Dawn Kennedy – Apr 25th, 12:31
How did pumpkin soup find its way onto a menu in the restaurant of Cape Town’s six-star hotel? It’s a kind of cheeky imposition. My dining companion, 021s editor Bernard Franz, hates soup from the squash family, and so I was surprised when he ordered the pumpkin soup with vanilla buchu and honey foam (R60). “Just curious,” he said. This Cinderella soup was all dressed up and ready to meet her prince charming. It arrived and sat Aphrodite-like, wafting an enticing, almost unnerving, sensual vanilla and honey aroma that almost interfered with my delight in the oysters (oh yes, delicious, always, and served with chopped onion soaked in a fynbos-infused vinegar – a new way to enjoy oysters). As Bernard lowered the spoon after his first mouthful, he got a glazed, faraway look in his eyes before declaring that Cape Malay would be the next worldwide trend in food. He justified his prediction, saying, “Cape Malay food blends Europe, Asia and Africa and so it tugs at a wide range of cultural heartstrings. And right now, Cape Town is an icon; we are in the eyes of the world.”
While my head wanted to follow this fascinating conversation about contemporary cooking being a reflection of the globalisation of our world, my senses kept pulling me back to the oh-my-goodness gorgeous blue cheese tart (R65) that was, for good reason, monopolising my attention.
After I had finished every crumb of that tart, I picked up the threads of our cooking-at-a-crossroads debate. Chinese writer Lin Yutang said, “What is patriotism but the love of the good things we ate in our childhood?” However, I think this is an oversimplification. We’re no longer satisfied with the comfort food of our childhood (especially when we are paying a hefty price tag for the privilege of eating it), but we want to embellish our childhoods, invest them with magic. Chefs are foraging for new ingredients, or finding new ways of using traditional ingredients. Cooking is at a crossroads, where cultures collide.
This is exactly what Reuben’s does. He takes the basics of Cape Malay food and jazzes it up with intense mix-and-match global flavours. Reuben Riffel is the chef who is hitting exactly the right button at the right time. It’s quite amazing and has to be tasted to be believed.
The pumpkin, soothingly familiar, yet enticingly exotic, set the tone for what turned out to be a most delicious eating experience. Three hours passed as each dish arrived with not a single glitch in texture, flavour or colour. Reuben’s signature starter is the chilli-salted squid with English mint, sweet chilli essence and creamy mayonnaise (R75). The coolness of the mint and cucumber provide a daringly startling contrast to the deep-fried chewiness of the squid.
Wanting to explore the vegetarian options, and greedy to experience everything on offer, we squeezed in a goat’s cheese ravioli (R100) with olives, tomato, English spinach, toasted pine nuts and asiago between starters and mains. The cheese-plump ravioli was surrounded by a rich assortment of flavors; each mouthful offered a different taste experience.
For the main course, Bernard’s ostrich fillet (R185) with sesame broccoli, miso-marinated mushrooms, spiced carrot puree and teriyaki jus was thick and succulent enough to silence him on the topic of culinary trends. My kingklip (R140) with lemon-butter cream and tomato-and-lime salsa was lightly spiced, with a heavenly citrus zing.
My experience of Malay food is that it can be rather heavy, often with unpleasant unguent sweetness. Reuben’s has steered away from raisins and stewed apricots and found the balance between sweet and spicy. Each dish comes with the perfect accompaniment to cleanse the palette. For example, the three segments of citrus fruit served with the malva pudding (R65) makes it a winner. Encased in a delicious veil of crispiness, served with Tonka bean ice-cream, citrus and home-made custard, it would make ouma proud and begging for the recipe.
Throughout the evening, the service was attentive, relaxed and definitely with a smile. Our waiter seemed chuffed to be serving food that he knows and enjoys. He kept saying, “Oh, that’s my favorite.”
The true test of a meal is in the feeling that it leaves the next day. Great meals – few and far between – leave a lingering sense of wellbeing. I suspect that the Afrikaans word hartskos (food from the heart) explains why eating at Reuben’s is such a richly pleasurable experience. Born and raised in Groendal, a village just outside Franschhoek, Reuben Riffel carries his country upbringing in his heart and reflects it in his conception of food.
The menu at One and Only is similar, but more sophisticated than the Reuben’s in Franschhoek. Reuben will be as hands-on as possible with all three of his restaurants (the third one being the Robertson Hotel). Right now, he’s scouting for a new restaurant in Gauteng. Let’s hope that he takes a lesson from his predecessor, Gordon Ramsey, and doesn’t overextend himself.