It’s an early evening in Franschhoek and you find yourself winding your way through the utterly majestic grounds of the Leeu Estate: the pristinely manicured lawns and rows of vineyards interspersed with an array of larger-than-life sculptures, the late summer sun has just began setting over the mountains and the valley is bathed in hues of pink and orange.
Here within this most spectacular of settings is where you find La Petite Colombe, and it’s hard to imagine that the experience inside the building could be anywhere near as impressive as that on the outside. Yet somehow, it is.
The “little” sister to Cape Town’s acclaimed La Colombe has comfortably found its feet and a flow of its own within its relatively new locale. It serves up a fine dining experience that while nodding to its part in the famed restaurant group, is mostly wholly its own.
Upon walking in guests are guided to a lounge area, where, after they have been handed glasses of bubbly, the first course arrives: snacks from the kitchen, a springbok tataki tartlet and a crayfish and ponzu mouthful — served atop a lime for a squeeze of acidity — the perfect accompaniment to the MCC. Once done, it’s time to head to the table in the main dining room.
The space is grand and cavernous, yet somehow also warm and welcoming: the soft glow of the lights, floor-to-ceiling windows, earthen textures of natural wood and stone coming together beautifully, seamlessly merging the beauty of the nature outside and the impressive design inside.
The back wall is covered in array of multisized and organically shaped wall niches filled with an assortment of pottery — from vases and vessels in every size to clay doves, a reference to the restaurant’s name — acting as a clever nod to a farm life while retaining the minimalist, chic interior.
Once guests are seated, a white ceramic oyster shell arrives, the delicate oyster inside featuring toppings including textures of apple, kalamansi and soy. A little bit sweet, a little bit salty, a little umami, a touch of acidity — it’s a seriously delicious explosion of flavours.
The Cape Malay smoked snoek and bagel is equally tasty. Served in a caviar tin, playfully what you assume is “caviar” at first sight are actually little Malay spheres covering the moreish pâté beneath it, the little pearls popping against your palate with every knife-full — to be thickly lathered onto the scrumptious bagel bun.
This is followed by the yellowfin tuna tataki, the seared slices of fish seasoned with Kerala spices and accompanied by fried cauliflower, avocado and textures of coconut. It’s a great dish and well balanced in terms of flavour, however it would’ve perhaps been more exciting had I not had a remarkably similar iteration of the dish at Franschhoek’s Protégé (another restaurant in the La Colombe group) for lunch. (The tragedy of the food critic. Sigh.)
Little mandarin sorbets then arrive in a nest, billowing smoke from the dry ice below delivering that signature La Colombe theatre. The sorbet is moulded into tiny versions of the fruit and covered in a mandarin gel. They provide for a sweet and refreshing break from the spices from the dish before, priming your palate for what’s to come.
The first of the mains is out next. Two pieces of citrus-cured salmon arrive on a little silver tray with a small metal dish filled with a substantial amount of oil. The chef explains that this method of cooking is called “confit” and we are to submerge the salmon in the oil. An hourglass is turned and after three minutes has lapsed the dish is removed to be plated up in the kitchen.
While the idea of interactive cooking and tableside theatrics certainly has it place, it remains to be seen that this was the best technique to showcase. Sure, the salmon when it arrived back at the table had been beautifully cooked and plated but there’s little appeal to seeing this technique in action.
Theatre aside, it was ultimately a superb dish, the now-cooked salmon topped with a stunning bacon sambal, a side of pea purée espuma and a delicate quail egg. It’s a dish of hefty flavour and it delivers.
The second and final main is the Karoo Wagyu, the perfectly cooked steak with its mosaic of marbling served with a braised short rib, smoked parsnip purée, chimichurri dressing, a twist on a pomme anna (here the thinly sliced and layered potatoes are deep fried) and a selection of local vegetables. It’s tasty in all the ways you’d want a meat dish to be, the tender, fatty yet delicate meat, the slightly salty, tasty jus, crispy potato and the sweet creaminess of the purée just working so well together.
Closing the meal is a cheese-lovers delight. Smoked Stanford cheddar is presented with a cheese crumble, candied pecan nuts and sherry-pickled onion to be enjoyed atop crispy shards of rye and buttermilk crackers. Earl Grey cake, strawberry mouse, geranium and strawberry sorbet with elements of almond and strawberry round off dessert.
That is until the The Tonka cart is wheeled into place. The Willy Wonka-inspired trolley is packed with a range of sweet treats from Tonka bars of fudge to little sugar cones filled with a selection of mousses, sorbets and ice creams. A fun, playful and lighthearted end to a fabulous meal.
Overall, it was a well-considered, well-executed and expertly delivered dining experience: beautiful food, exceptional service and all the culinary theatre one has come to expect from the La Colombe group, housed on one of Franschhoek’s most magnificent estates.