I became a fan of Chef Oliver Cattermole when he was at Dash restaurant at the Queen Victoria hotel last year.  The opportunity to try some of the dishes on his new menu at Dish restaurant at the Le Franschhoek hotel reflected the creative cuisine skills of the Michelin two-star La Gavroche trained chef.

Seeking clarification on a winter menu special, I Tweeted Chef Oliver, and he invited me to try his new winter menu last month, the first menu containing only his dishes since he started at the hotel nine months ago. I had not been impressed with the restaurant on previous visits, but a number of changes, including the menu, made the meal one of my highlights in Franschhoek this year.

When I arrived, I saw a special table with new high back chairs and a tall silver candelabra prepared for me. I was happy to see that the Eetrite cutlery had been set out for a number of courses, eliminating the problem of stretching.  On the table was a vase with the most beautiful Blushing Brides, and coarse Atlantic sea salt and pepper grinders.  The beautiful table setting alone made me feel like a queen. The table was closest to the pass, which is open to the restaurant, so I could chat to Chef Oliver and ask him questions about his delicious dishes.  I was delighted to see that the piano had been moved to the side of the dining room, and was not played, as I have experienced before. Despite it being a freezing cold evening, it was cosy and warm inside, with a modern mobile gas heater in the centre of the room.

Chef Oliver started his career on a part-time basis whilst still at school, cutting his teeth with Chef George Jardine, then at the Cellars Hohenhort hotel. After school he started at Haute Cabriere, working for Chef Matthew Gordon, before leaving for London, where he worked in Chef Michel Roux Jnr’s La Gavroche kitchen in London for a year, describing ‘him as generally a nice guy’. The kitchen had a staff complement of about 20, all French speaking. He learnt the discipline of cooking at La Gavroche.  Chef Michel Jnr did a Masterclass on MasterChef SA, and impressed with his way of dealing with the Finalists, firm but friendly. Chef Oliver also did a two day stage in Alain Ducasse’s kitchen at the Dorchester Hotel, just for the opportunity to learn from this esteemed chef. He also worked at top London restaurants The Ivy and Cannizaro House, before missing sunny South Africa, and returning to Cape Town.

Phillip is a Zimbabwean Hospitality Management intern from the International Hotel School, doing his training at the Le Franschhoek hotel, and he was very proactive in looking after me in serving the food as well as pouring the wine.  He told me that he is studying in South Africa, due to the better quality hospitality training offered locally, and the excellent wine estates in the Cape, having visited almost all of those in Franschhoek already. The dishes were served paired with wines especially selected by Chef Oliver from the special wine collection of the hotel.

The first dish was a Forest mushroom soup served with a semi-dried tomato and mushroom soil, which came to the table with home-made brown bread, and was paired with Hoopenburg Pinot Noir 2008.  It was one of the highlights of the meal, being thick and creamy, and a perfect antidote to the cold outside. The mushrooms are foraged by a supplier in Stellenbosch.  On the starter menu the dish costs R 65.

One of the most beautiful Autumn-inspired dishes was the vegetarian ‘A Taste and Textures from the garden’, costing R100 on the main course section of the menu, and consists of a purée of beetroot, parsnip, sheets of beetroot, dried red onion, cavioli (cauliflower), baby marrow, a beetroot crisp, butternut purée, spinach purée, baby turnips, served with beetroot soil, and red and green caviar drops. This dish was paired with a Mont Rochelle Unwooded Chardonnay 2010.  Chef Oliver told me that he sources his vegetables and herbs from Daniel Kruger, who grows special produce to chefs’ specification outside Franschhoek. He brings seeds for unusual sized and coloured vegetables (e.g. purple potatoes, black radishes, yellow and green-striped aubergines the size of golf balls) from the USA and Holland.

The Duck Bon-Bon starter with parsley root pureé and hot pickled vegetables costs R65, and was paired with a Terra del Capo Sangiovese 2008 from Antonij Rupert Wines in Franschhoek.  The duck is shredded, parsley is added, and rolled in Japanese breadcrumbs, served with spinach purée, and a piccalilli relish made from courgette, cauliflower, peppers, onions and vinegar.  The parsley root comes from the hotel’s own garden. The fourth course was a starter of pan-seared scallops served with a celeriac triangle and Ras El Hanout (honey-infused Moroccan spice mix, which has 21 spices such as hibiscus, rose petals, cardamom, cumin, fennel, ginger, chilli peppers, nutmeg, tumeric, pepper, cinnamon, pollen, curry powder, and coriander), as well as a golden cauliflower, coloured with tea and saffron, at R75.  This dish was served with a French wine, which Oliver had found in the hotel cellar, a Louis Satour Ardèche 2008 Chardonnay.  Chef Oliver sources the scallops from French importer Socomaf.

Compressed pork was served with a medley of apple pureé, toffee apple, and apple caviar, a fruit mustard, as well as a haricot bean purée, a dish which is also on their starter menu, and costs R60.  This dish was paired with Thelema Rhine Riesling 2008.  Other starters on the Dish menu are oak-smoked salmon (R75), and roasted beetroot with whipped goats’ cheese (R60).

The Roast rump of Karoo lamb with minted mash and young white and orange and red carrots was a filling main course, with three slices of lamb served, at R160.  This course was paired with Haut Espoir Cabernet Sauvignon 2004. Other main courses include Chicken Bourguignon, line fish of the day, dry-aged beef fillet, and thyme-roasted venison, ranging in price from R125 – R160.

To complete the more than generous dinner Chef Oliver served Carrot Cake as a dessert, with a medley of carrot pureé, mousse, jelly, and paper, to which he had added walnut candy and raisin pureé, costing R60.  Other desserts have a similar cost, and include apple and sultana crumble, goats’ milk pannacotta, barrel-smoked chocolate fondant, and brioche treacle tart pain.

Every one of Chef Oliver’s dishes is a work of art, created by his team of thirteen, who not only prepare these lovely dinner dishes, but also look after the breakfast requirements of the hotel guests, prepare lunch and dinners at their Le Verger restaurant in the glass ‘hothouse’, and banqueting requirements for conferences, weddings, and other events. Chef Oliver is in the right place in Franschhoek, in the village which positions itself as the gourmet centre of the country, to present his creative cuisine.

Dish Restaurant, Le Franschhoek Hotel, Franschhoek.  Tel ()21) 876-8900.  www.lefranschhoek.co.za Monday – Sunday dinner, Sunday buffet.  Twitter @Le_Franschhoek

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