What does Franschhoek taste like? Is it the delicate fine dining of Le Quartier Français? The fresh salmon trout from Three Streams? Perhaps a Camembert from the town’s famous La Cotte Inn cheese shop.
If restaurants had terroir then I’d say it’s to be found at the top of town, in a kitchen where you’re as likely to find a basket of pine needles and freshly picked ferns alongside a fillet of yellowtail. Where you’ll never see a boring old button mushroom when the nearby forests are filled with pine rings and slippery jacks. But if the pantry seems wild, the dishes on offer at the appropriately-named Foliage are anything but.
After years at the acclaimed Pierneef à La Motte, Chris Erasmus is a household name in Franschhoek, and this – the first restaurant he can call his own – is a liberation of sorts. The beard is longer, the gumboots muddier and the menu more adventurous.
“La Motte was amazing, and I had a lot of freedom there, but it was all within the guidelines of Cape Winelands Cuisine,” says Chris. “At Foliage, anything goes and we build the menu around what’s growing now, what’s available, and we play with that. Working for myself I get inspired by everything around me.”
Much of that inspiration comes from Erasmus’ ‘field-to-fork’ ethos. The backbone of the menu is what can be foraged from the surrounding hills, and it’s a rare morning that he’s not out on his scooter, collecting basket strapped to the back, in search of the day’s ingredients.
Acorns are gathered and leeched in water to remove the poisonous tannins, then dehydrated and ground down for flour: “It’s extremely tasty and has great gluten structure,” says Erasmus.
Wild mushrooms are collected from the pine forests that frame the valley, and the needles are picked young and tender: “You’d expect them to have a bitterness to them, but they have such a beautiful forest floor flavour,” adds the bearded chef.
When a pork rib needs to be smoked, an oak branch is cut down and soaked. Fiddlehead ferns are picked from high up on the wine farm Chamonix: “The fiddlehead has a lovely walnut taste, complete with touch of bitterness. We’re going to create a ‘Waldorf’ salad with wild pear and fiddlehead fern,” he explains.
Despite the unfamiliar ingredients, there’s more to Foliage than mere novelty. At its heart this is a bistro, offering comfort dishes with bold flavours and simple, if sometimes unconventional, ingredients. Although the plates are complex and adventurous, the compact menu of three or four options per course is by no means pretentious.
A risotto of wild mushrooms and local bacon is rich and flavoursome, lightened by beetroot-infused labneh. Steak tartar is given an extreme makeover into a Malay-style dish of aromatic spice and zingy peach atjar. Pan-fried yellowtail arrives with local waterblommetjies and a pesto of dandelion and pumpkin seeds.
The cosy setting complements the bistro menu: a large hearth, exposed wooden beams and stylish tables upcycled from old packing crates. Wooden bread bowls – the breads are made daily in the kitchen – and organic ceramic plates add to the rustic yet upmarket feel.
A well-chosen wine list offers an interesting selection of mostly-local estates, but do try the craft beers Erasmus and Rob Armstrong, winemaker at Haut Espoir, dream up. Brews infused with anysboegoe, pine needles, and local suikerbossie protea are all in the pipeline.
It’s not for everyone, and a request for fillet and chips will be met with a polite referral down the street, but walk in with an adventurous palate and healthy appetite and Foliage is bound to impress.
11 Huguenot Street, Franschhoek
021 876 2328
To drink: Whichever beer Chris and Rob have brewed up. Right now it’s Mushroom Chocolate Stout.
Standout dish/item: Anything with the Fiddlehead ferns in. The soup of Jerusalem artichokes and pine needles, for instance.
For gluttons: You’ve never had steak tartar like this before.
Chef/owner present: When he’s not out foraging, he’s behind the pass.
Prices: Starters R70, Mains R120