It is commonplace that restaurants in city hotels struggle to be profitable. Back in the day, if you were in the rich class, the restaurant in the swanky hotel was where your parents were most likely to take you for fine dining or that formal celebration of another one of life’s milestones – you turning 21, your graduation, or when time came to scrutinize your fiancée.
But times changed. In some parts of the world, there is even a stigma attached to hotel dining-rooms. Luxuriously fitted “five-star” restaurants now abound as sole businesses.
In the countryside, the hotel was often the only place to eat. Remember the mixed grill? Now towns have guesthouses and quaint, rustic cafés. Many of the South Africa’s best eateries are in the winelands, with or without accommodation attached.
Among several challenges in-house restaurants face is that (with the exception of breakfast) hotel guests prefer to go out and see the town.
On the other hand, the general public doesn’t feel welcome; security at the main gate wants to know what business you have on the premises. “I’m going to the restaurant,” you say. They eye you skeptically. The bellhop and the doorman in the lobby look you up and down; they’re trying to remember if you’re the one who didn’t tip. “Can I help you sir?” they ask. “I’m going to the restaurant,” you repeat. Then between you and the dining area lies the empty embrace of a lounge with a sign: ‘Guests Only!’; and beyond it, usually a large, dead bar area.
Finally, at the end of the evening, when the waiter asks what room number to charge the bill to, you feel positively like an interloper, at best on the wrong side of a misunderstanding.
Although exceptions abound, good hotel staff often don’t make great restaurant waiters. In their starchy uniforms with name tags, they fail to strike the right repartee.
Such difficulties have led to hotels trying to up their restaurant profiles to co-brand with well-known restaurant chains or create separate restaurant identities: the Bombay Brasserie at the Taj, Tobago’s at the Radisson, the Planet at the Mount Nelson.
Another vogue, and the one Sol Kerzner chose for his One & Only hotel in the V&A Waterfront, is to go with celebrity chefs; in this case Nobu Matsuhisa and Gordon Ramsay. But not even Ramsay’s name could attract enough support to the One & Only’s Maze experiment. After every gourmand in town had been once, the clientele dried up, and as everyone should know in Cape Town, the off-season is far longer than the tourist season.
With Ramsay sent packing around this time last year, Kerzner turned to local chef Reuben Riffel.
It’s been a great few years for Riffel, who is in his mid-thirties. He has collected the requisite accolades of chef of the year and restaurant of the year. Of late, he has been extensively featured and vaunted in newspapers and magazines and on local television programmes. He has cooked with Martha Stewart and on NBC in the USA. Dishy Riffel comes across well on television with his winning smile. His second cookbook, Reuben Cooks Local, is about to hit the bookstores.
Riffel opened his own restaurant, called Reuben’s, in Franschhoek in 2004. I dined there soon afterwards. The imaginative DC8 aeroplane wing bar-counter is still there and from what I can recall not much seems to have changed. The airy interior with a fireplace and exposed wood trusses is restrained, even conventional – comfortable chairs, on the wall large black and white photographs of a course des garçons de café.
The menu is divided into small tasters and second, third and fourth courses. The food is mostly classical European (minestrone, gazpacho, carpaccio, beef tartar, risotto, parfait, brûlée) with a little extravagance (langoustine-truffle oil, saffron, honey foam, Nantua sauce) and tantalizing fusion touches (miso mayonnaise, chili-ginger caramel, prawn-lemongrass velouté).
As it is Rugby World Cup month and hunting season I have been eating springbok whenever it appears on the menu. Reiben’s peppered venison was a near-perfect tender springbok steak with several large spatzle. As much as I relished the meat with its robust sauce, the celeriac-honey crème accompanying it didn’t add much to the dish and the promised walnuts were undetectable.
Outstanding was the double-baked snoek and cauliflower soufflé with dijon mustard and tart apricot emulsion crowned with grated hard cheese – inventive; light, but full of flavor; brilliant Riffle.
At the One & Only, the name Reuben’s is now embossed on the tables. Not much else has been done to the décor, but the atmosphere has transformed from Ramsay’s time. It is convivial, friendly, upfront and down-to-earth. Portions are generous too.
The salted squid tentacles is a hit – crumbed and deep fried, served with English mint, sweet chili sauce that gives a little heat, and half a lime to squeeze over it.
This time the peppered springbok steak was perfectly caramelized on the outside yet medium rare inside; the potatoes were still a bit glassy and undercooked, but far from uneatable.
Finally, a lekker local take for dessert – a round “peppermint crisp”, with shards of chocolate, hazelnut praline centre, and a miniature jug of rich hot chocolate sauce.
Reuben’s is one restaurant that deserves a public well beyond the hotel guests.
Reuben’s, 19 Huguenot Street, Franschhoek. Tel: 021 876 3772.
Reuben’s, One & Only, V&A Waterfront. Tel: 021 431 5888.