Finally my desire to get back to Foliage was met. The delay was not for a want of trying. The restaurants of Franschhoek seem to keep very parsimonious hours in winter and my last three attempts had met with “closed” or “closed for lunch” signs, even when the smoker machine on the side-walk was hot and lazily puffing wafts of aromatic fug into the blue.
But now, on a warm Saturday closer to season, Foliage was open and trading pretty briskly. The smoker has also been busy, I notice now that its black metal wheels have, over time, melted into the asphalt. And the evidence of its work is all over the current menu, which is replete with smoked, charred and BBQ items.
The main reason I was so keen to get back here was to re-examine chef Chris Erasmus’ focus on South African ingredients and flavours, notwithstanding his more social media-marketed interest in hunting – both fauna (the bow his chosen weapon) and local flora (foraging, especially the wild sprouts and leaves of the farm valleys around him). In my view, very few chefs offer much more than lip service to local flavours and food directions, but Erasmus has been a welcome exception in the past.
Service was good, for a place that had just been hit by what was clearly a mini-tsunami of a lunch, with foreign visitors strolling off the sidewalk and asking for tables in waves. The walk-in feel of the place is aided by its French doors that open to the pavement and the many tables that are arranged most convivially onto the street. Inside, the artsy space with its bold exhibition pieces is offset by raw brick and wood tones and the centrepiece is the open kitchen.
Wine and water was quickly served (it’s always a welcome sign that a busy restaurant knows to get something to the table quickly) but not bread in this instance – here you need to order this separately as a “bread selection, beef lard & pickled aubergine”.
Around five starters were on the menu, of which three were either charred (beetroot), smoked (a “cheesecake”) or BBQ (pork terrine). A “warm sweet potato, aubergine and kale roulade, raw root vegetable and sprout tartar, herb kombucha” was a vegan option that illustrates the chef’s interest in new (but ancient) directions. The BBQ pork listed its provenance (Glen Oaks) and was served with pear chutney and roosterkoek – both very South African touches.
The charred beetroot was atop a celeriac, wild mustard and nasturtium remoulade with a “forest salad” and 20-year old vinegar, and it proved a delicious plate with fresh texture and zingy flavour. Even the only odd-looking element on the plate turned out to be interesting: tiny black flecks of charred beet skins. Probably a little too much of it though, as these were so crunchy as to read as gritty to the bite.
Mains ran a list of six, again half of which were BBQ – the chicken “rotollo”, the (Spier) beef brisket, and the pork leg “skilpadjie” with pork neck (also BBQ). “Skilpadjies” are usually parcels of minced offal wrapped in caul which are traditionally “braaied” or BBQ-ed on the coals, so this dish is as South African as it gets, even if the restaurant did not push the boat out by using offal. Other modern/international ideas included sesame and seaweed crusted trout and the use of pickled vegetables; but the chicken “rotollo” had the ingredients and flavours that interested me most.
The rolled chicken was tasty enough, but in the true spirit of this fowl, played the role of protein carrier for the other flavours and textures on the plate, of which there were quite a few. The menu read: “BBQ chicken rotollo, open ravioli of sweetcorn & forest mushrooms, naartjie, prickly pear & buchu velouté”. The vibrant rosé colour was from the prickly pear-foamed velouté and its fruity and rather sweet notes were balanced by the tart medicinal bite of the buchu (a small plant native only to the Cape mountains with powerfully-flavoured leaves). The chicken was placed atop a spinach leaf which was the alleged “ravioli” – a real stretch of definition but easily forgiven in the face of this whimsical and interesting plate. Where else could one dine on flavours like the citrus of a “naartjie” (clementine), along with buchu, prickly pear (cactus) and the tart leaves of “suring” (wood sorrel) – all of which are very much of Cape-origin?
For dessert, of the choice of four, I again paid obeisance to the smoker in choosing the “hot-smoked raw apples, olive oil, coconut & buchu “butterscotch”, cashew nut cheese, basil, berries”. Someone must have forgotten about the glazed popcorn that was a very prominent part of the dessert. Overall, the plate was ironically marred more than aided by the headlining apples. “Hot-smoked” does not read very well on raw apple it transpires, and the fruit certainly needed some softening or charring or caramelisation to blend in. The apples were rather taciturn lumps of hardness, fighting the fork and knife when the rest of the plate was all about surrender.
Foliage remains both an interesting and satisfying dining experience and offers food that travels miles beyond most South African restaurants in terms of fusing contemporary directions with home-grown ingredients and flavours. The current menu may be pushing BBQ too hard, but then again, coals and fire and smoke are South Africa’s favourite cooking methods. Overall, there’s a real and welcome sense of adventure here (even if it’s “shaggy” at times) and returning is a happy prospect, especially in these “open to business” months ahead.
Main Road, Franschhoek
021 876 2328