Reuben’s Franschhoek and our Whale Cottage Franschhoek both opened seven years ago, and I fell in love with Reuben’s when I first stumbled upon it in 2004.   It was fresh and different, with a unique menu, the service was outstanding with Maryke Riffel heading front of house, a young French sommelier was charming, and Chef Reuben Riffel cooking and often coming out of the kitchen to chat to his guests.  Despite the last visits having been disappointing, we kept supporting his restaurant, well positioned for our guests to walk to in Franschhoek.  We have reached the end of our tolerance of poor service and mediocre food at Reuben’s Franschhoek.

Reuben Riffel had opened a restaurant in Cambridge for friends when Boekenhoutskloof directors Tim Rands and Marc Kent invited him to come back to his home town to open a signature restaurant on the main road.  Reuben had started working as a barman at Chamonix in Franschhoek, and started cheffing when a chef did not come to work.  He loved it so much that he developed himself without any formal chef training. Reuben’s fame in Franschhoek was instant, with an Eat Out Top 10 award in 2004 for Best Restaurant and Best Chef, a mere 6 months after opening, something that had never occurred before.  Reuben’s opened a branch at the Robertson Small Hotel, owned by Rands, about three years ago, and last year it was a huge honour for him to have been invited by Sol Kerzner to open a branch at the One&Only Cape Town.  It was obvious that the food and service quality would suffer as Reuben tried to stretch himself across his three restaurants, and it is in Franschhoek that we have heard other locals complain, and other guest houses too no longer send business there.  Chef Reuben tried to get help, having chefs Richard Carstens and Camil Haas working with him in Franschhoek, but both left him at short notice.

The main restaurant interior is large, with a separate room for functions or more guests, and an unpopular passage close to the noisy kitchen.  The bar has an interesting counter made from a plane wing.  Reuben’s has a large fireplace, making it warm and cosy, but it was smoky at times, due to the heavy wind on my last visit.  Tables are wooden, with the Reuben’s name engraved into the top, with white leather chairs, and a bench against the wall.  The managers sit behind a counter, in front of a Reuben’s branded wall, and it looked rather untidy from my angle, with a silver handbag on the floor, and boxes visible.   A bowl of fruit was on the counter, looking more like a hotel dining room reception than that of a restaurant,  with no flowers at all, as they used to have.  Each table has a little ceramic jar of coarse salt.  No pepper grinder is on the table, nor is it offered for any dish. Cutlery is by Maxwell Williams. Staff wear white shirts, and black pants and aprons.  There are no tablecloths on the tables.

When I popped in at Reuben’s, just wanting something warm but light, after a long two and a half hour concert in the church, a table was available, after a five minute set-up, in a still busy restaurant.   I was handed the standard menu, and saw with a shock that it has changed: individual prices have been removed, and the prices are listed as R220 for 2 courses, R268 for 3 courses, and R315 for 4 courses, which was not what I was looking for.  I asked about the winter special, but the Manager Carmen, Chef Reuben’s sister, looked at me as if I had lost it.  The Winter Special (3-courses for R150) is no longer available, she said. She then fetched the Street Smart special menu, which ran until the end of last week in honour of all the Street Smart restaurants collecting monies to help street children rebuild their lives, with a voluntary R5 donation at 57 participating restaurants, which offered four courses for R195.  This is also not what I had in mind.  I was then told by Carmen that locals are allowed to order individual items off the menu, at R65 per starter, R 120 for a main course, and R65 for a dessert.  Somehow the maths did not add up, in that a starter/dessert and main would only cost R185, instead of the quoted R220.  I also want my guest house guests to enjoy a meal without the pressure of having to order for a minimum of R220 per person, given the tight financial times.  As guest house owners we were not informed by Reuben’s that this had changed.

In the confusion of the two menus presented and the price issue, I chose the Street Smart option, and Carmen kindly allowed me to replace the oxtail main course with a steak.  It was the worst ever dining experience at Reuben’s Franschhoek (our previous dinner on 24 April coming a close second, with the fireplace not lit on a chilly night, two wines on the list being out of stock, no vintages specified for the wines by the glass, the lunch menu still on the blackboard at dinner, very expensive wine by the glass, messy pouring of the wine, kingklip served for the ‘tuna pickle’ and blamed on a typing error, no cheese on the French Onion soup, and very slow service in a long wait for the main course).

Reuben’s brother Jevon was the waiter, and brought two slices of dry-looking wholewheat bread, the nice bread tray with a choice of breads baked by Chef Reuben’s mother clearly no longer being offered.  Jevon ‘wipped’ when I asked him to remove the bottled water he brought to the table without checking with me.  I only drink fresh Franschhoek water!  After bringing a jug of water, and pouring a glassful, he did not top it up again.  Chef Reuben was not on duty, and it was Chef William Carolissen doing the honours in the kitchen.

The only Shiraz by the glass available was a Reuben’s house wine made by Goose wines, at R45, which I declined.  It surprised me that Reuben is not Proudly-Franschhoek in his choice of branded wine. The ‘pre-starter’ was a French Onion soup, with epoise toast and gruyere, nothing special at all.   Of the four courses, I enjoyed the Warm duck salad the most, a rather busy collection of shredded duck, toasted cashews, avocado slivers, papaya, orange, sprouts, radishes, cucumber, served with a cinnamon soya dressing and miso honey.  Listing the ingredients, only two or three items of each, seemed an overpromise, and perhaps more of fewer ingredients would have been better.  The biggest disappointment was the grilled Chalmar beef sirloin, served with what was called ‘glazed vegetables’, but were steamed mange tout and green beans, ‘swimming’ in a port and mushroom ‘jus’!  In a separate bowl came the worst ever chips, thick cut, over-dosed with salt and pepper, and raw inside.  I asked Carmen if it is customary to bring chips, as the menu did not state it, and she said it was.  I suggested that she check with clients about the choice of starch, as I am not a chip eater and would have preferred something healthier and saltless.  She ‘wipped’ and did not respond to my feedback, nor to my returned bowl of chips!  The steak was more medium than the ordered medium-rare, and the very heavily salted and liquid ‘jus’ spoilt it completely.   Things looked up with the attractive dessert, being Apple tarte tatin (delicious), apple panna cotta (nice green colour but bland and tasteless), and a most odd-tasting green vanilla Calvados sorbet, the description sounding better than the actual dessert.

Wishing to understand why Reuben’s had changed the menu to a non-price one (not seen in seven years), and how I could still bring my guests to the restaurant with responsible pricing, I spoke to Carmen once more.  She showed her irritation, stating that no one else had complained about it (neither had I – I was just trying to understand it), and that if guest house guests arrived, they would offer them the local price choice as well.  What she did not know was that the Pohl family of four staying with us over the same weekend had reserved a table directly on the same evening, on our recommendation.  They were not offered any special pricing on the a la carte menu, nor the Street Smart menu.  Carmen became more and more defensive about the menu, and said that I should question Reuben about it, as he had designed it.  She could not explain the rationale for such an expensive winter menu, but she did tell me that individual prices will be added to the menu in summer again, which confused me even further! I was struggling to pick up 3G for Twitter inside the restaurant, and when checking this with Martell Smith, the Deli Manager who doubles up as a hostess in the restaurant at night, she assured me that the internet was switched on.  When I stepped outside, the internet worked perfectly, as it did when I returned inside the restaurant.  Martell seemed to ‘wip’ about this.  Martell had come to the table to check on my satisfaction with the steak (no other course was checked), and it was so bad that I just shook my head, not wanting to have anyone else ‘wipping’ around me if I were to express what I was feeling!

Reuben’s brother Jevon had worked for us a good six years ago, and had run off in a huff and a puff without giving notice when he was reprimanded for making a costly error.  He has never served me at Reuben’s previously.   He did not speak a word to me, just being a ‘fetcher and carrier’, except at the end, when he demanded that I sign the credit card slip.  When I questioned his lack of communication, he walked off while I was speaking to him, throwing a ‘wip’ with his colleague.  When he walked past my table, I asked him why he had walked away, and I received a rude torrent of abuse from him, which was completely uncalled for. I told Carmen about Jevon’s rudeness, and she then lashed out at me, saying that I should speak to Reuben, as Martell had called Reuben, complaining to him about our interaction about the internet, and then she walked off while I was speaking to her!

The menu has shrunk in size to A4, with many more menu items that on the previous A3 menu we had.  I was surprised to see advertising on the menu for Reuben’s recycled ‘stemware’, as well as for Moniki chocolates from Tulbagh, when Franschhoek has the excellent Cafe Le Chocolatier and Huguenot Fine Chocolates!  The menu no longer lists the who’s who of the kitchen.   The menu is changed daily, Carmen told me.  On the evening that I was there, the soup choices were French Onion, mushroom, and rich cauliflower.  Eleven starters included the signature squid, blue cheese and onion tart, salmon sashimi, chicken liver parfait, mussels, oysters, and a butternut salad.  There were 10 main courses, including chicken and prawn curry, pork belly, sole, gnocchi, oxtail, springbok steak, calf’s liver (always been my favourite), and beef tartar.  Ten dessert options included lime creme brûlee, Valrhona chocolate pave, carrot cake pudding, poached pears, and a cheese platter.   Sides of vegetables can be ordered at R35.

For the seven years of daily business sent to Reuben’s in the summer months, with regular problems tolerated over the years in making bookings with Reuben’s staff telephonically, the last dinner was a sad one, as it appears that Reuben’s staff feel that they can lash out at customers.  The service standard is inconsistent, as I have had nothing but excellent service from another Manager Raymond, and from Jessica, a long-standing waitress.  It is sad that Chef Reuben’s family members should have been the rudest of all the staff on Saturday, and disappointing was his nepotistic “my staff are perfect” response to an e-mail I sent after the dinner, informing him that I no longer felt comfortable in sending guests to the restaurant after the rudeness I had experienced.  There was no apology nor thanks for all the business that we had sent there over the years, nor acknowledgement of our almost evangelical promotion of what was a favourite restaurant for a long time.

It would appear that Reuben realises that he has grown too big, and he has bought a building up the road from Place Vendome, to which he will move his restaurant in November, being a smaller sized 50-seater, with space for an extra venue at which he can do cooking demonstrations, to keep business going in winter, and ensuring a big saving in rent, he told me at the Mandela birthday meal media conference at the Drakenstein Prison a few weeks ago.  His Manager Raymond told me that both Franschhoek restaurants will run concurrently until the lease of the current restaurant expires, meaning that Reuben will have four restaurants for at least another year, which can only mean further service problems. Talk about Reuben trying to get out of his contract at the One&Only Cape Town continues to circulate in Franschhoek, despite his denial, but then he blatantly denied that he was opening at the One&Only Cape Town a year ago!

Reuben’s Franschhoek is not worthy of an Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant nomination any more.  If one dares to pass on any feedback to the staff, one might be reported to ‘headmaster’ Chef Reuben, and be abused by the staff!  Reuben has lost the passion for his business, and the Franschhoek restaurant needs a professional full-time Manager who can go beyond the Groendal-syndrome.  Reuben has to be at the One&Only Cape Town restaurant three times a week, appears in Robertson’s spice advertising, does cooking demo’s, and increasingly appears to be ‘commercialising’ himself, losing touch with what is going on in his restaurants as a result!  The current pricing policy is cheeky, and communicates that Reuben’s does not seek the support of locals.  We wish Reuben well in balancing all his balls!

POSTSCRIPT 8/8:  We are delighted to hear from our guests who went to Reuben’s on Saturday evening that the 2-, 3-, and 4-course price option has been dropped, and that each item on the menu is back to being individually priced!  They found the food excellent, especially the bean soup, but were disppointed that the waitress had no knowledge about the wines on the board at all.

POSTSCRIPT 7/9: We have heard that the sale of the building that Reuben’s was buying in Franschhoek fell through.  They may be considering another option close by.

Reuben’s Franschhoek, 19 Huguenot Road, Franschhoek. Tel (0-21) 876-3772.  www.reubens.co.za (The website contains an Image Gallery, but one must click onto thumbnails to view them.  The menu is an out of date one for 11 August of last year.  A Winter 2011 Special menu, looking very similar to the Street Smart one, is listed!).  Monday – Sunday Lunch and Dinner.

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter:@WhaleCottage