If food is your thing and you don’t normally spend months on end looking for it under a rock, then you probably know who Margot Janse is. This multi award winning gourmet has been named Chef of the Year in the Eat Out DSTV Food Network Restaurant Awards for the second time and – as executive chef at Le Quartier Français in Franschhoek – she has led the The Tasting Room to the number two spot on the list of top restaurants in South Africa – the 11th time that this epicurean institution has ranked among the top 10 under her guidance. One day when I’m all grown up, have put the kids through college and have the kind of settled lifestyle where I can plan my eating experiences months in advance, I too will make it to The Tasting Room. But until then, it’s good to know that we can sample a small part of this phenomenal woman’s genius at The Common Room, Le Quartier Français’s slightly more accessible, but no less remarkable eatery. Don’t let the name fool you – The Common Room is far from plebeian. The decor is lush and rich in plums and reds with quirky chandeliers lighting the vibrant interior. For those who love to people watch there is cafè style seating on Huguenot Street’s ample sidewalk and the back of the restaurant opens up to cool gardens and mountain vistas with comfy couches and a fireplace for the chillier days.
Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, The Common Room offers a menu brimming with extraordinarily original small plates designed to be enjoyed as a snack with a glass of bubbly or wine or to accompany one of their witty cocktails (try the passion fruit based Bow Chicka Wow Wow), or to feature as part of a motley cast of plates that make up the perfect ensemble meal. The menu reflects Margot’s ability to zhush up the most humble of South African flavours with humour, imagination and a touch of the exotic. You won’t find a meatball here – instead tuck into succulent lamb frikadelletjies served with flatkoek and raïta. Battered fish takes the form of pops with chakalaka ketchup and the bitterballen (a nod to Margot’s Dutch heritage and one of my favourite things on the planet ever) is made with wildebeest and served with apple mustard. And who can resist something as simple as French toast when it is paired with Spanish cured ham, preserved lime and a summer tomato party? The chicken & duck liver parfait with salted pear simply melts in your mouth and is the closest thing you’ll get to foie gras without the ethical dilemma you normally face picturing all those fluffy, overfed geese. The quail rillettes with mebos chutney is served in a happy little jar and bursts with flavours of the Cape. (I feel like I’m rambling here, but let me continue!). Organic lamb tongue is given the bacon crumble treatment and will warm your heart on the dreariest of days and the wood baked Dalewood camembert (although not exactly original) is simply perfect in its oozy, creamy, rich simplicity. The only dish I didn’t enjoy was the satay spiced squid, but that’s only because it was meltingly tender and as a middle class South African I’m used to the cheap and chewy variety of calamari we have to settle for while the rest of the world munches on our good stuff. Lastly, hand cut chips are served playfully in paper cones and, amongst other sides, you can also tuck into wood roasted sweetcorn with smoked butter or tempura fine beans with a soya dip.
When you’re ready for something sweet, try a jar of brownies or the dainty pear & almond tartlet with vanilla ice cream and salted caramel (it’ll make you forget your manners and you’ll be licking the plate before you’re done). My absolute favourite dish of the day though was the peanut butter parfait with gooseberry gel. The cold, creamy moreish ice cream is paired perfectly with a crunchy, salty, peanut crumb that hits every spot a dessert should and some you didn’t even know it could. THIS is what Sally ate all those years ago. The wine list is small, featuring only Moreson wines, but when you can have Miss Molly Bubbly by the bottles full you probably won’t care! Dishes range from R25.00 to R50.00 per plate, and for those who need a man sized bowl of food before they consider it a meal, there is whole roasted chicken, pasture fed beef sirloin or wood roasted fresh water crayfish for between R150.00 and R190.00. Service is fast, knowledgeable and unobtrusive – everything you’d expect from such a well respected Franschhoek institution.
Corner Berg & Wilhelmina Streets, Franschhoek
Open 7 days a week from 07h30 till late.
Phone: +27 21 876 8442