Bertrand Cafe is a little piece of Paris in the Joburg CBD
The croissants are flown in from France especially for this enlightened corner of Africa
"Nothing would be more tiresome than eating and drinking if God had not made them a pleasure as well as a necessity." French writer Voltaire said that. He was a vegetarian as well as one of the leading thinkers of the Enlightenment, so he would have taken pleasure in Bertrand Cafe's mushroom bourguignon (R100) and burgers (R120) made with vegan protein patties from Beyond Meat - a concept that would have blown Voltaire's silk stockings off in the 1700s.
The furniture would also please Voltaire. Tables round and square march in rows along the pavement and all the chairs face the street, Paris-style. This is not customary in Joburg but it works in Maboneng, where people-watching is a pleasurable necessity.
If you prefer not to look at the multinational flow of pedestrians, the staff at Bertrand don't mind if you swing a chair around to face your companions. Or you could go inside, where Voltaire's portrait stares down from the ceiling, surrounded by pages which may or may not be from his own works. Someone with sharp eyes might be able to tell you, or maybe the owner will.
Bertrand Mampouya presided over the styling of his bistro. If the exterior reminds one of a Parisian cafe, the interior harks back to revolutionary coffee salons where writers, artists and scientists would gather to discuss how world orders could be broken down and rebuilt more closely to the mind's desire.
The back room is lined with couches arranged for friendly argument beneath the gaze of other champions of clear thought: Moliere, Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln and Leopold Sedar Senghor among them.
Mampouya's desire has long been to open his own restaurant. He was born in Republic of Congo (Congo-Brazzaville) but has lived in SA for more than 20 years, where his work in logistics has created close ties with France.
Diplomats, executives, exchange students and homesick Francophone emigres now come to Bertrand for conversation, coffee and actual French croissants (the puff pastry is made in Paris; the croissants are flown frozen and baked here).
Mampouya confesses that owning a restaurant while continuing to run his established business is like feeding a baby that is always hungry, but "hopefully when it is a year old this baby will walk on its own".
It helps that the cooking is done by Ayanda Khumalo, who earned chef stripes in demanding hotel kitchens.
Bertrand is open Monday to Sunday from early till late. By day it thrums with tourists and creative types (the wi-fi is as strong as the coffee). At night more leisurely diners partake in the necessary pleasures of eating, drinking and talking.
On the menu are breakfasts (R75-R120), steaks (R180-R200), fish of the day (R210), sandwiches (R65-R80) as well as dishes that combine French and African flavours, such as African pepper sauce aubergine curry (R100), smoked duck breast salad with fresh orange segments (R110) and "Memories of Moukalou" (R70), a vegan take on the traditional Congolese fish broth. Bertrand's version mixes potato chunks and green peas with coconut cream, spices and peanut paste.
Voltaire would be delighted.