Food24 eats at... Le Soufflé
There are apparently one or two nice people who live in Fourways, the suburb that lies to the north of Johannesburg on what used to be a family residence and game farm. (The family home, Norscot Manor, is still to be seen). Nowadays, Fourways is more Basic Up Market Socialite, the BUMS of Billy the BUMS, more about which follows. Its icons include the Hyundai balloon, more shopping malls per square kilometer than any other suburb in the city of Johannesburg, and more taxis and informal traders per running kilometer than most. And let’s not forget the suburb’s magnet, that monument to tawdriness, the faux Tuscan Montecasino.
Cuisine reflects culture
As it always does, the local cuisine reflects the cultural landscape. The suburb seems to have positioned itself as the home to countless franchised food outlets and drinking holes. Montecasino alone offers more than 40 options, most of them best avoided. For the authentic Fourways experience, head off the Pineslopes Shopping Centre and Billy the BUMS not only to ‘bump up your social calendar’, but also for an ‘insatiable way to spend an evening’ (their words, not mine). On offer is ‘American-style cuisine’ (read: burgers and BBQ wings), beer, classic and exotic drinks, not forgetting what can only be the nauseating Billy’s Big Behemoth Bowl, a combination of most white spirits you can think of, lime cordial and lemonade.
Opposite Billy the BUMS is the single enclave in this land of the Philistines where indisputably authentic fare is on offer, at a reasonable price. Le Soufflé is small and unpretentious French bistro/brasserie, run by Marc Guebert, one of the few remaining chefs of the forgotten days of fine dining in Johannesburg. Believe it or not, there were, once upon a time, in this city, a number of restaurants that offered classic cuisine and silver service. These included Guebert’s Ile de France. Why these establishments no longer exist is a debate for another day, but with a prescience that has obviously served him well more than once, Guebert downscaled to Bistro 277, offering authentic French fare in Cramerville, before opening Le Soufflé. The original idea, it seems, was to offer daytime fare to the book club ladies, but the restaurant now offers breakfast and lunch, and on Tuesday to Saturday nights, an informal dinner.
The décor has elements of the bistro look – red and white checked table cloths, prints, mirrors, a collection of cookbooks, all contrasted with the more utilitarian face brick finish and rough flooring. Two other tables within earshot were occupied by French-speaking patrons – this augured well. Most others were of what the French call d’un certain âge, suggesting a following of sorts from bygone days.
The menu is mainly French bistro, but with concessions to the ordinary in the form of a Thai curry and beef or chicken stir fry. Also on offer is a variety of pies, including a duck and cherry pie (think Gatrile’s, La Bastille and 96 Winery Road). Best offerings for mains come from the chalkboard menu – cassoulet, duck confit, duck breast, bouillabaisse, ox tail, bream and tripe. And then of course there are the soufflés, savoury (three cheese and hazelnuts, asparagus and shrimps) or sweet (coffee and Kahlua, chocolate, vanilla and more).
We booked for an early, pre-concert dinner. First impressions weren’t overwhelming – despite a booking, there was some uncertainty as to which table was ours, and we were offered a not-yet-set table underneath the intrusive TV screen (OK, it was the Boks vs. All Blacks game, but we had written off the rugby in the pursuit of higher level ambitions) before being moved to something more suitable.
To start, we ordered the tranche of French pâté (R52) and the Parisian gratinated onion soup (R42.50). The pâté was a spartan country-style offering, with none of the luxuries one might expect at the price – the odd pistachio, or a sliver of rabbit or duck breast. The accompanying Melba toast was bought- in, but the green salad and traditional cornichons made for a pleasing enough dish. The onion soup was topped with a generously-endowed gruyère crouton, with just the right shade of mahogany underneath.
For mains, I chose the duck confit, every bit as confit should be- fall-off-the-bone- tender, and in this case unusually but agreeably topped with a variety of pan-fried mushrooms. The Little Woman chose the duck and cherry pie, presented in its own dish, with mash and vegetables on the plate. The balance between the savoury duck and the sweetness of the cherries was just right, all of it off-set by the generous topping of golden puff pastry.
For dessert, I could not resist the soufflé Grand Marnier (R60), Guebert’s signature dish. So widely acknowledged is he as the master of this particular offering that when the late great Kitchenboy reviewed Ile de France on Radio 702 and broadcast the recipe, it caused an unprecedented demand on the station’s switchboard. The recipe is reproduced in Kitchenboy’s Provocative Cuisine, possibly the only cookbook to carry a self-imposed parental advisory. My soufflé was everything that one could expect from someone whose has churned out hundreds of thousands of soufflés over some four decades. It was nothing short of perfect.
Espressos rounded off a meal worth the trip. Outside, the barbarians spilled over into the parking lot outside Billy the BUMS; wasted, in all senses of the word.
Le Soufflé was reviewed by Like Father Like Son.