of the menu items that caused the biggest challenge, with headings for “raw” (e.g. steak tartar, seared tuna, shaved salmon, springbok tataki), “small” (curried eggs, meat balls, “black lip abalone” and grilled scallops), “breads” (tortilla with duck, pizza, baguette – served at lunch only), “cured” (biltong sirloin, kudu carpaccio, coppa, smoked trout and more), “offal” (veal tongue, lamb’s head “tourchon”, oxtail, and pork trotter), “meat” (hangar steak, lamb shoulder, pork belly, quail and rib eye), and “fish and shellfish” (kingklip, crayfish with Cafe de Paris, tiger prawns).   One can even order a “BBQ”, serving a whole sheep’s rib, game sausage, and the unmissable toasted cheese, tomato and onion sandwich, and a salad.  A minimum of 6 guests must order this South African “braai” dish for it to be prepared, it costs R130 per head, and it must be booked in advance.  “Sweets” are the apple crepe, fried milk tart, brulee, and Swiss chocolate fondant.

We could not get to choose what we liked, so we looked at the Winter Special menu, which is charged at R150 for three courses and a glass of Protea shiraz or sauvignon blanc (made by Anthonij Rupert Wines).   We made sure that we all chose a different combination of dishes, to give us nine opportunities to try them.   What is confusing is that the Winter special menu has prices for each individual dish, even though one can only order from it for the three courses, at the total price of R150. 

Our waitress Nolundi had a lovely smile, and also could not explain the essence of the menu to us before Sainkie came to the table, stating that the restaurant serves, “afval, raw meat and game meat”.   This was a bad start for us.   She said the wine came from “Reuben”, but not the restaurant Reuben, she said, meaning Rupert.   

The wine list is very ‘proudly Franschhoek’, almost every wine estate being represented, probably making it one of the most comprehensive Franschhoek wine lists: Graham Beck, Rickety Bridge, L’Omarins, Glenwood, Rupert & Rothschild, Porcupine Ridge, Stonybrook, Boekenhoutskloof, Grand Provence, Landau du Val, Solms Delta, Lynx, Haut Espoir, Haute Cabriere, Chamonix, Klein Dauphine, La Bri, Vrede & Lust, Klein Genot, Bellingham, Eikehof, and Pierre Jourdan.  The list contains a few typing errors.   What was unusual was to lable the sparkling wines as “bubblies” and the Rose’s as “blushes”.

We were served three tiny slices of garlic and herb pizza while we decided on our order.  The pizza slices were over-salted, and contained onion, and spoilt the palette for what was to come.   The water took a long time to come to the table as they had run out of jugs (the restaurant was half full).   Our starters arrived almost immediately:  the spinach soup arrived lukewarm and was terribly bland, but the parmesan-topped bread was very tasty.   The squid came in a soup plate with a lot of liquid, but was not described as a soup.  The idea of ‘pairing’ this with red pepper and yellow pepper was probably meant to be a good one, in that it would have added colour to the dish – the problem was that the red pepper was hidden by the 6 tiny tubes of calamari, and the yellow pepper was so overcooked that it became a brown ‘something’ on top of the calamari, and was initially unidentifiable until one tasted it.   The calamari dish had a distinct taste of nutmeg, not a good match in my opinion.  The “spring rolls” were served as three samoosas, and were not served with the advertised salsa, but with bits of paw paw, cucumber, onion and tomato and lots of rocket.  When we asked Sainkie about the spring rolls, she apologised, saying that the kitchen staff had rolled the spring rolls into the wrong shape.

None of us was happy with the starters, and we asked our waitress to relay this to the kitchen.  There was no response from Sainkie about the feedback, and she seemed to steer clear of our table thereafter.  We were nervous about our mains, but we fared far better.   The gemsbok steak was cut into slices, and was tender.  It was such a large portion that I had to ask to take half of it home.   The spinach was perfect, and the “potato mash” was served as if it was a whole potato.   The Venison pot au feu was very tender, and came with dumplings, underneath a pastry layer.   The lamb’s tail was bravely chosen by my colleague, and served  “barbequed”, making it quite black, too burnt for the taste of our Brazilian trainee.   The lamb was served with more rocket, polenta mixed with sweetcorn, and “Sauce Gebriche”, an odd mayonnaise sauce with boiled egg and pickled cucumber.  When we checked with Sainkie, she went to the kitchen to find out for us for sure – she returned with the news that there was anchovy in it too, but my sharp-tasting colleague could not detect this at all.

The desserts had mixed reactions.  The rhubarb, strawberry and custard dessert, on a bread base, was a compressed stack served with plum sherbet, which needed some extra cream or custard, as it is very dry.     Poached pears were served in a soup plate with rooibos sultanas, in a ginger cinnamon broth, far too weak to allow one to get a clear taste of the ingredients.  Once again, we felt that the fruit should have come with custard or cream.   As the Winter specials menu only had two options for desserts, I requested an apple crepe dessert from the main menu, and offered to pay in the difference of R10.   It was very tasty and a generous portion, with caramelised apple and raisin, and vanilla ice cream.   The first cappuccino was not frothy and had spilled over the side, but was quickly replaced with a great frothy one in a clean cup, when requested.  

Sainkie admitted that co-owner and chef Pasch du Plooy (previously at Reubens, L’ermitage and Bouillabaisse) was not on duty, and this appeared to explain the poor quality of many aspects of our meal, and the kitchen mistakes.   We pointed out to her the chipped candleholder on our table.   She said that she knew about it, but that she had not been able to find a replacement.   We advised her to have none at all rather than one with two chips in it.   We also advised Sainkie to reflect the restaurants dishes in the Winter special menu, so that one can get a taste for them, especially as it is such a complex menu, and she admitted that it had been a mistake in their May special menu to not have done so.  Sainkie and Pasch are both graduates of the highly regarded Institute of Culinary Arts Chef’s School  in Stellenbosch, and met each other there.  The raw facebrick interior and exterior of the restaurant are the same as the previous restaurant, with only a name change.

Without being asked, Sainkie discounted the meal by R 72,45 on our total bill of what should have been R488 in total, for 3 meals, one tea, the cappuccino and the dessert surcharge, a reduction of 15%.   Sainkie invited me to come back to try the standard menu as the guest of the restaurant when I return to Franschhoek.   The bill is confusing, in that each of the items of the Winter Special menu is charged individually, and almost every item, even the mains, were charged at R 50 a dish, even though one pays R 150 for the meal and the glass of wine in total.

The website states boldly :”Authentic and inspiring, DUTCH EAST is a culinary jewel in the heart of Franschhoek’s iconic main street”.  We believe that Dutch East has a long way to go before it can make this claim!

Dutch East,  42 Huguenot Street, Franschhoek.  Tel 021 876-3547. www.dutcheast.co.za (The website has irritating photographs flashing, if one does not click onto a specific website page, when one first opens it.  It commendably does carry a lot of information, unusual for restaurant websites in general, but irritatingly does not list prices for its dishes and wine list).  Open 7 days a week, lunch and dinner.  Corkage R30.

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