REUBEN Riffel has travelled a long way from his
wrong-side-of-the-tracks Franschhoek beginnings to his position at the helm of a very highbrow restaurant at one of the Mother City’s most luxurious hotels.
The winelands food hero took over the premises of the former Maze, Gordon Ramsay’s shortlived grill room at Sol Kerzner’s One & Only at the V&A Waterfront, last last year, and six months into his tenure the venue is serving food deserving of the highest superlatives.
I had expected the venue to have changed a bit more, but it is clear that this vast space was decorated at great expense and it is good to see an exception to the strange rule that normally seems to apply to restaurant refurbishments. More often than not, perfectly good decor and fittings are ripped out on a whim when a new management takes over. And I happen to think the decor put in place for Maze is rather grand, in a retro Seventies kind of way, with its giant lampshades uspended from the double-volume ceiling, and the geometric carpet in shades of brown and ochre that some like to carp about but which makes a strong underfoot impression.
But there are two key Reuben touches – a long strip of photographs of the chef at work as a mural behind the wall separating the dining room from the enormous kitchen, and the man’s signature logo embedded in resin in the wooden table tops. I had hoped that the chairs would have been graced with his signature oxblood upholstery, but I suppose the powers that be must have thought hat would have been an expense too
far. If so, that’s a pity.
But no matter, because regardless of how you decorate a restaurant, or how much money you lavish (or waste) on it, it really is what is on the plate and on the palate that counts. And this man is cooking. Really cooking. The man’s food is hot. Searing. And it would be good
to see him honoured once more in the top 10, at least, when the national restaurant awards come around again later this year.
Let’s just say that Reuben Riffel’s fame and status are not based on nothing. On the contrary. They are based on the very fine skill he has develped over the years, and this means not only skill behind a wooden spoon or a rolling pin, but his ability to create a fabulous menu that is beautifully balanced and top-drawer, without falling into the traps of pretentiousness or showing off. Reuben is too modest for such crassness. For my personal taste, this is precisely the right approach and mix – damn fine food, and no BS. I fear, though, that the Perfumed Princesses of Posh Galore might prefer something somewhat more draped and nestled.
Not that presentation is not gorgeous. The dishes have good looks to match the quality of the ingredients, the skill of the cooking and the magic of the sauces. But this is honest, sensible presentation, not over-orchestrated attrempts to create a Picasso or a Pierneeff on the plate.
Reubens is found to the left, and upstairs, of the Vista bar which graces the central foyer of the hotel, to the right of which is Nobu, a restaurant which you must try if in any way you take your dining out seriously in the Mother City. Nobu’s reputation is another that is not
built on nothing. But Reubens can hold its own with pride even in that esteemed company and, without wishing to be patronising, that is something we should be seriously proud of.
Fussed over by five-star waiter and sommelier service, it seemed to me that this incarnation of Reuben’s franchise could hold its own in any world culinary capital. What am I saying? Cape Town is very much on the world culinary map, and this restaurant is undoubtedly among the finest the city has to offer.
There was plenty that I had wanted to try, but you can ony order what you can manage, so I had to steel myself to say no to the temptation of Gruyere-topped onion soup. But I was not able to resist the chicken liver foie gras parfait which was served with brandy-soaked prunes and delectable brioche. This was a perfect marriage of the finest, silkiest pate with all the depth and nuance of flavour of a duck pate de foie gras, yet it was chicken liver, the sweet alcoholic punch of the brandied prunes and that perfect brioche. If you appreciate your duck or chicken liver pate as much as I do, you’ll want to try this one.
Different, but as impressive, were the fresh mozzarella salad with tomato poached in olive oil, aubergine, artichoke and rocket; and the impeccable tart of blue cheese, marscarpone and onion.
Other starters which had tempted us include the chilli salted squid, ‘seafood tastes raw’ (cured and smoked oysters, vichysoisse mousse, salmon trout tartare, leek puree, scallop, black truffle tartare, curry fish pickle), crispy duck confit salad, and grilled soya-ginger cured quail. I suppose, here, I should acknowledge that I am perhaps a tad influenced by the fact that Reuben cooks a lot of the things that I love, inluding flavourings such as ginger – well used – and the use
of cheese as a savoury ingredient, rather than as the centrepiece of a dish.
Soy-braised pork belly is a signature dish at all three of Reuben’s restaurants – this one, the original in Franschhoek, and the smaller one at the boutique Robertson Hotel. Deservingly so. The ginger and chilli make a caramel, and pork belly just loves sweet and sticky.
There’s crisp crackling too, the fatness had been cooked away, leaving only its unctuous essences behind, and the shiitake mushrooms were the just-so sidelong glance. Also impressive, if simpler, was subtly-spiced Cape Malay chicken and prawn curry.
As there was at Maze, there is a grills section too, where they sizzle everything from kingklip or Mozambican prawns to seafood platters for one or two (dramatically served on a cascading skewer), a New York-style sirloin, Namaqua lamb chops, and a thick-cut Chalmar steak which made my daughter very happy.
Classy side orders include Parmedan frites, vanilla-honey carrots, garlic beans with almonds, creamed baby spinach, and beautifully truffled mashed potato with creme fraiche.
A good way for a visitor to the city to end their meal would be with the mini platter of Cape dessert favourites. This includes a little Hertzoggie coconut cake, a sliver of milk tart, a date slice, coconut koeksister and rooibos tea ice-cream. But I loved the grand-looking chocolate peppermint crisp which includes hazelnut praline, a gorgeously chocolatey centre and peppermint crisp shards as decoration.
But perhaps I am throwing too much praise Reuben’s way here, because the head chef in the kitchen on the night we were there was Maritz Jacobs, who quite clearly is a superb chef in his own right, given the impeccably high standfards with which he executed Riffel’s menu. All that, and not a Robertson spice jar in sight.
Reuben’s, One&Only Hotel, V&A Waterfront, Cape Town
021 431 5222 / 4511