Reuben Riffel might be a former Eat Out Chef of the Year, the man behind assorted restaurants of collective acclaim and a supremely gifted cook, but my abiding memory of him is watching as he flailed, attempting to escape a deep and treacherous Scottish bunker while playing golf at Kingsbarns a few years ago.
In the kitchen he’s all grace and composure, with award-winning results; in that Kingsbarns bunker, he cut a cold, forlorn figure fighting a long and losing battle. I mention this not out of petty derision, but instead to lay my cards on the table: Reuben is an old friend of mine, and so anything approaching a review of one of his multiple establishments requires such disclaimer.
I’ve also got plenty of experience of his cooking, from his home base in Franschhoek to the rarefied air of the One&Only in Cape Town, where his restaurant sits across the foyer from Nobu. But until Sunday, I hadn’t been to his maiden Johannesburg venture, a fact he reminded of when I had him as a guest on my television show last week. He’d joined me with former Miss World Rolene Strauss and rugby great Bryan Habana, who summed up Reuben’s approach to cooking very neatly, calling it “fine food I feel comfortable eating”. That’s been the broad signature of Reuben, making exquisite dishes that still feel accessible.
Inspired by all this talk of Franschhoek’s favourite son, I made a booking and set off for the newest Reuben’s with much anticipation.
The restaurant sits in a small boutique-ish hotel in a quiet corner of Sandton, where two young Great Danes welcome you, followed by a small army of staff with broad smiles and a hellbent mission to look after you. The restaurant is a little bigger than I’d expected and has the sort of warm buzz you’ve come to expect from a Riffel establishment. But aside from an excellent menu and a well-constructed wine list, there’s one more attraction: another superstar chef.
Reuben now has the great Richard Carstens working with him on assorted projects and, on the day I visited, Richard was in residence, adding his own considerable expertise to Reuben’s platform. Reuben Riffel starting a restaurant and then bringing in Richard Carstens is Bruce Springsteen starting a band and then giving Eric Clapton the call-up, but no one would complain about either decision. And so Richard, who I last saw in his final week at Tokara, added some extra stardust to a restaurant that proceeded to put on a fabulous show.
My definition of a really good menu is one with a limited selection that still has me juggling choices; this is one such menu. Curried squid in pineapple chutney only just lost out to prawns in the lightest of tempura, afloat on an assortment of avocado, tomato, coriander, and a medley of supporting cast members that vanished off the plate (partly for being so good, but mostly so that I didn’t have to share them). A confit leg of duck and a coconut chicken curry (which would take another paragraph to detail in full) were forsaken, as Reuben’s signature pork belly, headlined by crisp crackling, took centre stage.
In retrospect, I should have had the pork with the restaurant’s wine of the week, a Cederberg Chenin that would have cut through the richness of the belly, but the collective choices were excellent alternatives: the 2013 Le Riche Cabernet Sauvignon, a fine example of why Stellenbosch is doing so much to promote the varietal, a 2015 Tokara Cabernet Sauvignon, simpler and with less panache than the Le Riche, but a lovely, warm, embracing wine nonetheless. Vintages are listed and multiple options are served by the glass from more than the standard two or three varietals.
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The meal and the wine tied in nicely with the welcome received. The staff were terrific with my young children. As a dad himself, Reuben has a family feel to his flagship establishment in Franschhoek, and Mother’s Day celebrations at Capital Moloko had much the same, which is essential when taking a high-spirited two-year-old out to lunch. Between Reuben, Richard and resident head chef Aviv Liebenberg, the menu was a delight, cleverly constructed without being overly complicated, and finished off with multiple desserts. You’ll want to pencil in a good, long stint to make the most of a meal here – almost as much time, I’d venture, as it takes Reuben Riffel to escape a Scottish bunker.
What I’m drinking this week: I packed a small suitcase, some provisions, and a map of southern Africa, and set off earlier this week for Pretoria, and The Heat Grill Room. Set in the back of a nondescript shopping centre, it’s worth getting lost for when lunch involves an extensive wine tasting with Heather Poulos from Steenberg, the estate famously started by a German woman who arrived in South Africa disguised as a man, and who got through five husbands, all of whom departed in mysterious circumstances. I’ve always enjoyed the local bistro, and have damaged many a vine with wayward golf balls – and I’ve long had a soft spot for Steenberg’s Cap Classique range, the 1682 chardonnay of which introduced lunch. The Chardonnay provides the fresh croissant feel that’s so irresistible, but there’s some apple in there, and the fizz of the tiny bubbles lifts the whole bottle beautifully. Excellent for celebrating just about anything – including the departure of another unwanted husband.
Read the Eat Out review for Reuben’s @ The Capital.
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