I had only heard good things about Ryan’s Kitchen, which opened on the Franschhoek main road almost three months ago. The restaurant is an asset to Franschhoek, Ryan Smith being a creative chef with a passion for contemporary food. What makes the restaurant interesting is that it is small and cosy, seating a maximum of 50 guests inside and out, in what is the breakfast room of guest house Rusthof in the morning, and the dining room for lunch and dinner for Ryan’s Kitchen. It is an ideal main road location for Ryan’s Kitchen, and its new bright neon sign must be an irritation for the local Aesthetics Committee, which likes to approve all design elements in the town.

Ryan is a Capetonian, who left the Mother City at 16, and has spent the past 16 years around the globe, on Crystal cruise ships, in the Middle East, in the UK, and even in St Petersburg, where he met his lovely wife Lana at the Astoria Hotel. Four years ago he returned to his ‘homeland’, and joined Mange Tout restaurant as chef at Mont Rochelle Hotel in Franschhoek. Then came the big step of setting up his own kitchen restaurant. The restaurant is so small inside that one’s table can be against the kitchen counter, allowing one to chat with Ryan while he is preparing the food. The high tech stainless steel kitchen and the restaurant country-cottage decor are a contradiction, especially as far as the chairs are concerned, which look dated and are not particularly attractive. Good quality napery, cutlery, crockery and glassware is on the table. Lana is assisted by staff in taking orders for the food and wine, and a number of waiters looked familiar from previous restaurants they had worked at (Allee Bleue and Bouillabaisse, amongst others).

When Lana handed the menu to us, she told us that Ryan’s Kitchen served “South African contemporary food”. I wasn’t sure what that meant, as it seemed a dish here and there were South African in nature, but that the bulk of them are cosmopolitan. The menu is printed on hardboard, with the distinctive Ryan’s Kitchen logo of a collection of hanging kitchen utensils, one of few restaurants I know to have a logo. The winter special of R 195 for three courses, including a glass of wine, only offers one choice per course (seared yellowfin tuna, Elgin chicken breasts and poached sago pudding). The a la carte menu offers five starters and mains each, and four desserts are offered. The starters range from R68 – R88, and include Madagascar prawns, Green Asparagus (with spiced veal and red pepper mince), duckliver parfait ‘peri-peri’, organic beetroot tapioca, and pickled butterfish ‘Cape Malay’.

We were offered a choice of three breads, and an amuse bouche of braised spicy chicken with eggplant and butternut foam. It was more generous than a normal amuse bouche, and the butternut taste dominated, I felt. I was unsure what to eat it with, the spoon served with it, but I preferred a fork. There was no salt or pepper on the table, and we were not offered any during the meal. When I asked for salt to have with the bread, it was brought to the table. I forgot to ask Ryan why it is not on the table. My colleague had the butterfish, and we could not believe how beautifully it was plated and presented. She loved it.

I had seen calf’s liver on a previous menu, and asked Ryan if he would have it available on the menu on the night we ate there. Despite it having been taken off the menu, he had arranged a slice of liver for me, which he served with soft yummy pork-belly, mash, spinach and chicory, garnished with pea sprouts, once again beautifully presented. The liver was prepared medium rare, absolutely perfect. Main course options are veal sweetbreads, beef fillet, Kalahari game duo, fish of the day, and creamed African samp, ranging from R95 – R128, fair prices given how expensive some restaurants have become. For dessert I had an Amarula Parfait, which had a chocolate biscuit base with peppermint crisp chips, a soft caramel centre inside the parfait, and grass green peppermint liqueur foam, which had an almost marshmallow texture. The colours in my colleague’s Ginger Malva were on the brown side, not as attractive as my colourful dessert. Desserts range from R 50 – R 60, and a selection of cheeses costs R80. A surprise was the cost of the cappuccino at R 20 – rarely have I seen it charged anywhere at such a high price, even if it is LavAzza. However, it was served with a platter of three mini-desserts of strawberries and cream, a carrot cake delight, and chocolate malva with beetroot caramel, which made the coffee good value, but we had already eaten a dessert each. I was also surprised to see a charge for a ‘palate cleanser’ (Kumquat sorbet) of R15.

The winelist is presented in a blue plastic folder, and could be improved, with loose sheets being replaceable should pricing or availability change, but the pages were coming out of the folder. The wine selection is very proudly-Franschhoek, which is commendable. Vintages are indicated, as well as the ‘flavour’ of each wine described. I had a glass of Jean Daneel Initial, a Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon blend, not my normal choice, but a very pleasant wine to match the liver.   The MCC sparkling wines include the increasingly popular pink bubblies – Graham Beck Brut Rose (R170) and Pierre Jourdan Cuvee Belle Rose (R210).  Shiraz options are Kleinood Tamboerskloof (R 190), Mont Rochelle (R210) and Waterford Estate Kevin Arnold (R250).

The staff was professional in their service, except for stretching across us to take cutlery away – a pet peeve. I did not like seeing the kitchen being mopped at the end of the evening, but that is the price one pays when one has a table close to the open kitchen, and one eats later. The kitchen looked spotless on completion of the cooking, and dishes must have been washed up elsewhere. Only once did we hear a clang from the kitchen, and it must be tough on staff to keep things calm and quiet. Ryan delegates very little in the kitchen, or so it seems, yet he made time to chat to the guests at the tables not as close to his work station as ours. He is proudly awaiting a new stove, to make soufflés and more.

Ryan has added an exciting dimension to the main road of Franschhoek, and is a breath of fresh air joining a very small selection of top restaurants (Reuben’s and The Tasting Room) on it, given the closure of Bouillabaisse, and the other more average restaurants catering for the day-tripper/motorbiking tourist.  It will be interesting to see how the opening of a number of restaurants outside Franschhoek will effect business in the village itself – Pierneef Ã  La Motte, the opening next year of the Restaurant at Maison, the excellent work of chef Darren Roberts at Grande Provence (I saw similarities in the work of chef Darren and of chef Ryan), and the newly appointed chef at Allee Bleue, currently training at Michelin-starred Schwarzer Adler.  Ryan’s Kitchen is re-inventing itself already, even if it is less than three months old.  An e-mail from Ryan indicated that his Spring menu ingredients will include asparagus, artichokes, broad beans, tomatillos, tarragon, fresh berries, Namibian Red Crab, and Madagascar Prawns.   In October a 5-course “Taste of Africa” will be introduced in addition to the a la carte menu, with springbok, crocodile, ostrich, abalone and swordfish.

Ryan’s Kitchen, 12 Huguenot Road, Franschhoek. Tel (021) 876-4598. www.ryanskitchen.co.za. Open for lunch Wednesday – Sunday, and for dinner Tuesday – Saturday.

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