I have been to Grande Provence many times, yet have not written a review of their dinner, but have written about their High Tea,  and Chef Darren Roberts’ visit to Hong Kong late last year.   A pre-Valentine’s Day dinner on Sunday evening was a very special treat, not just in terms of the quality of the food served, but also because of the service, the beautiful interior, and extreme friendliness.

It started when Food & Beverage Manager Donovan Dreyer came towards us as we walked to the restaurant from the parking area, to welcome us.   He had called earlier in the day, to confirm the reservation, and had apologised for not being there, as he had the evening off.  He seated us, introduced us to our waitress Shasta, and was most helpful in printing the menu for me.   He then went off, after sending two glasses of sparkling wine to the table, with the compliments of Grande Provence.

Since 2005 Grande Provence (previously belonging to Count Augusta) has belonged to a Dutch consortium called The Huka Retreats, under the management of Alex van Heeren, and they also own Huka Lodge in New Zealand (usually on the Top 100 world accommodation lists) and the privately owned Dolphin Island in Fiji.  The business card describes the positioning of the company to be :”Intimate . Sensual . Elegant”.  Grande Provence supports good causes, and its highlight is the annual fundraising lunch prepared in honour of the Multiple Sclerosis Society, sponsored in its entirety by Grande Provence.  This year it will be held on 29 May, and Grande Provence Chef Darren Roberts, his Huka Lodge counterpart Michel Louws, Rudi Liebenberg of the Mount Nelson Hotel, Gregory Czarnecki of Waterkloof and Roland Gorgosilich of the Grande Roche will each prepare one of the five courses.   I have attended two of these outstanding lunches in the past.

Chef Darren has worked as a Pastry Chef at L’Heiner Konditorei in Vienna, as well as in London, Johannesburg, Melbourne and the Seychelles.  Before joining Grande Provence last year, he worked at Farncourt Hotel, and he has been a restaurant consultant.   He always makes time to come out of his kitchen to say hello.

Similarly to Delaire Graff and Glen Carlou, Grande Provence invests in art and also has an art gallery, with regularly changing exhibitions.   I love the interior decor of Grande Provence, and Virginia Fisher is the decorator to the group of properties, and is based in New Zealand.  The tasting room has a counter made from industrial steel, and the bar chairs are the cleverest I have ever seen on a wine estate, with a tractor seat, surprisingly comfortable to sit on.   In the restaurant, she used industrial steel tables, and blue chairs in the two outside rows, and the finest white leather high-back chairs in the central row.   The restaurant has a fireplace too, and is lit, even on some nights when it does not seem necessary.  The table has linen runners in white with blue stripes, which look a little like fancy drying cloths.  The wooden salt and pepper grinders look ordinary and out of place with the silver theme (same criticism as at Glen Carlou), given the stature of and price one pays for a meal at Grande Provence.  Two sets of cutlery are laid, and the glassware is excellent.  Each table has a silver side table (more attractive than the wooden ‘handbag tables’ at Mange Tout) on which the ice bucket and the water jug go, leaving the table free for the really important reason for being there, being the food!  Staff wear black ‘GP’ branded shirts, and black pants, with a grey apron. I was happy to see that the denim staff clothing has been done away with. 

The menu is in a holder made from the same fine white leather, as is the winelist.   One must have a minimum of three courses, costing R295, four courses cost R380, and five courses R 450.   Once again, a three course meal is more than adequate, as one receives an amuse bouche as well as a palate cleanser too, adding a further two courses.  While the courses listed are identifiable as starters, mains and desserts, one may choose any three on the menu, and in any order, even if one has the dessert first!  Unusual is the bold red note on the menu that one should advise the waitrons if one would like breaks between courses.  We absolutely loved the mini wholewheat loaf that was served in small slices, containing pieces of fruit, and topped with poppy and sesame seeds.    It is sold in the tasting room, and costs R15 a loaf.   An amuse bouche was brought to the table, being a mushroom tart with mushroom puree, similar to a quiche, and placed on top of the most crispy fried parma ham, and hidden under basil leaves when served.  I was impressed with how warm the plates were when they were brought from the kitchen, and I cannot recall when last I experienced a hot plate on my restaurant visits.  My starter of Tempura langoustine tail, blackened corn and tomato was brought to the table in a soup plate, and the sweet-tasting sweetcorn velouté was poured into the plate by a waiter at the table, with much more style than we had experienced at the new Planet Restaurant at the Mount Nelson Hotel.  The tempura batter was very light and not very crispy.   My partner had ordered a Green Pea and Shimeji mushroom ravioli, which he enjoyed, but felt it to be salty.  Other starters are Tom Yum prawn risotto, caramelised eel and foie gras terrine, rillettes of duck, pork and rabbit, quail, Stilton and curried pear tartlet, carpaccio of beetroot, and duck prosciutto.  A palate cleanser of plum sorbet and lemon compote was a surprise course. 

I loved the juicy Tagine of duck, served with green olives, dates, pistachio nuts, sweetcorn polenta and walnut arancini (with a R25 surcharge).   I missed Chef Darren’s colourful plating touch, as the plate only had shades of brown on it.   My partner’s Asian braised pork belly, by contrast, had colour appeal, with oranges creating a colour contrast, and was served with tatsoi, roasted onion infused mashed potato, and a hazelnut and apple crumble.  Further main courses to choose from include Baby chicken, hake, beef fillet with lobster tail, springbok and Karoo lamb neck.  Donovan had told me that the most popular dishes ordered are the Grande Provence Seafood Selection, with his own special XO broth that Chef Darren came back with from Hong Kong last year, and crème brûlée served with a strawberry salsa, and a refreshing strawberry and mint sorbet served on a spoon, which was my dessert choice.  The brûlée was soft and creamy.  My partner chose the Prince Albert Regal cheese, served with brioche and olives.  Other dessert options are chocolate calzone, summer fruit jelly and a chocolate tart.

The winelist has mainly Grande Provence (including Angel Tears) wines, and the wine prices are roughly 50 % of cost of sales, influenced by availability and awards won.   We were impressed with the generous wine quantity poured by the glass.  My reaction to the chilled (17°C) 2007 Shiraz was picked up by the waitress, and she came back with a bottle at room temperature, and allowed me to taste that one as well, and I far preferred the non-chilled glassful.  The paper in the wine list we were given seemed heavily used.   Innovative was the first page listing of all the awards that the Grande Provence wines have won.   Wines by the glass include the Grande Provence Chardonnay (R56/R180), Sauvignon Blanc (R46/R160), Viognier and Chenin Blanc blend (R42/R140), Cabernet Sauvignon  and Shiraz (both R55/R190), Pinot Noir (R60/R230) as well as Angel Tears Sauvignon Blanc (R22/R80), White (R20/R70), Red (R22/R80), Pink (R20/R70) and Blanc de Blanc MCC (R45/R200), very affordable prices.  The Grande Provence, the wine estate’s flagship wine, costs R700.  Pongracz (R185), Pierre Jourdan Belle Rosé (R44/210), Piper Heidsiek (720) and Billecart Salmon Brut Rosé (R1500) are also available.

Donovan proudly told me about the new Rosetta imported coffee range that they will be introducing soon.   Grande Provence guests will be able to order their coffee made from beans of the origin of their choice, much as one can order a type of tea.  Beans will be available from Papua New Guinea, two options from Ethiopia, Panama, Brazil, and Indonesia. The Illy coffees will remain the baseline coffee at Grande Provence.

Grande Provence has been an Eat Out Top 10 restaurant, its previous chefs Peter Tempelhoff and Jacques de Jager having been awarded this accolade.  I am convinced that Chef Darren can achieve the same, and have found him to be one of the most creative platers and food designers, especially as far his desserts go.  I felt disappointed that our dinner did not reflect enough of this talent, which I have seen on so many previous occasions, and I told Chef Darren so when he came to say hello.  Our waitress was good and attentive, but I was annoyed when she interrupted a heated discussion between my partner and I, just to ask our permission to serve the next course, an odd touch, as one is normally in the hands of the chef as far as serving timing goes. A sign of the professionalism of Grande Provence, and of F&B Manager Donovan, was his call the following day, to check if everything had been to our satisfaction, proactively requesting feedback.  It is this care and friendliness that makes me go back to Grande Provence over and over again.

Restaurant at Grande Provence, Main Road/R45, Franschhoek.  Tel (021) 876-8600.  www.grandeprovence.co.za. (The website contains the menu, a profile of Chef Darren, and a description of the restaurant interior.  Disappointingly there is no Image Gallery to display Chef Darren’s beautiful dishes).  Monday – Sunday lunch and dinner.

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