When I first came to Franschhoek seven years ago, to set up Whale Cottage Franschhoek, Le Bon Vivant was already operating off the main road, on Dirkie Uys Street. Dutch Chef Pierre Hendriks impressed me then with his cuisine creativity, long before it became trendy. I was always bothered about the poor management of the restaurant, Chef Pierre leaving the running of the restaurant to his waiters, with no strong manager to run the restaurant. Sadly nothing has changed since my last visit to the restaurant about five years or so ago.
What has improved greatly over the ten year history of the restaurant is the interior of the renovated house converted into the restaurant, it having been painted in an interesting combination of yellow and a tomato red/orange colour in different sections. New furniture in beige and a reddish fabric has been introduced, as well as the most interesting chandeliers, one made from a colander and graters, which cleverly suit the restaurant theme. The tables are set apart with a lot of space, at the cost of creating cohesion, and are covered with good quality tablecloths, a material serviette is offered, but the cutlery is pedestrian. An unbranded bottle of olive oil is on the table. If one sits inside, one can see the chefs preparing the food behind glass, and I think that Le Bon Vivant was one of the first restaurants to open up its kitchen to its patrons. It would be great if Chef Pierre could use his glass window to look out to the restaurant too, to see what is happening inside his restaurant. The three chefs were hard at work to cope with the busy restaurant. As the owner and chef, Pierre is in the kitchen all the time, and has no time to leave the kitchen to sort out any customer issues.
It was not very busy when I arrived, and I requested an outside table due to the hot evening, but I was told that all the tables were booked. I was seated inside at a window, but it got hotter and hotter inside. There are no big doors to open to the garden, to let in more fresh air, nor are there any airconditioners, unforgivable in terms of how hot Franschhoek can get.
It was not clear that Sheralee is the manager, as she did not introduce herself, and was running back and forth herself, as were all the waitresses, instead of checking her guests’ satisfaction. She only came to my table because I asked my waitress who the manager is. She wore a black and white top, whereas her staff all wear black tops and slacks, and I should have probably made the deduction. Four waitresses dealt with me in the hour that I was there, and there was no carry-over between them, in knowing what had been discussed between myself and the colleagues. No one asked how I had enjoyed the two courses I had eaten. A question about the starter to Chef Pierre via a waitress came back as a ‘broken telephone’ response, Chef Pierre refusing to answer my supposed question as to what was in the duck foie gras – my question had been what was in the ‘parfait’, as per my waitress, which actually was a praline, when I checked it on the menu, a bad ‘Lost in Translation’ incident, reflecting that the staff do not know what they are serving. When a waitress brought what I assumed to be an amuse bouche, and I confirmed with her that it was, she said no, and insisted that it was a beetroot sorbet! She clearly did not know the term, and also did not explain why she had brought this to the table, and only rattled off its content. The same waitress, who moved from Camps Bay to Franschhoek two months ago, stretched in front of me to place additional cutlery (including a fish knife for the crayfish for the main course, as well as a sharp knife for the pork), instead of coming around to the other side, there being enough space.
The restaurant has always had an odd old-fashioned illustration as its logo, and its menu/winelist looks old-fashioned with the illustration on the front cover (behind Chef Pierre in the photograph on the left). The typeface and presentation is not as modern or sophisticated as the restaurant decor. On looking at the menu, one sees immediately how creative Chef Pierre is, in what he combines in a dish, sometimes complementary, sometimes a surprise “opposition” of ingredients. The ingredients of each dish are clearly stated, including the vegetables, so there should be no surprises, or so I thought.
A plate with three self-baked bread items was brought to the table, containing a roll, and a slice of white bread and brown bread. No explanation was given of the bread types. With it came a duo of vegetarian salsa (an odd combination of carrot, tomato and baby marrow) and a boring looking anchovy paste, the latter not to my taste at all, anchovies being one of the few items I don’t eat. Then the amuse bouche of beetroot sorbet and apple crumble with a basil leaf arrived. I remember how impressed I was five years ago when Chef Pierre served a finely chopped chicken salad as an amuse bouche in an egg shell. I had not finished eating the amuse bouche when the starter arrived already, demonstrating poor co-ordination between the kitchen and the waiters. The amuse bouche was more successful than the vegetarian salsa, having a distinctive beetroot taste, and served ice cold, good for such a hot evening.
In retrospect I should have ordered the ‘surprise menu’, a five-course menu costing R360, with Chef Pierre deciding what he will serve. Interesting and innovative is a “combination” starter, which allows one a taste of all the starters, excluding the two oyster options, at R75 for a smaller portion and R 90 for a larger one. The starter that I ordered was described on the menu as rouleau of foie gras and crispy duck leg confit with praline and caramelized popcorn (R95). It must have been the popcorn that swayed me in choosing this starter, and the popcorn tasted just like I remembered it from Baker Street Snacks’ Jumping Jack, once a PR client of mine. The dish did not come with toast or a specialist bread, and I used some of the content of the bread basket to eat with the foie gras, but it was not ideal for the fine foie gras. Chef Pierre can present dishes beautifully, and the praline wore a ‘crown’ of the finest onion rings. It was an excellent starter choice. Other starters are Saldanha oysters, at R15 each, and ‘oysters three ways’, served as tempura, with foie gras and Thai, at R70. Goat’s cheese and beetroot (R70), tuna and mango (R90), crab and chorizo, as well as beef and pork (both cost R85), prawns and scallops and salmon cost R90, and soup R60. These are very high prices for starters, and the portions are small. As the restaurant filled up, the service slowed down, and a table next to me, arriving half an hour later than I did, left after losing patience with the poor service. After the speedy arrival of my starter ahead of me finishing my amuse bouche, it took another half an hour for someone to clear the dishes on my table and to bring the main course.
My main course choice should have been a winner, given its unique combination of braised pork belly and crayfish tail, with butternut substituting lentils that I did not want, but it had a curry sauce that was not mentioned on the menu for the dish, a sharp off-putting taste. When I fed this back to one of the waitresses, and she told Chef Pierre, the message I received back was an apology, but that there was no curry in the sauce, a contradiction in itself. There was no correction as to what could have been in the sharp sauce, and after the ‘praline’ communication performance, I did not bother any further about trying to communicate with Chef Pierre, who is ‘locked’ in his glass kitchen cage! The dish is expensive, at R155, with two half crayfish spring rolls and two small pieces of pork belly topped with crayfish, placed on top of the butternut, and accompanied by tiny pieces of delicious crackling. A pity that all of this was marred by the sharp and unnecessary sauce. Other main course choices are Lamb (served four ways as rack, loin, black pudding and shepherd’s pie – R130), Veal (a trio of loin, osso buco and sweetbread – R130), Chicken and Duck served with curry rice (R90), Springbok loin and shank (R135), Kingklip and dried olives (R120), Salmon and Sole (R125), Beef fillet (R155), and Suckling pig (served as a trio of loin, rib and rilette, with apple – R125).
I did not have a dessert. One can taste a taste of all the desserts at R90, or pay R55 – R75 per dessert, including Lemon and Orange, Soufflé, Chocolate, an interesting sounding Strawberry and Basil, Sorbets, two cheese platter options at R80, and coffee and friandises at R26.
The winelist forms part of the menu, and I did not initially see the wines by the glass in the Aperitif section. Wines are almost exclusively from Franschhoek, and are very well-priced. I ordered a jug of water, and a glass of Lynx Blanc de Noir, most reasonably priced at R26. But they had run out of the wine, and offered me a Boschendal Blanc de Noir instead, at the same price, usually only sold by the bottle. Pierre Jourdan Brut is the only sparkling wine available by the glass (R35/R165), and Colmant Brut Reserve costs R220. Eikehof Chardonnay costs R24/R95, Klein Dassenberg Sauvignon Blanc R26/R95, Stony Brook Semillon (R36/R155), Terra del Capo Pinot Grigio (R30/R120), Chamonix Rouge (R36/R90), La Bri Affinity (R36/R130), Eikehof Cabernet Sauvignon (R28), Bellingham Pinotage (R36/R140), and Porcupine Ridge Syrah/Viognier (R28/R120).
Despite asking the waitress for the bill, it did not arrive. I stood at the Reception for 10 minures, until a waitress (who had not served me at all) prepared the bill and took my payment. A flurry of waiters as well as the Manager had passed me in this time. It is such a shame that Chef Pierre’s culinary leadership is destroyed by unknowledgeable waiters, whose service does not match what he and his chefs create in the kitchen, and therefore does not justify the prices at Le Bon Vivant, expensive even for Franschhoek!
Le Bon Vivant, 22 Dirkie Uys Street, Franschhoek. Tel (021) 876-2717. www.lebonvivant.co.za (Surprisingly modern website, menu available, and commendably lots of photographs in the Image Gallery, which would sell the restaurant to any prospective customer). Thursdays – Tuesdays lunch and dinner.
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage