Grande Provence Champagne Dinner introduces Franschhoek Champagne Festival, disappoints!


imageChampagne is a noble drink, and when one is able to experience a dinner paired with a Grande Provence sparkling wine, as well as four champagnes, expectations are high. Sadly these were not met last night. It is the second year that the Champagne pairing dinner has been held on the eve of the Franschhoek Champagne Festival, which takes place at the Huguenot Monument today and tomorrow from 12h00 – 17h00.

The first disappointment was meeting Roland Peens for the imagesecond time in 24 hours, his company Wine Cellar supplying the champagnes. He appeared unhappy to be photographed in the passage near the kitchen, and expressed this. He introduced each champagne, spoke very fast, and was quick to push his products, in addition to a price list being given to each table, the hard-sell being unnecessary after we paid R2250 per head. My guest Llewellyn Lambert and I were the last to leave, but he did not wish us a good night. Not once during the dinner did he leave his table to walk the floor, to obtain feedback from the guests attending. Only a general question and answer session was intended to elicit feedback, but this led to a minimal response. 

imageWe met new Grande Provence GM and Cellarmaster Matthew Van Heerden, whom I went to greet, as we had never met. He had made no effort to meet his guests, especially being new. He introduced Roland briefly. He did however say good night when he left.  Grande Provence owner Alex Van Heeren was in the house, and also did not connect with his guests. Restaurant Manager Daniel Yarrington held the event together, and checked on us regularly. 

Chef Darren Badenhorst is introverted, and does not visit tables imageas a rule. Just as he came to chat at our table, Matthew got up to say a few words, and Chef Darren returned to the kitchen. That was the last that we saw of him. It is a shame that Chef Darren does not come out of his kitchen more. 

The room was spic and span. Table cloths, that many describe as linen dish cloths with a blue stripe appear brand new. Odd was the lit fireplace in the restaurant, very close to our table, on a 32C degree Franschhoek day! 

imageWe were served a glass of Grande Provence Brut MCC 2009 as a welcome drink, strangely in the Tasting Room, without being guided to it on arrival. A number of Grande Provence staff was sitting alongside the tasting room, without any communication from them. Daniel found a table for us, and brought two beautifully plated oysters, Asian Mignonette with black pepper and lemon caviar on ice, to our outside table. I popped into the art gallery quickly, but there was no information provided as to who the artists were and what the theme of the exhibition was. No Gallery staff was on duty! I did see impressive works of art by Arrabella Caccia, the former wife of Anthony Hamilton Russell. 

imageWe were asked to move to our table inside the restaurant, and it was a surprise that the waitron staff was so casually dressed, in T-shirt and casual slacks, given the stature of the champagne theme of the dinner. A bread plate was brought imageto our table, with sesame seed and pumpkin bread, very salty truffle butter porcini, mustard aioli, very soft lavash which meant that one could not dip it into the aioli, and basil pesto.

The first champagne was served, Le Mesnil Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru NV (R555). Roland introduced the champagne as a 100% Grand Cru Cuvee. The champagne house uses Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Mineure in its production. It is a cooperative with 600 members, and 90% of the harvest is sold to the larger champagne houses, the balance kept aside, to make their own champagne. The wine is kept on the lees for three to four years, creating a rich, elegant, and lively champagne. It is a good palate cleanser, Roland said of the champagne. 

Lizelle Geeringh came to say hello, handling all Lunch and Dinner imageevents at Grande Provence, she told us. Chef Darren told us that he had received fresh tuna that morning, he and his team working on the 52 kg fish. He introduced each of the dishes on the four-course menu, saying that each dish had caviar in it. The first was a local tuna yukhoe, spiced guacamole, sundried tomato leaf, yuzu caviar, potato and corn croquettes, toasted black sesame truffle, and deviled quail egg.

Roland introduced the Jacquesson Cuvee 738 Extra Brut NV (R650), it having no sugar, and ‘warming up with food’! The average grower supplying this champagne house grows 2-3 hectares, and can make a living from this. The champagne house is family run, and its champagne is always dry. The back label of the bottle explains what is in the wine, a new trend to provide information to the imagechampagne drinker.  It is a blend of 2010 Pinot Noir and Pinot Mineure, and was disgorged last year.  French champagne brands have a 500 year history, unlike our MCCs. Their wines have acidity, which our South African MCCs do not have. 

The Jacquesson was paired with a dish of aerated local Reblochon (a soft washed-rind French cheese) brandade (an emulsion of salt cod and olive oil) velouté, 18-hour cooked pork belly, fig imagecaviar, and vineyard micro herbs.

The Dom Perignon 2006 (R2050) is the ‘grand marque’ of champagnes, and is one of the most famous champagnes. It is kept on the lees for eight years, and has no Pinot Mineure. It is mainly made from Chardonnay, and a little Pinot Noir is added. It received a 96 point rating, making it one of the top champagnes. It has a toasty and nutty nose, it is really tasty, and it makes one feel great, described Roland. The champagne was paired with Chimichurri champagne beurreimage Blanc, seared Canadian King scallop, pancetta texture, vanilla and parsnip, BBQ langoustines, and Imperial Heritage Caviar. We were served a ‘palate cleanser’, being a champagne and raspberry pannacotta with rose caviar.

Roland introduced Drappier Brut Rosé (R615) as imagebeing salmon pink in colour, a trend in champagne. The area has clay soils, being at the southern end of Champagne. It is made from 100% Pinot Noir grapes, a rare occurrence. This champagne is one with the lowest sulphur levels in their champagne. The imagechampagne was paired with Summer berry ice cream sandwich, whipped raspberry parfait, rose macaroon, pistachio praline crumble, Tonka and hibiscus meringue, citrus cranberry tea gel, and raspberry caviar.

A dry cappuccino took two attempts to make, and still was not perfect. Chef Darren introduced his team to the patrons, and thanked them for their hard work in creating the dinner. 

Overall, last night’s Champagne Pairing dinner was a disappointment, especially compared to last year’s bubbly dinner. There was no connectivity between the Grande Provence and Wine Cellar representatives and their guests, and between guests. It was sad to see that the event was not well-supported compared to that of last year. It is disappointing to see that Grande Provence, once an Eat Out Top 10 restaurant, has lost its touch, seeming to not care about its guests anymore. I was grateful that Chef Darren accommodated me in the kitchen, to take photographs in better light. Our wobbly table was reported, and Daniel promised to add a wedge, but he never got around to fix it. A number of dishes were felt to be too spicy. It was an expensive dinner at R2250 per head, lacking a wow factor in every respect!

Grande Provence, R45 Franschhoek. Tel (021) 876-8600. Twitter: @Grande_Provence Instagram: @grandeprovence

Wine Cellar, Tel (021) 448-4105 Twitter: @WineCellarRSA Instagram: @WineCellarRSA

Chris von Ulmenstein, WhaleTales Blog, Cell 082 5511 323. Twitter: @ulmenstein Instagram: @chris_ulmenstein

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