Chefs shake things up in the Franschhoek food valley
It’s called Ōku, Japanese for ‘oak’, and it brings a touch of Japan to the village’s main drag. But there’s way more going on than that.
Let’s break it down first. Ōku Asian Eatery is in Huguenot Road – the main road through Franschhoek – at the monument end. It’s a joint venture between Darren Badenhorst and Ryan Shell. It’s where Epice, part of the La Colombe group, used to be. Ōku is Japanese for “oak tree”.
Epice has moved diagonally across the road to where La Petite Colombe used to be, and is set to reopen at the end of November 2020. La Petite Colombe has moved to Leeu Estates. There too is Le chêne, which is French for “oak tree”. Ōku and Le chêne are owned by Badenhorst, who also owns Le coin Français, about two blocks down from Ōku. He’s also taken over Tuk Tuk across from Ōku. Oh, and Protégé, the third restaurant in the La Colombe group, stays where it is at Le Quartier Francais.
The final piece in the puzzle is Yama Sushi Emporium, due to open in December 2020; Yama is Japanese for “mountain”, also the baby of Badenhorst and Shell, both of whom have done time as chefs on Franschhoek wine estates: Grande Provence and Haute Cabrière respectively.
Are you keeping up? It’s okay if you aren’t. It will get easier, I promise. The thread that ties all this together is Leeu Collection, a hospitality portfolio that includes partnerships with Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines and Everard Read Franschhoek. Badenhorst’s existing relationship with the collection was instrumental in the securing of the premises for Ōku, and together with Yama, it’s another sign that the restaurant industry is on the road to recovery. Some that closed during lockdown have managed to reopen, slowly but surely, and we’re hearing about new places every week. It’s an enormous relief, for them and for us, the diners. Ōku in particular has been well received since it began trading on October 14, 2020. Fun fact: Le coin Français opened on October 14, 2017 and Le chêne on October 14, 2019. The first two were a happy coincidence, and the third was a choice between Wednesday and Friday, and Wednesday looked better. It was definitely a good fit.
To the untrained eye, the new restaurants appear to be springing up out of nowhere, and really fast. Truth is, most of them have been in planning stages for months, even years, as in the case of Ōku.
With all the recent events – gestures vaguely at the year – Shell said restaurants now are not so much about what they’re good at, but meeting the requirements of customers.
“That really was the discussion for Ōku – what is not in Franschhoek? – and there’s no Asian stuff here at all. The real joke is that we’ve basically created a restaurant for ourselves. We have to drive all the way to Stellenbosch or town to get a bao, why can we not just get one here?”
It was partially that, and partially a few beers on a beach in Indonesia early in the morning, back in 2014 or 2015, saying opening an Asian restaurant together is a great idea. Shell had just finished at Haute Cabrière, and after his last day on the farm he popped in at Grande Provence to say “cheers buddy I’ll see you around” to Badenhorst.
“And he was like ‘I wish you had some time because next week I’m going to Bali’,” laughed Shell.
They ended up in the Gili Islands, spearfishing, something at which Badenhorst is pretty proficient – good enough to take a bet with the local fisherman, who were bragging they were the best, that if the heroes of our story caught the biggest fish, they would cook it for them. There was a fire, and some beers, and thus the idea began to take shape, as these things do.
“So we’ve been toying with this idea for years,” said Shell. “We looked at numerous properties, some of them we even signed a lease.”
During lockdown, Shell and Badenhorst found themselves working alongside each other, feeding the community, and they began talking about finding a little building, knocking a hole in the wall, and serving dim sum through it to chairs and tables outside, with beer.
“Then this became available. Darren’s connection with Leeu Collection is how we got from there to here,” said Shell.
It was all about timing and waiting for the perfect position; when it’s right, you know. “When I opened Le coin Francais, I looked at 20 properties. It was the same here. It’s sad the timing is what it was but it was great for us, and it was a quick process from then on,” said Badenhorst.
Taking over the space involved a dramatic change to open it up and lighten it. The minimalism creates a calm and natural environment and along with the music, and the Bonsai trees against raw brick walls, every element complements Shell’s food.
The Leeu connection comes into play again with the bold artworks on the wall, courtesy of Everard Read.
“We have not stopped talking about how those guys have genuinely looked after us. The empathy they have is just phenomenal,” said Shell.
When I visited, Ōku had been open just over two weeks, and Shell said the response had exceeded all expectations. At that time, there had been only one service – lunch and dinner – which had not been full, with two tables open.
“It’s testament to the fact Franschhoek has been so hungry for Asian food,” said Badenhorst. “I’ve opened many restaurants in Franschhoek and through communication I can gauge how excited they are. I have never seen a reception such as this.”
Added Shell: “For me, something Covid-19 gave us was the time to find our people. How did we want our guys to act, who were the right people to work for us? So I spent an intensive amount of time interviewing for the 12 people out of the almost 200 who applied. We found them and it’s starting to come together. That’s been the most impressive thing for me.”
By now you must surely be wondering about the food, and if it matches up to all this hype. Spoiler: it does.
The menu has been designed so as not to be too restrictive, but to offer patrons the opportunity to create their own multi-course dining experience. A traditional multi-course Japanese dinner is a kaiseki, set with no choices. “If we had done that I don’t think we would have had this reception,” said Shell.
“There’s an ability to do that style if you want to, but you can pick and choose and there are about 45 items on the menu.”
First, the drinks. The wine list is faithful to the region and the Leeu associated wines, but Shell said they want sake to start to become the star. “For us, it is something that is underutilised. We did our research and found the eight best ones we could.”
Here you’ll be able to taste the locally made Tanuki sake, which you can read about here.
The menu begins with zensai, which Shell described as Japanese “tapas”, with lots of little bits, lots of sharing, and lots of tasting. “We bring condiments which allow you taste with this, taste with that.” The four bowls contain soy sauce, Ōku’s Asian dressing, kimchi, and fermented black bean chilli paste.
Under this section of the menu you’ll find edamame beans; roasted cashew nuts with honey, chilli and seven spice; tuna tataki with avocado and kumquat; crispy Szechuan squid with Kewpie mayonnaise; and delicate salmon sashimi with avocado and wasabi mousse.
Next are the dumplings, or dim sum. “The cauliflower is probably my favourite,” said Shell. “I love it,” chimed in Badenhorst. It’s steamed with kimchi, soy and citrus. Something I often find stodgy and heavy, the dumplings here are not. “The menu has been structured so you can manage to try as much as possible, so you can’t have really heavy courses,” said Badenhorst.
Fillings include prawn in pan fried gyoza, with daikon, teriyaki and sesame; steamed wonton with chicken, cabbage, chestnut and lime; and steamed dim sum with wagyu, shiitake and togarashi.
If you’re into ordering multiple small courses, there’s still more: broths like miso with tofu, onion, bonito, coriander, and soba noodles; and beef shin with edamame, egg noodle, ginger, and chilli paste. “Miso is my favourite although I’m also a big tom yum fan,” said Shell. “We were trying to convince Darren and it wasn’t working until he tasted it and said it was the best he’s ever had. So I’m pretty confident about that.”
Wait, we’re not done. There are poke bowls and sumptuous silky bao too. The people are “going nuts” for the smoked pork with slaw and Kewpie mayonnaise. I can definitely recommend this, and second the opinion.
The locals are quite traditional in that they want to be able to have a three course meal, noted Badenhorst, so any dish from the above could be a starter.
Finally, we’re onto the main courses… aubergine and miso yellow curry with tofu; seared tuna with togarashi, daikon, lime, and dashi; red curry with white fish with miso, bok choi and plum, tempura prawns; soft shell crab; confit duck with turnip and black bean glaze; wagyu sirloin; and Korean-style chicken breast with kimchi and Shanghai emulsion. I have no idea what that is but it was delicious. Add sides like fried rice, steamed rice, soba noodles with spring onions, ponzu, pickled ginger, miso and egg yolk (this could be a light meal on its own, I’m sure), stir-fried vegetables, and broccoli with ponzu and roasted cashews.
Through some not very subtle hints, Shell suggested – planted the idea more like – I have the cheesecake for dessert, paired with Hakutsuru plum wine.
“Sometimes you do something and you get it right the first time and that’s great. Other times you’ve got to work at it. It took about five or six tries to even get it to where we wanted it to be. Now we’re 20 times in and when you open the oven door everyone looks in to see how it’s turned out,” said Shell.
The bottom line is, it’s getting better every time. Also, it’s not like any cheesecake you could possibly expect, and this time I’m not giving any spoilers. You too can have the delightful surprise I enjoyed.
Overall, the menu packs in plenty of vegan options (which are obviously also vegetarian), there are lots of gluten-free options, and barely a drop of dairy.
“We want it to be accessible to as many potential clients as possible, and staying true to what we know,” commented Badenhorst.
Behind Ōku there is a courtyard and some empty shop fronts. What’s going to happen out there, I wondered. Shell was quick to answer: Yama Sushi Emporium, which will be a casual hang out place, with retail space too. You’ll be able to buy frozen bao and dumplings to take home, for example.
“We will take over the whole courtyard, with a patio vibe – about 60 seats in total. We’re looking for a relaxed thing. If there’s such a thing as a sushi coffee shop, that’s what we’re aiming for. Come sit, order, eat, have a business meeting.”
While all this is going on, Badenhorst is running between Ōku, Le coin, and Tuk Tuk. Luckily they’re all close by. At the latter, he’s tweaked the interior slightly and changed the dynamic of the flow, he said. “It’s an interesting space, and a local favourite. You don’t want to change it too much but you need to obviously put your mark and personality on it. So from a functional and visual point of view, it’s similar.
“Food has been completely flipped on its head, however.”
Previously Mexican in style, it’s international with six countries (Mexico, Germany, India, Italy, UK and US) represented with five dishes each – four savoury and one sweet. The brewery is still on-site. “The drinks became quite a masculine offering, and people came more for the beer and maybe had food, so I’ve tried to turn that around with wines and a cocktail list,” said Badenhorst.
It appears the only problem with eating out in Franschhoek at the moment, is fitting it all in your belly. DM/TGIFood
Ōku is in Heritage Square, 9 Huguenot Road, Franschhoek. More info here.
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