Inquisitiveness led me to one of Franschhoek’s newest restaurants, the Franschhoek Kitchen, which opened three months ago, on the recently renamed Holden Manz Wine Estate.   I had not seen anything written about it nor heard anyone recommend it yet.  Despite the incredibly hot 42°C day, I was impressed with the refreshing approach to the restaurant, and its chef Bjorn Dingemans. 

The restaurant was previously called Genot, which had been built on the Klein Genot wine estate.  The estate had belonged to Angie and Joey Diamond, but they had to hastily sell by auction last year.  Surprisingly from a marketing perspective, the new owners have decided to change the brand name to Holden Manz, and even the Klein Genot wines will be rebranded in future.   Information about the new owners Migo Manz and Gerard Holden is scant from the staff, saying they are international businessmen.  They are about to open a contemporary African art gallery on the main road in Franschhoek.  The restaurant is into its third phase – it had opened originally under the eye of Bertus Basson from Overture and his colleague Mark.   They withdrew after a year when they did not make money there.  Then Angie Diamond tried to do her own Baia-meets-Franschhoek fish restaurant, which did not succeed either.  Now it has a new chef and a new name, with some of the old staff.

On the surface little has changed.  Branding off the Huguenot Monument Road refers to Klein Genot on the brown provincial signage, but once one reaches one’s destination, the new elephant-themed Holden Manz branding is visible on signage boards and flags.   The security is new, with one half of the narrow gate closed, which means that no one can enter nor leave, even worse so if cars arrive simultaneously from both directions, as happened when I visited.   When I spoke to the security guard, he was very defensive, and said he was busy with paperwork in his security hut.   Not a good welcome, with a wait in the Franschhoek heat.   I became even more nervous when I saw only one car parked outside the cellar and restaurant, and more so when I saw them sitting outside, and not in the restaurant upstairs.   I received an unplanned shower from two sprinklers, which were watering the vines on the way to the restaurant.  

A person looking like a Restaurant Manager asked if I wanted a booking.  However, I had called and made a reservation two days before, and found it odd that he did not seem to know about it, especially as there were no other guests!   He never introduced himself, nor came to speak to me.  I was seated outside, and it probably was a mistake, as the fans on the terrace just circulated the already very hot air.  But Chef Bjorn came to the table when I asked some questions which the waiter Lorenzo could not answer.   He indicated immediately that he knew who I was, as he follows bloggers!   We had never met, and he came to Franschhoek from the UK.   He exuded confidence, told me he grew up in Somerset West, trained at the Greenhouse at the Cellars Hohenhort, and then worked at Soho House in Babington, under Chef Ronnie Bonetti, who used to be the Head Chef at the River Café.  He told me that he has a patch of land behind the restaurant in which he can plant his vegetable and herb requirements, making him self-sufficient up to 80 % of his fresh produce requirements.  Salmon is sourced from the trout farm close by.  On Holden Manz he also has access to figs, peaches, grapes, apples and pears, which he can use in his dishes, and he proudly told me that he makes his own chutney.   He has free reign in terms of his menu and kitchen, and changes his lunch and his dinner menu daily, hence it is printed on paper.   The menu is introduced with “please ask us for the provenance of produce & seasonal offerings, we aim to source only organic and local food”.  It ends as follows: “fruits, vegetable & herbs are sourced from our gardens when in season”.  (The menu on the website is very similar to the one I received on Thursday, which means that only one or two items are changed daily).

As far as the decor goes, nothing inside the restaurant has been changed by the new owners – the chandeliers, the purple upholstered chairs around one table (the others are covered with a more subtle beige velvet) and two couches on one side.  The Kitchen is massive, and is open to the patrons to see from their tables.

The view from the restaurant terrace is onto the wine estate’s vineyards and the Franschhoek mountains in the background.   Tables are laid with good quality napery, and contemporary cutlery.  The waiter brought an attractive looking dish with fresh rosa tomatoes from the garden, mixed olive oil and balsamic, and ground salt and pepper.  A very crispy ciabatta was brought to the table, and I had to stop the waiter when he wanted to serve a second slice of the lovely bread.   I started with the Smoked salmon, rosa tomatoes and asparagus salad, beautifully presented and perfect for the hot day (R60).  Other starters that day were tomato, buffalo mozzarella and garden basil salad (R55); soup (R45); beef carpaccio, rocket and parmesan R(60);  grilled squid (R55); and sea bass carpaccio (R55).  Two persons can share an antipasti platter with cured meats, olives, mozzarella, tomatoes, spinach and grilled bread, good value at R75.   It was too hot for a main course, although I was tempted by the prawns and asparagus dish (R160), and will come back to try it.  Other main courses cost under R100, for a pasta of the day, angel fish, and linefish.  Duck breast costs R125, steak R100 for ribeye, and R135 for fillet; lamb chops cost R145.

I loved the description by Chef Bjorn of his Messy Martini dessert, served in a martini glass, with crumbed meringue, fresh cream, blueberries, strawberries and sprinkled with chopped nuts (R40), a steal at the price and a refreshing end to a surprisingly successful meal.  Other dessert options cost R45 for chocolate pot, lemon tart, and a cheese platter.

The winelist is also printed on paper, and Klein Genot wines feature in all varieties offered, and is the only brand served by the glass, except for the sparkling wine, which is by Pierre Jourdan, at R42 (R170) for a glass of Brut and R59 (R235) for the Belle Rose.   A small selection of no more than three brands is offered per variety.  Only the Klein Genot vintages are supplied, not those of the other brands.   No information about the region of origin is provided.   Other than the Klein Genot 2007 Shiraz (R57/R170), Heron Ridge (R120) and Kevin Arnold’s (R395) Shiraz are sold. 

The Franschhoek Kitchen was a breath of fresh (but hot) air, and I will certainly return, to see what Chef Bjorn has up his sleeve next.  He is planning classic movie nights on Wednesdays, accompanied by a three-course meal.  I wish him and the owners more business, as it felt extravagant to have the chef prepare the meal for me alone, but I did not complain!   I was impressed that the sprinklers had been switched off when I went back to my car, and that the security guard had the gate open for me when I left!

POSTSCRIPT: 11/1  I returned to Holden Manz for the Farmer’s Market last Saturday, which was not a typical representation of the foods which are normally available at the fortnightly markets, I was told.   Tonight I went for dinner with my nephew, and had a Caprese salad, with fresh rosa tomatoes and tender basil, served with a rich Buffalo Mozzarella, as a starter, and the prawns and asparagus for the main course.   I would have preferred the prawns to be deshelled, and had to ask for a finger bowl.   The sprinklers were set on a lower level, but still wet the pathway to the car.  The responsiveness by the security staff at the gate could be faster.   The restaurant has received a number of bookings since this review was published on Saturday, Chef Bjorn said proudly.  Now that I know the name of the Manager Martin, he is more responsive, and less introverted.   Chef Bjorn will also take over the Blog and start a Twitter account for Franschhoek Kitchen.

POSTSCRIPT 18/1:  I returned to Franschhoek Kitchen with two Whale Cottage Managers this evening, and all three of us had the linefish – Carole and I both chose the kingklip, served with baby potatoes, asparagus and the freshest Rosa tomatoes from the Holden Manz garden (R90).  Marianna had the sea bass, and found its taste ‘wilder’.   The kingklip was a generous and juicy portion, outstanding in preparation.  Chef Bjorn spoilt us with a platter of wonderful ham and salmon, mozzarella, greens, and olives, served with toasted ciabatta.   For dessert he sent us trial portions of new desserts that have been added to the menu – a brandy panacotta and a white chocolate mousse, the latter being an especially big hit, indulgently tasting a little like cookie batter with a soft meringue topping.    We had a wonderful evening, impressed even more by Chef Bjorn’s cuisine.   When one eats at Franschhoek Kitchen, one gets a glass of Klein Genot Rosé for free with the meal.

POSTSCRIPT 23/4: I returned to the Franschhoek Kitchen on a cold Easter weekend evening, and enjoyed the cosiness of the fire in the restaurant, as well as the good winter-style food prepared by Chef Bjorn Dingemans – wild mushroom and white truffle risotto starter, pork neck stuffed with sage and apple, and a selection of the desserts, including new pastry chef Stuart’s carrot cake, and poached pear and vanilla cream cheese, which the chef sent to the table.  It is good to hear that lunches are getting busy at the restaurant.  Evenings are still quiet, but guests can be collected from guest houses by the Holden Manz shuttle.

POSTSCRIPT 7/8:  Last night I enjoyed one of the Fondue is Fun evenings at Franschhoek Kitchen, which have been a sell-out success since they were introduced earlier this winter.  A fondue pot with boiling oil was set in the centre of the table, and surrounding it was a collection of glass jars, containing fish, chicken, beef strips and prawns, and bowls of boiled potato pieces and crumbed mushrooms.  Sauces one could dip the meat and vegetables into before cooking them were a champagne batter, sweet chilli sauce, and jus.  A collection of spices was also available for dusting one’s fondue items: cajun, fish and vegetable spice.  Delicious crispy bread was available.   We were offered a glass of new Holden Manz port, in an elegant glass.  The fun really started when all the diners were divided into groups, and wine manager Guy Kedian became the quiz-master, testing the Trivial Pursuit knowledge of all present.  Correct answers were rewarded with a point, and for each incorrect answer, the team lost a point.  This brain-taxing exercise was followed by a wonderful Lindt chocolate fondue, with which was served pieces of fruit, Brownies and donuts, all delicious when dipped into the chocolate.  Everyone had a wonderful fun evening.  Further Fondue is Fun evenings this month take place on 17 and 27 August, and cost R150, excluding drinks.

Franschhoek Kitchen, Holden Manz Wine Estate,  Green Valley Road, Franschhoek.   Tel (021) 876- 2729.  www.holdenmanz.com. (The website contains the menu, still lists the festive season specials, and has a small gallery of only interior shots, with no food shots.   A blog has been started, with only three posts to date).  Open Tuesday – Saturday 10h00 – 22h00, and on Sundays 10h00 – 15h00. (The menu says: “sunday is family day – slow cooked lunch or braai”).  No Breakfast is served, only lunch and dinner (the website says Breakfast is served every second Saturday when they host the Farmer’s Market, contrary to the waiter’s information).   Picnics are also offered.

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