In one of his more well-known reflections, Marcel Proust mused in eloquent terms on how the taste of a humble madeleine might cause memory to reveal itself. I had a less profound but not entirely dissimilar experience on a recent visit to Daniel Leusch’s fine restaurant, La Madeleine.
I recalled the time when Pretoria used to be known as ‘snor city’ – so-named after the grey-shoed, ‘be-snorred’ civil servants who populated the inner city environs. Of course, they’ve long gone the way of severance packages and the South Coast and these days, you’re more likely to encounter less formally attired Nigerian traders on Church Square, selling baseball caps and more.
But in those grim days, if you looked further than the Wimpy in Hallmark building, there was always another component to the city centre, to be found down the arcades that led from the main thoroughfares. Pretoria had a sizeable diplomatic community down town, where a number of Continental cafés and restaurants offered the coffee, cheesecake and other comestibles that kept both emissaries and well–travelled locals in the style to which they had become accustomed. Some offered more substantial fare, one of these being La Madeleine, situated in Sunnyside, just to the east of the city centre. La Madeleine’s décor, ambience and menu had the capacity to transport you, at least for the duration of your meal, from Pretoria to Paris.
In 1999, La Madeleine joined the flight to the suburbs and relocated to Lynwood Ridge. Daniel Leusch remains in charge and as he has done for some three decades, he intones the evening’s menu in his inimitable accent, challenging the diner not only to remember each dish but to compose a meal from a list that makes choice difficult.
We went in a group of six to celebrate a birthday and were able to sample much of what was on offer that evening. (There is no written menu – the fare is determined by what’s fresh and available.) Aperitifs were offered and gratefully accepted – Bellinis, Kir royale and a French apple cider, dry and delicious.For starters, we chose the wild mushroom soup with truffle oil and shavings of foie gras (R65), the mussels in a light curry sauce (R49), the sea food risotto (R64), the crab bisque (R49) and the more adventurous foie gras crème brûlée with green apple sorbet. The whole array was excellent – top of the pops were the mussels, beautifully cooked and presented in the lightest of veloutés with just a hint of curry. The foie gras crème brûlée worked both in terms of taste and texture – the crisp sweetness of the topping combined well with the soft savoury custard, all offset by the light sourness of the green apple. The only disappointment was the cognac-infused crab bisque which was generous and rich but the subtlety of the crab was overwhelmed by over-salting.
Mains included medallions of springbok in a red wine and cranberry sauce (R130), duck a l’orange (R140), and a saltimbocca (R120). Other mains on offer were fresh salmon, kingklip and prawns. Winner in this category was the duck – the confit was presented with a few slices of breast, perfectly pink, all swathed in a mahogany-coloured but delicately flavoured citrus sauce. The veal in the saltimbocca was lined with prosciutto, cut on the diagonal and plated upright, served with a delicious courgette mousse. Three of our party ordered the springbok. It was the day after the rousing send-off given the Boks in their quest for Rugby World Cup glory, and we wondered whether it was appropriate and opportune to be eating springbok. (Note to self: are South Africans and the French the only folks who eat their national symbols?) National symbol or not, the meat was rosy, lean and tender, and the sauce a perfect complement.
Desserts (all R45) included a crème brûleé, a panna cotta with fresh strawberries and red berry coulis, a milk chocolate dessert and a honey ice cream. Winner was the panna cotta, served in a cocktail glass, just (i.e. perfectly) set, with the sharpness of the berries a pleasing contrast to the subtleness and delicacy of the cream.
The wine list is extensive and offers a range of local and imported wines. The service was excellent. The staff is welcoming, attentive and knowledgeable and as I’ve mentioned, the menu is recited at the table by the indefatigable master himself.
La Madeleine is classic and consistent, but obviously not afraid to push the boundaries every now and then. Worth a special journey, as they say in the Guide.
La Madelaine was reviewed by Like Father Like Son.