Sunday, 4 March 2007

Review: Riboville restaurant

[Note: Riboville is no longer open. The restaurant closed its doors and went into liquidation at the end of April 2009. The review below is for archival purposes only.]

Riboville is a swank new restaurant in Cape Town at the top of Adderley Street and St George's Mall, a few buildings below St George's Cathedral and the Company's Garden. It's in a restored bank building called the "ABC Building" -- which is the biggest asset the restaurant has going for it.

I've had drinks at Riboville on two occasions prior to my recent dinner there, and it had the feel of an old urban favourite upscale fine dining establishment which I found very attractive. Part Paris, part Manhattan -- it's very nice. Serious urban atmostphere without being cold, sleek and modern or dark and sexy. On the Adderly Street side is the main dining area flanked by open kitchens. It is a double story space with paneled marble walls and square columns softened by giant artificial palm trees and lit by iron and alabaster lamps hanging from the ceiling. As you move toward St George's Mall it narrows to a sushi bar with tighter table seating, then becomes a very French feeling cafe and patisserie that spills out onto the mall with charming seating and umbrellas (at least it will be charming once the construction on Mandela Rhodes Place is completed later this year...)

However, it doesn't all come together, and as a result, I think Riboville suffers from an identity crisis. It wants to be old money urban fine dining, but at the same time is chasing the Asian fusion trend as far as the menu goes, and also wants to be a charming little cafe. Oh, and a sushi bar. And a raw bar. Did I mention the mini tapas menu? Oy! Nowhere is Africa brought into the picture, and so it feels dislocated, too. The confusion shows in the service, the quality of the meals, and in the overall feel of a dinner there.

We started with a half-dozen Namibian medium oysters (from Walvis Bay) which were gorgeous. Creamy and plump, not too cold, and fresh as anything. Lovely. This was the highlight of the evening, and the raw bar is something I will go back to and try again -- on it's own.

The wine list is extensive and is tied to the large cellar in what used to be the bank vault. The available wine, however, is from the currently available vintage, and no sommelier was offered (or seen) to help with decisions. No effort was made to help us pair wine with food, and this aspect of the dining falls far short of the very high expectations that are set by the marketing emphasis placed on the wine cellar. Prices are high, but not outrageous, running at about twice retail per bottle.

Our next course was going to be a shared caponata (one of 3 vegetarian entrees), but when we went to order our mains at the same time, the Vietnamese soup entree was unavailable. In order to discover this, our server had to disappear for several minutes, then come back and serve another table before letting us know. I opted to have the caponata as my main while my guest had salmon roulettes. The caponata resembled a caponata in name only. Thinly sliced, breaded and pan fried crisp aubergine was stacked with bitter greens in a tower that sat in a tomato-anchovy sauce ringed with balsamic vinegar. It was bland and oily, although the greens were fresh and perfectly cooked. The salmon came as three raw salmon rolls, each about twice the size of a slice of salmon sashimi, stuffed with raw and blanched veg and rolled up with a blanched spring onion then sprinkled with roasted sesame seeds. The quality of the salmon was excellent and the soy dipping sauce had a pleasant bite to it, but it had not been clear from the menu that the salmon would be raw.

The signature appeal of the menu is the opportunity to view the various fresh fish options on display in cold cases near the open kitchens. The idea has potential, but it is being overdone in Cape Town restaurants right now, and it just doesn't work at Riboville given so many other aspects of the restaurant that are competing for the 'signature' status. It's actually annoying to get up to look at the cases, and the kitchen workers (cooks more than chefs) seem put out by the experience. In a sophisticated restaurant, why should I have to get up to check that my food is fresh? Besides, all the fish is already filleted and skinned, so one can't tell in any case. It's off-target and odd, and I think it was included because it hearkens back to the Codfather restaurant roots the owners have.

Service during the meal was adequate, but there seemed to be little management of the servers, and a lot of learning by doing going on among the staff. We opted to skip any third course. Although the option for a cheese board for two in the wine cellar looked appealing on the menu, having been in the cellar on a previous visit, I didn't find the prospect of ending a meal there very attractive for all the tours of the cellar they encourage among the patrons waiting for their entrees to arrive. I also didn't have confidence that the cheeses would be worthy of the attention or the price, though we did not enquire.

In summary, I recommend a visit to Riboville for a drink, or just a walk-through to see the lovely interior. If you're peckish, then perhaps stay for the raw bar or go for an after-dinner coffee, but don't bother going for dinner. As the centrepiece of a night out, it makes for a disappointment all the way around -- food, service and value. With serious competition heating up in the area (Cafe Mao, Bowl, Haiku, Fork, Nyoni's, Addis in Cape all new in the last year or so and all within a block or two), there's no need for diners in this price category to compromise.

Riboville seems to be chasing the commercial mainstream and whatever is trendy, and as a result, they have no soul and that comes through quite plainly. A shame, really.

I received a phone call today from Riboville as a follow-up to our meal there. Apparently this is a standard part of their procedure. They got an earful, took notes, and were appreciative of the feedback: with luck, that kind of diligence will improve the experience. I will return for a re-review later in the year and we'll see if they deliver on their good intentions. A cause for hope!


Afrika T

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Blogging Hiatus

Gentle Reader,

Some five years into the life of Afrika T, I now find myself unable to keep up with contributions at a level that I and you have come to expect from this blog. Partly this is because of other activities in responsible tourism (see example here, and another here), partly from other projects in sustainability (see examples here and here), and partly for reasons that are more personal.

I am certainly still active online and in responsible travel, so feel free to comment on existing posts here, to follow me on Twitter, and to note what I've been reading online via Delicious. I also hope to return to Afrika T, so am not bringing the blog to a halt, just declaring a hiatus of indefinite duration...

Thank you for your support over the years, and, if you're a newcomer to the site, may it still prove valuable.

Kind regards


5 December 2011