REUBEN’S RESTAURANT AND BAR in Daniel Hugo Street, is almost diagonally opposite where the original Reuben’s stood in Main Street, Franschhoek. It’s not far at all. A couple of minutes’ walk or so. But it is different. Not unrecognizably so; not so different that regulars will be disappointed. But is it more grown-up. More sophisticated.
The glass entrance hall offers striking views of the Franschhoek mountains on the one side and an impressive wine cellar on the other. The restaurant has high ceilings, large windows and feels open and welcoming, but it is also cosy and comforting. Informal even. It’s the kind of place, where, according to Reuben Riffel, groups of families and friends should come and enjoy good food and one another’s company. A place where you shouldn’t be embarrassed to laugh loudly or sing ‘Happy Birthday’.
South African art adorns the walls and a larger-than life black and white painting of Reuben’s beloved grandfather, oupa Abe Riffel, painted by Eugenia Campbell from a treasured old photo, takes pride of place. For while the restaurant is a public space, it is still very personal. Many years of dedicated hours in various kitchens and 12 years after having opened his own restaurant with other business partners, it has come to this. The Riffels own their own restaurant.
According to Reuben ‘The new space has been a long time coming. We were blessed to have always worked with amazing people. But I have always had a desire to have my own place; to own my own space. I needed to feel that this is mine. Not only the building, but also the ideas, what we do, I wanted something that was created by and owned by Maryke and me. It was wonderful to transform this space into what we have now. This is the exact space that we always dreamed of. We injected a lot of ourselves into the space. And we are really happy with it.’
And so they should be. As should their guests who have the choice of the seating in the main casually elegant restaurant area, or outside in the spacious courtyard. There is also a private dining room which can accommodate 16 people should you want to have a private function.
But wherever you sit, and whatever the surroundings, it is the food, as always that will impress you most. And if the restaurant is not formal or stuffy, then neither is the menu. There is a choice of small plates or starters which can be shared tapas-style or you can have a more traditional 3-course meal. The menu is eclectic, a lot of Asian influences and great local ingredients. Some familiar flavours and some new ones. It’s hard to describe the style of cooking, but then Reuben doesn’t want you to.
‘I don’t want to be defined by one style of cooking;’ he says’ ‘I’ve always wanted a space where I can express myself, where I can be flexible about the things I want to make. I cook according to my palate. I cook what I like to eat. The menu can change as often as I like, or as little as I like. This place is all about what I feel like doing. There is enormous freedom in being able to say and do that. I’ve worked hard to have this freedom and I’m enjoying it.’
And there is so much to enjoy here. The Poke Bowl from the extensive Starter/ Small Plates section of the menu is a beautiful new addition consisting of beetroot smoked Franschhoek salmon trout, wasabi, pickled ginger, compressed cucumber, sesame and yuzu soy.
Those longing for Reuben’s original pork belly with chilli-caramel sauce will be thrilled to see a version of it on the menu as Charsui Pork Belly with ham hock fritter, chill- ginger caramel and spicy salad. The Chilli Salted Squid is there as well, although this time it is served with sweet chilli, fragrant salad and roasted pineapple and orange. And the rest of the starters are also so tempting that you’ll want to order them all. But of course you can. And then you can share them. Because that’s what the chef wants you to do.
Mains are a mouthwatering selection of the likes of Springbok steak with butternut-honey, bacon candy, walnuts, pickled cabbage and game sauce. Or of Braised Beef Oxtail & Cheeks served with pomme puree, crispy sweetbreads, peanuts and chilli. Or Spinach Risotto with pine nuts, celeriac, butternut, burnt butter and grand brie.
Desserts are delicious, with offerings such as Lemon Yuzu Tart, Spiced Créme Brûlée, Warm Chocolate Fondant and Baked Camembert.
But there are also exciting plans for the outside courtyard, where the much-admired airplane wing from the original Reuben’s now forms part of the bar area. Reuben is full of plans. ‘I’m thinking of serving espetadas, fresh off the fire with a simple salad and a glass of wine for those wanting to pop in for a quick bite to eat. I see tables of people sitting in the warm sun sharing various small plates and tasting the local wines on offer or trying a selection of the craft beer from the Franschhoek Beer Co that I’ve been involved with. I’m dreaming of fairy-lights and live music and good food. Because above all, we’re always about great food.’
It’s always about great food for Reuben and it’s also always about family. As you leave the restaurant, having eaten so well in such beautiful surroundings, you once more pass by oupa Abe Riffel on you way out. His is a comforting presence.
‘I wanted my oupa to be here. My grandparents once lived in this part of Franschhoek but then they had to move down to Groendal so I wanted to bring him back to this part of the valley. Having my oupa’s face here, in a pride of place, is important to me. He is part of the restaurant. In this way I can honour him, and what he meant to me; what he taught me. This is my way of sharing my measure of success with my family, so they can also feel part of all this.’
Reuben Riffel. The boy from Groendal owning his own space in Franschhoek and doing what he loves, on his own terms. There is something so very right about all of this. Abe Riffel would be so proud.
Reuben’s Restaurant and Bar is situated at 2 Daniel Hugo Street, Franschhoek. Open Monday to Sunday (closed Tuesdays) for lunch from 12m to 3pm and for dinner from 6:30pm to 9pm.
Reuben’s Restaurant and Bar, www.reubens.co.za