Photo courtesy and © of the One&Only Resort Cape Town
“So what is South African food all about?”, is a question I am often asked here in London. It’s a question I dread almost as much as “So where can I get a decent South African meal in London?”, to which I am always tempted to respond “my house”! The problem with South African food, is that there really isn’t one specific cuisine that can be described as South African. Head for Durban and you will find Indian curries hot enough to blow the top off your head. Visit Johannesburg and find your nostrils assailed by the smell of a thousand schwarma stands (from the Lebanse community), jostling for space alongside “smileys” (whole roasted sheep’s heads, a true African treat). Or maybe you would prefer a crayfish potjiekos (stew cooked over an open fire in a 3-legged cast iron pot) on the beach near Cape Town – or even a proper Cape Malay bobotie in Cape Town’s Bokaap district.
Just as there is no such thing as a quintessential French dish (just ask a Breton and a Provencal chef to nominate such a thing and dive for cover as the battle comences!), there is no single dish or even cuisine that fully reflects the diversity of South Africa’s national table. The only solution, therefore, would seem to be to try a whole lot of different dishes at once, and to share them all in a way that is truly African. This seems to be the driving idea behind the new tasting table concept at Reuben’s at the five star One&Only Cape Town Resort. Reuben Riffel has been hailed as South Africa’s culinary wunderkind since he opened his first eponymous restaurant in Franschhoek in 2004 and went on to win chef of the year in 2009. Subsequently he has also acquired the Robertson Small Hotel and in 2010, took over the the space vacated by Gordon Ramsay’s Maze in the One&Only hotel, which is where we were to dine. Although the restaurant has been open for some time, they have only recently launched the tasting table concept – a private dining experience with a twist. The table is located on the mezzanine level above the triple-volume restaurant, meaning that your party gets to enjoy some privacy without having to be cloistered in a claustrophobic room. It is also conveniently located just outside their 5,000 bottle-strong, glass-walled wine cellar. Anything from 6 to 12 guests can be seated at this intimate table and each will enjoy a journey through the varied cuisines of South Africa. Each and every dish on the menu has a story and a local relevance, and of course each is served with a signature Reuben’s twist.
We visited on the night after the South African Food & Wine Blogger Indaba (my post on that to follow soon!) in the company of a rather stellar selection of the South African food blogosphere: myself, Colleen (@collywolly), her hubby Don, Katie (@salted_caramel), Alida (@simplydelishSA), Thando (@jozifoodiefix), Bernice (@bettybakeblog), Sam (@samwoulidge), Candice (@gorgeousblog), Tami (@rumtumtiggs) and Sam (@drizzleand dip) – some of whom were invited as Indaba speakers, and some of whom had won their places in a prize draw. We were graciously greeted by our host for the evening, Ian Manley, in the glamorous Vista bar where we enjoyed glasses of kir royale before proceeding to our table.
Once seated, we had a surprise visit from super-charming Reuben himself, who apologised for not being able to spend the evening with us as he was suffering from a bad cold. Bonus points to him though for showing up even just to talk us through the concept and the menu! The first surprise comes when you realise that the majority of the round table conists of a rotating lazy Susan – yes, that’s right, those things that your auntie had and that you thought went out of fashion in 1979. This gave us our first inkling that this was to be a somewhat different tasting menu. The lazy Susan was rapidly populated with excellent warm breadrolls and bottles of extra virgin Saint Sebastian Bay olive oil and balsamic vinegar which we enjoyed while listening to the delightful and knowledgeable sommelier Luvo Ntezo taking us through the Allee Bleu wines that would be accompanying our meal. Luvo is the antithesis of all we fear about snooty sommeliers, in that he is amusing, personable, knowledgeable, completely approachable, 100% passionate about wine, and completely unpretentious. A gem.
With the wine talk out of the way, the food started to arriving. And to my relief, rather than being huge bowls of food that we had to fight over, most of the starters came on small individual plates, with only one bowl that had to be shared. First up in the starter section were stuffed Peppadews with goat’s cheese, pine nuts, tomato confit and olive crumbs. These peppers that were discovered growing in my home province, the Eastern Cape, are a true South African delicacy. They were deliciously spicy and beautifully offset by the creamy goat’s cheese, while the olive crumbs added a salty crunch. Then there was the Reuben’s classic of chilli salted squid with mint, basil and sprout salad; chilli caramel and lime. There is a good reason that it’s a classic – the bright flavours combine to devastating effect – salt, sweet, sour and bitter all in one mouthful, together with feather-light crispy chunks of squid. Probably my favourite dish of the night year was the potato & carrot velouté with sour cream & nutmeg - creamy, dreamy and quite surprisingly decadent for a vegetable soup. I also loved the flavour that the nutmeg imparted. Actually, now that I think about it, the soup had some fairly stiff competition from the chicken & herb creamy crisps (croquettes) with raisin sauce and a Cape style salad. I am still slightly in the dark as to why a salad of slivered tomato, cucumber, red onion and pepper qualifies as a Cape salad (as opposed to, say, a European salad), but it did balance out the rich and incredibly more-ish flavours of the super-creamy chicken croquettes that positively oozed creamy chicken goodness as soon as you breached their crunchy skin. A winner of a dish.
After a brief break to collect our thoughts, the main course dishes were brought to the table, once again in little individual cocottes, or at most, one bowl between 2 people. I was struck with severe prop envy as the endless parade of miniature Staub cocottes continued unabated! First up was Lamb meatballs with pomegranate, cinnamon & split peas. I loved this – a dish to remind you why meatballs are so enduringly popular, and why you should always make them with good meat! The cinnamon flavour somehow intensified the flavour of the meat, and I loved the sweet flavour bursts of the pomegranate arils. There was also an absolutely stonking rendition of traditional Cape bobotie with yellow rice, banana sambal & baked sweet potato with moskonfyt. While many boboties end up a little too sweet and bland, this one had a great, pungent spice flavour and was fantastic paired with the little buttery chunks of roasted sweet potato in their moskonfyt glaze. Dangerously addictive. I also enjoyed Reuben’s take on snoek, a local fish that is usually braaied whole and basted with apricot jam: braised smoked fish on sourdough with lime tomato and apricot salsa. The strident flavours of the smoked snoek need the sweetness of fruit, and this was a beautiful dish – tradition with a twist.
And then, as if anybody was still hungry at this stage, the desserts were brought out. The first was an individual Malva pudding with Amarula ice-cream; and this was accompanied by coconut cream millefeuille wafers with caramelised mango chunks. Malva pudding, so named because the accompanying syrup used to be made with sweet Malvasia wine, is a South African comfort food favourite. This individual portion was rich and decadent while still only being the size of a large financier, and both the creamy syrup and amarula ice cream matched it well. But my favourite was the coconut and mango confection, which was light and lovely with a range of textures to satisfy all tastes – from the crispy wafers, to the light coconut cream, to the decadent toffe-ish mango pieces.
And the verdict? In a word: Wow. I will confess that I had some reservations about both the restaurant (having had a severely lacklustre experience at the Robertson’s outpost of Reuben’s in April) and the concept (for somebody who eats as slowly as I do, the concept of having to fight for a share of a communal plate of food is a nightmare of epic proportions). But I have to say that everything we ate was properly thought out to represent some facet of South African cooking, and perfectly executed. The service was efficient and Luvo in particular was world-class. I was also thrileld to find that most of the dishes, although on the lazy Susuan, were in individual cocottes rather than requiring a scrum with one’s fellow-diners. Of course, our dining experience with Reuben in attendance is probably not the standard experience and one hopes that the restaurant’s standards remain as high when the man himself is not around.
At R275 per person (excluding wine) I thought the menu was pretty competitively priced, offering good value to visitors and locals alike, and I certainly went home extremely well fed. In addition to the standard menu that we enjoyed, the Reuben’s Tasting Table can also be reserved for bespoke food and wine pairing lunches or dinners. Priced at R595 per person, each specially prepared course is served with a wine that partners the ingredients and cuisine style perfectly, and a sommelier is on hand to guide guests through the tasting and comparison process. I can think of few better ways to treat special visitors, or to celebrate a significant birthday in style.
Thanks once again to the One&Only and to Manley Communications for arranging this delicious evening!
And for the voyeuristic among you, here are some more images of my lovel fellow-diners at the Reuben’s tasting table – see if you can identify them A few extra pics are available in my Flickr album.
Liked: the service, the excellent food, the concept
On a scale of 1 to 10: 8 out of 10
One&Only, Cape Town
Victoria & Alfred Waterfront
Tel: +27 (0)21 431 5111
Fax: +27 (0)21 431 5230
Don’t forget – I am hosting Meeta’s Monthly Mingle this month and the theme is A Taste of Yellow to honour our friend and ellow-blogger Barbara Harris of Winos and Foodies who passed away last month after finally losing a long battle with cancer. In honour of her annual Taste of Yellow event which raised cancer awareness, we have decided to paint the food blogs yellow with dishes in every shade of yellow, and we hope you can join us! Feel free also to share memories and pictures of Barbara in your post if you wish. You have until 6 August to get your entries in – click here for detalis of how to take part.