Melville's La Petite Maison: how much slack do we cut new restaurants?
This Johannesburg eatery seems popular with diners but, sadly, Sanet Oberholzer found it wanting
There is an unwritten rule in the restaurant review game that you go easy on restaurants for the first few weeks after they open to give them time to iron out the kinks. But where does one draw the line?
La Petite Maison, which opened its doors on January 16, is the newest addition to the restaurant offerings on Melville’s Seventh Street.
Co-head chefs and owners Timothy Stewart and Tyeya Ngxola set out to transform the space so diners could imagine they were in a small, cosy bistro in the South of France. Upon stepping into the restaurant, I was instantly reminded of the charm of Europe – they achieved what they set out to when it comes to the ambiance.
Details such as cobblestone floors, a gramophone player and a bright yellow velvety couch, which contrasted with the dark green and red of the walls and bottles of wine stacked around, make for a space that is not only appealing but intimate as well.
All this lead me to expect something great, however, what we experienced was not even good, in some cases.
The restaurant seats only 20 diners, which is a problem if bookings aren’t managed well. A group of four patrons were asked to move tables – after they had already been served – because they had been given a table for six and two women who had made a reservation weeks in advance needed somewhere to sit.
The menu is on the small side in terms of options, as are the portions but, if you have several dishes, you won’t be left wanting more.
“Our aim with the food is to recreate a locality around the primary ingredient for each dish. The four pillars of our cuisine are seasonality, rawness, regionality and history,” Stewart says.
However, all the food we tasted was extremely salty. This was true of the first dish I had, the beautifully coloured Atlantic squid and squid ink risotto with Cape Malay spiced prawns. The squid and prawns were beautifully crisp and smoky but this was forgotten at the discovery that the onions were burnt.
The ostrich tartare was better. It had a lovely pop of caviar and the micro herbs offered a fresh dimension to the dish.
We waited for more than an hour for our main course and a couple left after having waited for theirs for over two hours due to the effect of load shedding on the kitchen. The chefs apologised profusely for the delay.
I was excited for the forest duck with five spiced plums served with shimeji and shitake mushrooms and duck sauce but the very salty duck and its accompanying sauce overpowered the deliciousness of the plums, which were served with a bright red sauce that exploded with flavour.
The crackling of the pork belly was baked to perfection and the cherries and cauliflower sauce served on the side would have elevated this dish to another level of amazing were it not for the overpowering salt in the meat and the fact that half the portion consisted of fat.
When it came to dessert, the finesse of the plating didn’t mislead. The Ficksburg cherry and raspberry filled Guanaja chocolate sphere was absolutely beautiful, albeit slightly disappointing in the middle; the filling could have been more complex and less jam-like. The Coffee Bay traditional Italian tiramisu was the cherry on top – absolute dessert perfection.
After we had finished our meal we realised we hadn’t been served the promised complimentary mango and rum granita palate cleanser between our main course and dessert. To add to our dismay, our bill was a mess. Overcharging, wrong items … it took three attempts before we got one which was correct.
When I first sat down, I thought La Petite Maison might become one of my new favourite spots but the mistakes that were made were too many and too big to forget. It’s understandable that with load shedding added to the newness of the venue, things were bound to go wrong but that’s exactly when you should be on top of reservations and smooth service to make up for what the kitchen cannot. But for me, more attention will have to be given to the flaws in the menu.
I hope La Petite Maison will fix these problems with experience.