I have the highest regard for the entrepreneurial spirit of Robert Maingard, although he is not Franschhoek’s favourite semi-citizen.  Mr Maingard has incredible faith in Franschhoek, judging by his investment in this village, including ownership of Dieu Donné, Le Franschhoek Hotel, Crepe et Cidre, numerous small shopping centers on the main road (one which includes a Clicks and the village’s second Pick ‘n Pay, which has had the residents up in arms), and now owner of Café Benedict and the newly opened Le Coq restaurant.  I visited the restaurant three times over two days, to get a grip on this ‘schizophrenic’ restaurant, which is located in the new (as yet unnamed) centre which was built where the old Huguenot Hotel once stood.

The French rooster is the symbol of all things Gallic, Wikipedia informs, and Mr Maingard’s Mauritian roots show in his choice of name for the restaurant in this French-faux village.   The rooster that graces the entrance to the restaurant was found under a table in Mr Maingard’s home, Llewellyn Lambert told me.  The restaurant is huge, with an industrial feel to the space, with visible airconditioning trunking.  The restaurant is divided over two levels, each seating about 60 patrons, probably the largest restaurant in Franschhoek.  The upstairs level has its own Grill menu, and focuses on steak.  Here too is a coldroom, so that one can see the meat hung for use for grilling, and from which meat can be sold to customers to take home.   Downstairs, the menu focus is on affordable light meals.   

With its French name, its interior design is a surprise, it is so bizarre! The downstairs section has a fireplace, which will be cosy in the cold Franschhoek winter, and above it hangs a Salvador Dali ‘replica’.  Here is where things go dreadfully wrong with the decor, the designer being Carol Cornwall, of Cornwall Interiors in Durban, who has done all Mr Maingard’s Quarters Hotels, Dieu Donné and Crepe et Cidre.  Dali was a Spanish abstract artist, now used in a French style Franschhoek family restaurant.  There is another Dali ‘replica’ upstairs, a copy of the famous ‘The Persistence of Memory’ above its fireplace, the well-known pocketwatch one, hence all the clocks on the walls.  Without the explanation by Lambert, I would not have made the connection.  There are more ‘Dali’s’ to come, I was told!

But worse still is the lounge sections that have been created in each of the two levels, for those patrons who have to wait for a table (it will take some time to get to this stage, given that Franschhoek is already seeing its first pre-winter casualties, with restaurants and other shops closing down).  The furniture for these two sections looks like it comes straight out of Joshua Doore –  a white ‘plastic’ couch upstairs, and ‘velour’ high back chairs in orange and blue downstairs!   Going back for the third time, I understood the decor approach, being to pick up the blue and the burnt orange from the ‘Dali’s’ for the chairs, but it is the execution that I cannot understand, in that they make the restaurant feel common and kitsch.  The rest of the decor, in terms of the tables and dining chairs (white leather downstairs and beige fabric upstairs) is absolutely fine.  Lambert told me that Mr Maingardis an avid antique collector, and antique sewing machines have formed the bases for the upstairs granite-top tables.   One can sit outside on the terrace upstairs, with a lovely view onto the Franschhoek mountains, but also onto the large parking area below. Parking is a benefit of the new development, given that Franschhoek lacks parking on its main road.  

Mr Maingard recently bought the Lecca il Gelato franchise for Franschhoek, and will be using one of his already vacated shops in the new center in which Le Coq is located for the new ice cream shop.  It is so big, that he has decided to make the shop a play and activity centre for children while their parents eat at Le Coq – I could think of nothing better for a kid to play in an ice cream shop!  

I could not help but think that the large industrial-style two-tier restaurant reminded me of my own joke that the two Franschhoek Pick ‘n Pays have two target markets: one serves the ‘bodorp’, and the other the ‘onderdorp’, and so too the restaurant’s upstairs grill and downstairs Light Meal section is likely to see a similar divide!

The managers are a collection of staff from Maingard properties.  Lambert came from Quarters in Durban earlier this year, to open Café Benedict.  Manager Nikki Leu comes from Durban too, where she did staff training for Mr Maingard’s businesses.  I found it very hard to connect with her.  Food & Beverage Manager Alan Smith comes from the Grill Room, opposition to Mr Maingard, previously owned by Matthew Gordon and the late Trevor Kirsten, who was also a Franschhoek property mogul, vying for the same high street properties.  Chef Albert van der Loo comes from Dieu Donné.   He said that running a kitchen for a 120 seater restaurant is no problem, especially as the orders are staggered over the evening, compared to the 240-seater Dieu Donné, where all guests wanted to order immediately after the sun has set, creating huge pressure on the kitchen.  He has a massive downstairs kitchen for the light meals, and the steaks are prepared upstairs.  Chef Albert is excited about the new challenge he has in running his own kitchen, and says he worked hard on creating the right balance of dishes for the Light Meal menu.  He is bringing in a sushi chef from Japan, a relative of the sushi chef’s girlfriend from the ‘bodorp’ Pick ‘n Pay. His vision at Le Coq is to offer good quality affordable meals for Franschhoekers.

The tables do not have table cloths, but material serviettes and St Tropez cutlery.  A very light weight steak knife by Victorinox seemed too light to be effective, but did  a good cutting job.  There are no condiments.  Only a little glass candle holder is on the table.  No one offered pepper on any of my three visits.   My first visit was for lunch on Saturday, in the downstairs section, and I had a most delicious pea and mint soup from the Cold menu selection (good value at R35, but when Etienne Bonthuys charges R30 for the thickest and creamiest Avocado soup with prawn, it is not!).  I asked the waitress whether it comes with bread, but she said it did not. I returned on Saturday evening, on my way to Stellenbosch, and tried the Tempura prawn from the Hot menu selection.  I asked specifically if it is de-shelled, and the waitress checked that it would be.  The tempura batter is around the prawn tail as well, and I was talking so much that I bit into the tail which did have the shell over it, which spoilt the dish for me.  I had a good Cuturra coffee, with a strong coffee flavour.  If one sits downstairs, one may order from the Grill menu, but one may not order from the Light Meal menu if one is sitting upstairs, which seems odd and inflexible.   Other Cold Meal options (R35 – R75) are smoked salmon salad, roast beef and blue cheese salad, Caprese salad and Bruschetta of Beef Tartare. Oysters cost R90 for six.  The Hot Meal menu prices range from a most affordable R60 – R75, and include mussels, fish and chips, oxtail, beef burger, Cape Malay chicken curry and penne pasta carbonara.  Gelatos, jellied sparkling wine, chocolate brownies and ‘American Dreams’ cost R30 – R40.

The Grill menu has three starters:  The Prawn cocktail was wonderful, with six juicy prawns, at R65, but I did suggest to Chef Albert that he take off the tails; beef carpaccio (R50), and a Chef’s salad at R55.  There are seven grilled meat options, served with chips and onion rings, ranging from R75 for an Algerian spatchcock baby chicken to R105 each for a 500 gram T-bone steak, and 250 gram fillet.  The weight of meat is not specified on the menu, but the waitress told me the weight when I asked her, unfortunately getting the weight of two items wrong, one of them being for the fillet I ordered.  The fillet was good, served alone on a plate, and the sauce and mash came in two extra dishes.  I had ordered the steak Medium Rare, but it tended to Medium, and Chef Albert (who commendably came to check after every course) explained that it has to do with the ageing of the meat, taking away some of the pink colouring of the meat.  It was very tender, and Chef Albert told me that they source their meat from Tomi’s near Hermon, where they farm with Angus cows.  Le Coq is the first Franschhoek client, and Chef Albert was very impressed with the marbling of their meat. Sauces cost R15, and one can choose Hollandaise, Bourbon mushroom, Classic red wine steakhouse, and green peppercorn sauces.  Desserts here are simply one of four Gelato flavours, costing R35.

The menus and winelist are beautifully presented, and Chef Albert worked with photographer Eddie Wilson to create covers for them using beautiful photographs, one taken from the restaurant.   The winelist covers has a photograph of three Dieu Donné wines, but has a good selection of mainly Franschhoek wines.  It has a description of the wine, but no information on regions or vintages is provided. The white wines range from R30/R100 for Overhex Balance and R30/R110 for Flagstone Noon Gun, to R 380 for Graham Beck Pheasant Run Sauvignon Blanc. Other wines by the glass are Dieu Donné Chardonnay (R35/R110), Protea Chenin Blanc (R30/R90) and Ashton Kelder Chardonnay (R35/R115).  Red wines start at R 30/R110 for Ashton Kelder Satynrooi and R30/R110 for Avondrood Blue Whale, up to R 500 for Chamonix Pinot Noir Reserve.  I was surprised to see Chocolate Block Shiraz blend charged at a pricey R390.  Other red wines by the glass are Diemersfontein Pinotage (R50), Perdeberg Shiraz/Cabernet Sauvignon (R35/R130),  and GlenwoodMerlot at R40/R165.  Sparkling wines are not sold by the glass, which is a shame, and include Dieu Donné Blanc de Blanc Brut (R200), Graham Beck’s Brut Rosé (R240), Colmant (R280), and Moët “en” Chandon (R950).  One can also order “Le Coq-tails” and “Le Moq-tails” at R35 – R45.  

To celebrate the opening of the restaurant on Friday, live music will be played in the lower section every weekend day and evening.  I found the band from Wellington terribly loud, as did the chef, and they were asked to tone things down a little.  Every month there will be new groups playing.

Le Coq is a restaurant out of the usual Franschhoek mould, and one wonders if there are enough locals with families to support this large restaurant, currently being supporters of Kalfi’s, Col’Cacchio and Allora.   It offers very good value for money, especially in the downstairs Light Meals section.  Its staff service and training needs attention.  Its French/Spanish decor conflict needs drastic help. It will survive the winter and any continuation of the downturn, as Mr Maingard is the owner of the building, so that his cost structure is different to that of any other restaurant. It needs a stronger leaderto run the restaurant.  It lacks focus, trying to please too many tastes under one roof, and creates confusion with two-restaurants-within-one.  It will be interesting to see if they receive the support from the anti-Clicks ‘bodorp’ Franschhoekers living in a village known for its nasty politics!

POSTSCRIPT 21/5: I popped in for a cappuccino this afternoon, and immediately noticed the addition of a massive “Dali Atomicus” print by photographer Philippe Haselman, featuring Dali, three thrown cats, and a thrown bucket of water – what a weird composition!  From a Google search I learnt that the photograph took 26 takes over five  It looks very impressive behind the bar, and much nicer than the Dali painting copies hung in the restaurant.  The Manager Alan has already left the restaurant, for a job elsewhere.

Le Coq, 32 Huguenot Road, Franschhoek.  Tel (021) 876-4224.  No website yet.  Tuesday – Sunday, lunch and dinner.

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