I had not been to Mange Tout Restaurant at Mont Rochelle Hotel in Franschhoek for a number of years, and with the appointment of the new chef Leigh Trout seven months ago, I felt that it was time to pay the restaurant a visit again.   There is no mange tout on the menu, but Chef Leigh Trout serves a good trout!   Service remains a weakness in this restaurant of the five-star Mont Rochelle Hotel.

Security is an issue when one arrives at Mont Rochelle, yet it isn’t when one uses the magic password “Restaurant”, despite not having pre-booked, and the boom was lifted without question nor details taken.  I was welcomed by a very confident security guard when I parked my car, and he offered his services to make my booking, as he felt that there would be a table available for me.  This meant going to the receptionist, who nodded her head, and did not bother to show me the way to the restaurant (had I been a first-time guest).   When asked, she said just go left and then right, and did not walk me to the restaurant.  The entrance to the restaurant is not clear, and what is intended as the main entrance door is rarely used, judging by what I observed.  Most guests go to the terrace, and use that door to enter.

The previous restaurant, called La Couronne (also the name of the hotel at that time), was reinvented after a renovation following a fire, when the hotel changed its name to Mont Rochelle, and the restaurant had its own stand-alone name Mange Tout for the first time.  

I arrived at 19h30, and it was still light enough to see the lovely view the restaurant has on the Franschhoek mountains and the valley below.   The restaurant has two sections, the view one being filled first.  It was noticeable that the hotel guests (four tables) are seated at the window with the view, and the non-hotel guests were seated away from the windows.   This section has a lovely fireplace, which makes the restaurant very cosy in winter.   The second section of the restaurant has no view at all.   The space is airy, and the thatched roof ceiling, the large tables with white table cloths and a mixture of light green and beige chairs create a light and attractive interior.  Most interesting is the ‘handbag’ tables next to each table, which allows the ladies to store their bags on a place other than the floor, something only a lady could have thought of!  Big candle holders are on the non-view tables, while the view tables have American-style table lamps.   A large daisy is presented in a square glass container, filled with glass balls.  There are candelabras and candles on the fireplace mantelpiece, creating a romantic atmosphere as the sun sets.   

A massive chandelier dominates the room, as does the white piano, played by Mont Rochelle legend Alfio, for whom guests return year after year.  I found the 90 minutes of continuous piano playing beyond irritating, and would not return if I knew it was still going.  But I was in the minority, the mainly British guests loving it,  and even starting to sing along!   Alfio is such an institution that he has a sign with his name on the piano, and a dessert named after him (Alfio’s Duet).  Before he started playing, Kfm-like music was ‘broadcast’, and when Alfio finished playing, there was deathly silence, relative to the piano ‘noise’, until somebody remembered to put on more of the ‘Kfm’ music.  I do love listening to Kfm’s music in my car, but not at a 5-star hotel restaurant.

Despite it being over 30°C in Franschhoek, all the windows of the restaurant were closed and the airconditioner had not been switched on.  It became increasingly hot, and I had to ask for a window to be opened.  I was really pushing the limits when I asked for another window to be opened, and the permission of other guests had to be requested.   The tables have good quality napery, contemporary cutlery – with a butter knife on the side plate – and good glassware.   There are no condiments on the table, clearly signifying that the chef feels he can prepare a meal without the need for anything to be added.   The menu is printed on good quality green A4 paper, with the Mange Tout name very low key on it.   It contains an introduction by chef Leigh, a new trend that I have picked up: “Welcome to Mange Tout!  Our Menu is an ever evolving work in progress, wherever possible focusing on the finest seasonal ingredients available.   We whole heartedly (sic) endorse environmentally friendly farming practices as well as humane free range animal rearing and much of our produce used reflects this”.  The last sentence seems quite a mouthful, sounding correct, but somehow artificial, in my opinion.   The  five course degustation menu is on the front page, while the a la carte menu is on the reverse side.  The chef is flexible, and one may chop and change the items between the two menus.  The tasting menu costs R430 for 5 courses, but in reality these were 7 courses, with an amuse bouche and a palate cleanser as well.   The a la carte menu costs R240 for 2 courses (although not specified on the menu), R 280 for 3 courses, R360 for 4 courses and R430 for 5 courses.  

The waitress brought the bread basket to the table, and rattled off the contents as being focaccia, “stick bread” and “rye bread”, the latter being ciabatta in fact.  Commendably the breads were served warm, but I had a bite of each, and could not eat more, finding them so below average per se, and even more so for a fine dining restaurant.  The focaccia ingredients included mushroom, olives and goat’s cheese, but I only learnt this from the manager Roelof later on, while the ciabatta was hard and tasteless.  I found the quality of the waitresses far below par for a 5-star restaurant, and they come across as ‘robotised’, in rattling off a menu they had to learn but do not really understand, the Manager Roelof being the only person offering quality service, and explaining the dishes.   One particularly gruff waitress, who looks intimidatingly bossy and made no attempt to make eye contact or even smile, has been at Mont Rochelle for 10 years.   Another waitress I asked has been there for two years, yet was unable to explain the dishes when brought to the table, just saying “trout”, for example.  I had asked for a jug of ice water, but received a glassful, and had to request it to be topped up every time.  It became warm over the course of the evening, and I had to request ice to cool it down again.   There is no proactive service.

I had no intention to, but landed up having the Tasting Menu, mainly because it was too hard to choose what to leave out.  Chef Leigh cleverly has chosen favourite dishes for his menus, including foie gras, asparagus, kingklip, tiramisu, souffle (which I was told is a signature dish of the hotel, preceding Chef Leigh) and of course ……. trout!   The amuse bouche was a rather unattractive looking dark green asparagus velouté and oyster escalope, the waitress rattled off.  When I asked her what was hiding under the daisy, she had to find out from the kitchen, and said that ‘the black things’ were caviar!   I am often disappointed by amuse bouches, as many chefs get them wrong, as being an opening shot at what they are capable of in the kitchen.  The batter-covered fried oyster was very unusual, but the velouté was bland.  The foie gras starter was beautifully presented, and Chef Leigh likes his greens and oranges in food colour presentation.   He used peach for colour, served au natural and as a mousse, with two tiny triangles of ‘dark chocolate brioche’, not enough to have the foie gras on, so Roelof brought a few more to the table – the bread basket offering would not have been suitable to have with the foie gras at all.  A chocolate bean on each foie gras slice was unusual.   The steamed garden asparagus was a crispy composition in green, with fashionable micro herbs, and contrasted with two dots of yellow created with quail eggs.  Other starter options are springbok carpaccio, cauliflower soup and “Walvisbaai Red Crab Tortellini”.

I couldn’t miss out on the seared Franschhoek Trout, and Chef Leigh did his namesake proud.  My dish was served with ‘cucumber noodles’ (lovely thin strips of cucumber) and pea mousse.   The palate cleanser was apple sorbet, four balls being too much for what is intended.    I was looking forward to the kingklip for the main course, but was disappointed with it, having a hard crust, and the chef’s sprinkling of coarse salt on top of the fish, something one cannot see until one takes a bite, making the mouthful taste too salty.   It was served with braised fennel, an unfortunate combination, I believe, as the vegetable has a very dominant taste, and it was not well washed, still having sand in it.   Miniature sweet potato gnocchi was tasty, but very salty, and looked like little dog food pellets in colour and shape.    Orange and miso completed the composition.   Other main course options on the a la carte menu were lamb puttanesca, lemon chicken ballottine, and beef tenderloin.

I loved the principle of the ‘deconstructed’ Tiramisu, which consisted of marsala sabayon (tasted warm and uninteresting), the mascarpone mousse piped on the plate, a wonderfully delicious coffee and savoiardi biscuit ice cream, and the cutest mini meringues, over which was presented a work of sugar art, which was ‘overkill’, as far as I was concerned.  A peppermint parfait, the soufflé, Alfio’s Duet and a Vineyard Cheese Platter are other dessert alternatives.

Somehow the colour co-ordination went terribly wrong with the winelist, given the gentle white, beige and green tones of the restaurant interior and menu, with its blood red cover.     The winelist is a collection of mainly Mont Rochelle wines, and also describes the Winery, and the sister restaurant Country Kitchen.   The first page lists all the Mont Rochelle wines, and these are the only ones that one can order by the glass.   The Rosé costs R26/R100, and white wines include a Reserve Sauvignon Blanc (R49/R194), an Unwooded Chardonnay (R44/R173) and Barrel Fermented Chardonnay (R54/205).   The Miko Chardonnay sur Iie costs R509.   The red wines include a 2004 Merlot (R58/R231), Miko Cabernet Sauvignon (R546), Artemis (R56/R200) and the Syrah at R75/R289, which had the following description “smokey nose with black pepper, plumbs (sic) and black berries”.  I commented on the coldness of the Syrah, and I was told that it was chilled at 14°C.  I prefer a warmer red wine.   An impressive list of champagnes contains sixteen options, starting at R385 for Tribaut Tradition, and peaking at R2450 for Krug Grand Cuvée.  Eight MCC sparkling wines are listed, starting with Villiera (R194), while a Graham Beck Brut Rosé is charged at R310.   Two to three wines from other wine estates are featured per variety, each variety broadly described.  Wines from Austria, Germany and France are also available.  The Shiraz section includes two Franschhoek brands: Stony Brook 2006 (R176) and Boekenhoutskloof 2008 (R546).

Roelof was receptive to my feedback about the disappointing quality of the bread (surprisingly the pastry chef comes from the One&Only Cape Town) and the waitresses, and he is aware of the problem with the latter.  He is working on a programme with Chef Leigh to improve their knowledge and service.  The bill arrived as duplicate slips, and I asked Roelof why that was, and he said one copy is for them.  It was hard to read in the low light.  The bill was ‘served’ with chocolate friandes, not very exciting.  

Even though Chef Leigh tried very hard to make his food look amazingly good, it fell short on the delivery, especially the bread, kingklip, and friandises.  Maybe he is trying too hard.  The service deficiency relative to the quality of the food and the hotel star grading is a serious deterrent to going back, as is the piano!   The restaurant has such amazing potential, but it seems as if an ‘old’ La Couronne is fighting a new Mange Tout, with old habits resisting and disturbing the good work Chef Leigh and Manager Roelof are trying to do.  It was disppointing that Chef Leigh did not come out of the kitchen and greet his guests.

Mange Tout Restaurant, Mont Rochelle Hotel, Franschhoek.  Tel (021) 876-2770.   www.montrochelle.co.za (the website seems to be down – the restaurant has one page only, and contains the menu – which is the same one as for the evening when I dined there last Thursday – and has a few shots of the interior, but only one food shot).   Wednesday – Sunday dinner, and Saturday and Sunday lunch.

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