I have experienced the cuisine creativity and presentation of Chefs Rikku O’Donnchü and Warwick King three times at Gåte when they opened at Quoin Rock wine estate outside Stellenbosch a year ago, and three times since they established their own SŸN Group since leaving Gåte, first as a SŸN Pop-up, and then as their brand new Exhibit A, in the past year, In this period I have seen the growth in this creative chef team, challenging itself continuously to do things differently and to break their own boundaries.
I was invited to the launch dinner of Exhibit A, located on the third floor of the Villa 47 building on Bree Street, on 1 November, and was accompanied by a close friend and restaurateur, so I had a sounding board that evening. Two Italian men, one a chef planning to open a restaurant in Stellenbosch next year, sat at the table next to us, so they too provided input to help form my opinion of the restaurant. The dinner was a first trial of the restaurant’s 12-course Tasting Menu (but I counted 14 courses) served to a full house, and Chef Rikku was the first to admit that it was chaotic on that first evening, as is typical of opening nights, when I went to see him and his team a few days later (Chefs Rikku and Warwick in the photograph on the right). We talked through the winning dishes out of the fourteen dishes we had been served, and those that didn’t work for us. We agreed that I would not post a review until I returned a second time, as a paying diner, when my son and his partner came to Cape Town on holiday.
What I like about Chef Rikku is that he is willing to accept feedback and to work with it, applying it to his dishes, as I discovered in eating the same Tasting Menu again exactly two weeks later. My table grew to four, with my son Alex, his partner Jamie, and food lover Bernard from Zurich, who had been my tour client earlier in the afternoon when I showed him around Cape Town.
In fairness to the restaurant, eating the Tasting Menu twice within such a short period of time took the surprise element away for me, but my guests tasted the menu for the first time. Alex and Jamie work at top-end dining establishments outside London, while Bernard loves cooking, preferring to cook at home if he thinks the restaurant meal will not stand up to his own cooked meal. So our table last week was probably above-average difficult to impress.
I made the booking via Chef Rikku, and added Bernard on the same day of our dinner, it appearing to be no problem for the restaurant. I requested that Bernard’s bill be run separately to ours. This was no problem either. Bernard and I were the first to arrive, seated in one far corner of the restaurant, we being the only ones on that side of the room, while the other diners sat at the opposite end of the room, something I had not picked up during the dinner. A hostess greeted me, and welcomed me back to the restaurant, so I continued walking, as there was no welcome drink in the reception as there was on the launch evening. She came running after me, surprisingly asking me for my name.
We were shown to the table, minimalistically set with only a napkin folded in the shape of a rose, a water and a wine glass, and a branch holding the Potato Fossils starter. I found it a pity that the napkin shape was undone for me, and presented to me in quite a creased fashion, understandably, but I do not remember it looking like that when I undid it myself on the launch evening. The impressive looking wine list is on the table. There is a small sheet of paper with what looks like a Menu, reflecting five parts, but Neville did not explain this relative to the 12 course dinner, but he did tell us that we would eat the menu at the end of the meal, a surprise for my dinner guests.
Alex and Jamie arrived soon thereafter, and Neville the waiter, who has served my table three dining visits in a row, explained the Tasting Menu options, a 7 course Tasting Menu at R790 and a 12 course one at R1490. The wine pairing costs R1500 extra for the 12 course dinner menu. While Bernard would have preferred to order the 7 course Menu, and we the 12 course one, Bernard was a true gentleman in also settling for the 12 course dinner, to make it easier for the chefs to send each course to the table at the same time. Neville brought water to the table, and we all opted to order wine by the glass from the impressive Drinks Menu.
On my first visit the Drinks Menu was very stiff in not having been used before, but after my feedback to the chefs, and two weeks of dining at the restaurant, the Drinks List had become far easier to use . Interesting is that the cocktails are in the front of the list, followed by the wines. I selected the Newton Johnson Felicite Pinot Noir 2019 (R70 per glass), and stayed with the wine for the dinner. It was served ice-cold, too cold to my liking. My dinner companions had white wines, an Iona Chardonnay (R110 per glass) and a Ken Forrester Petit Chenin Blanc, as the menu was seafood dominant at the beginning.
While I had seen the transformation of the restaurant over time, first as a sister restaurant to an Italian one Michelin star restaurant Pierino Penati, then the SŸN Pop-up, and after a month of closure in October, the new Exhibit A with repainted green walls in the Flowerstem Green colour, the reupholstered chairs with new beige seats, discs in various sizes and heights on the ceiling, a reduced entrance door to the main restaurant section, and a reduced serving section. My guests were not very complimentary about the furniture, and the tile floor in the largest part of the restaurant – our tables were in a raised section of the restaurant with a dark stained wooden floor. For the stature of the restaurant I would have liked to see table cloths, possibly helping to absorb the noise of the restaurant, as the evening wore on, despite our tables being so far from those of the other diners. Staff wear black shirts and slacks, and a lighter shade of green bow tie, with a Moët-branded leather apron. The chefs look funky in wearing bandanas, adding a touch of differentness when they serve some of the dishes.
I must warn diners that the airconditioning in the room is set to extremely low, and I don’t generally get cold easily, so it is a must to bring a warm jacket or jersey. Music was a point of prior discussion with the chefs, it having improved vastly but the heavy jazz upfront was too loud and dominated the conversation.
I must thank Chef Rikku for amending the menu for my son so quickly, as he does not eat any seafood. Dietary requirements are not checked by the restaurant upfront, so this was a last-minute surprise for the kitchen.
The fourteen courses we ate on the 12 course Tasting Menu were the following, with notes of how they evolved from the dinner two weeks ago:
From the Earth
1. Potato Fossils
This is an attractive welcome to the table, bringing nature into the room, with a dry branch with the thinnest Potato crisps hanging on it, making me think of Christmas already, gifts from the kitchen. Two slices of potato are compressed, with parsley in-between, to create this pretty welcome. There are two per diner, and with them are served two bowls to dip them into: seaweed hummus, and baked potato purée. I preferred the taste of the latter, nice and creamy.
As this dish is brought to the table at the same time as the two dips for the Potato Fossils dish I made the error on my first visit to try and dip the Panipuri wonton into the cream dip with my fingers, a total mess of course. One is not told that the dips are for the Potato Fossils only.
I found this the most complicated dish of the whole Tasting Menu, with too many ingredients rattled off, and terms not explained, with an assumption that one would know what ‘Panipuri’ and ‘Bombay Cassaba’ are, let alone how to spell them. When I asked about the latter, I was told that it is a mild potato curry. So, from my notes, it was described as a puff pastry wonton, with the Bombay Cassaba filling, a mint yoghurt sphere, a dehydrated tomato disc, cucumber gel, and a cucumber and coriander relish, placed on a base of maize corn kernels, and decorated with spekboom (an indigenous succulent grown in many local chefs’ gardens, and used decoratively, I rarely having seen it used in cooking) twigs and the spices that are contained in the dish, a stick of coriander for example. As the wonton is so small, the other elements topping it are even tinier, so that it is hard to identify each mentioned item individually, or to taste them individually, as the Cassaba curry taste dominates. It left me with a so-what feeling, not understanding its role as a second potato dish, even if both were starters, and lost by the complex sounding ingredients. The decoration of the dish, with the whole spice elements and spekboom added, had changed from two weeks ago, when there were no extra decorative elements.
3. Holy Smoke
The Holy Smoke is the first wow dish on the Tasting Menu, which I first tasted at Gåte, and remains clever to those who have not experienced it before. The edible cigar is made from Bao bread, and has a gold band decorated on it, an instant reminder of my month spent in Cuba in July. At Gåte it was made with rye bread, and was very tough, but the Exhibit A cigar is very easy to eat, one using the cigar to scoop the cream ash out of the bowl accompanying the cigar and its ashtray, and eating the two together like that. The cream contains onion jam, adding a touch of sweetness, a smoked scallion (spring onion I was told) emulsion, onion ash, and a smoked pepper and paprika powder to give the illusion of it being lit and ash having fallen off the cigar.
From the Sea
4. Saldanha Oysters
The presentation of the two oyster shells is dramatic, served on top of a block of ice and then water poured over the liquid nitrogen creating a smoky effect. This dish was one of my feedback ones from two weeks ago, containing peanuts, which seemed to dominate the delicate oysters in taste and texture. Last week the peanuts were more finally chopped, but to me they are an odd ingredient in this dish. In addition, it contained smoked jalapeño and had been topped with a raspberry vinaigrette, the jalapeño being far more prominent this time round, and not allowing one to taste the oyster at all, and one left with a burning aftertaste. I do not like eating overpoweringly spicy foods, and chili is my pet hate. A holder with a large tweezer was brought to the table to eat this dish with.
My son was served an egg white soufflé instead of the oysters.
5. False Bay Octopus
In terms of presentation this was the least successful dish, in my opinion. A piece of the octopus tentacle was wrapped into a circle, and to it was added mango, black garlic, and spekboom atchar, and decorated with fried curry leaves. Alongside tiny olive oil pearls were presented, as well as a wedge of fermented lime, one not being warned about its extreme bitterness. A Tigers Milk emulsion (not explained, but when asked described by the waiter as a sauce of cream, lemon, and basil) was poured over the dish at the table, now hiding the olive oil pearls. The knife I was served did not seem to have a serrated blade, so I found it hard to cut the octopus, but it was not tough when chewing it.
My son was served a very delicious mushroom and barley risotto, he fed back.
6. Smoked Snoek Vetkoek
It was at this point that I lost it with Neville the waiter. With two of my three fellow diners being from the UK and Switzerland, he rattled off the ingredients to this dish. When I asked him to explain what smoked snoek is, he told us that it is snoek which has been smoked. Oh my goodness! He could not explain a ‘vetkoek’. So my son had to explain to our international guests what these typically South African dishes are, and it was Bernard who summed the vetkoek up as a savoury doughnut. The vetkoek is coated with an apricot glaze, and topped with dehydrated and puffed snoek skin, and topped with caviar. The dish is served with a smoked bechamel sauce.
From the Farm
7. Cowpea Panna Cotta
At the launch dinner I did not get this dish. First, I struggled with the ‘cowpea’ name, not having heard of this bean before. Neville confused matters for me when he said that it was like a black eye pea, which I joked back at him that I only know as a band. The dish was vastly improved in the two weeks, with a far stronger taste of the Kalahari truffle coming to the fore in the panna cotta, with shavings of the truffles also topping the dish, together with corn crisps, and two quail egg halves. What was extremely strong in taste two weeks ago was white balsamic vinaigrette gel drops, far too bitter and which dominated the dish then. On Friday it was perfect.
This dish was improved over the two weeks too, it having originally been served on a bed of ice, becoming impractical when the ice started melting. On Friday the Caprese tomato was placed on basil oil, without any ice. A peeled tomato had been filled with home-made ricotta cheese, and baby tomatoes, Chef Rikku coming to the table with syringes, to inject each Caprese tomato with essence of tomato. A very refreshing dish, with an interactive presentation.
From the Field
9. Cape Wagyu Tartare
On our first visit to Exhibit A my friend and I could not take more than one mouthful of this dish, it being so strongly Bovril-dominant. It was our least favourite dish then. Two weeks later it was like chalk and cheese, the Bovril not mentioned. A Tartare of the finest Cape Wagyu beef, served with infused home-made yeast (if this was the Bovril with another name, as a Google search suggests, it had been greatly toned down at our latest dinner), pickled cucumber, slices of chili, alongside which was plated wasabi pearls, a confit egg yolk, and was sprinkled with seaweed powder. It was topped with a nitrogen puffed beef tendon, which Chef Warwick created at the table with liquid nitrogen. The question at our table was why the dish had to have seaweed on it, given that we had moved away from the sea-focus of the menu!
10. Miso-cured Cape Duck
The duck dish was introduced by Chef Rikku as a demonstration of their nose-to-tail focus at the restaurant. The confit leg and wings were coated in miso, he explained, and cured for 48 hours. A superb cream of heart, kidney, and duck stock, tasting of foie gras, was placed inside a golden egg, and cracked open on our plate very dramatically by Chef Rikku. Served with the Duck roulade and the egg was an apple rose, and apple mousse, and above our table Chef Riku sprayed a barbecue apple spray, to enhance the sensory experience. Despite any apprehension of eating innards the creamy content of the egg was magnificent. The egg was made with Maltitol, a sugar alcohol used as a sugar substitute, Wikipedia informed. Cuisine theatre at its best for this course.
From the Pâtisserie
11. Cheese Course
Pastry Chef Chris Morrison has impressed with his creations, I having experienced his work at the Heritage Day lunch at the SŸN pop-up for the first time. On a wooden cheese board a ‘laminated’ croissant had been built up with layers of cheese, he explained, using 18 month old cheddar. There was a very tasty triangle of blue cheese fudge, how amazing to think of making fudge out of cheese. A scoop of brown beer ice cream was part of the dish, as were dots of apricot and plum jam, adding colour to the dish. At the table Chef Chris added a spoonful of blue cheese foam over the ice cream. Following the ten courses we had already eaten, I could not finish this rich dish.
After this course waiter Neville asked us for feedback about a/the dish for the first time! Only once did the hostess, sitting at the entrance to the restaurant, come to ask for feedback, but I would not have entrusted it to her. As she sat outside the bathrooms, one saw her on her phone, having no further role to play in the dinner.
12. Beetroot Textures
Chef Chris presented the amazing Beetroot dessert, what a creative idea for a dessert to consist of textures of this vegetable. Its added benefit was the variations of red on the plate. Beetroot was presented as a parfait, with a white chocolate ganache, a sponge cake, a meringue, as candy, and as sherbet. One of the elements was topped with gold leaf, adding a touch of class to it. It was in this course that Chef Chris asked us for our menus, taking off the plastic film, and then freezing it down to minus 200 C with liquid nitrogen, and cracking it over our plate, as if it were meringue chards. Amazing culinary theatre too in this course, one of our favourites.
13. Petit Fours
In yet another liquid nitrogen dish, arriving at the table smoking, was a collection of petit fours, presented on a bed of semi-precious stones and decorated with spekboom twigs: raspberry brioche, a Ferrero Rocher style truffle, a superbly delicious cone filled with Amarula ice cream, and a chocolate ganache hot dog. Delicious.
14. Red Bull Balloon
As if the number of courses was not yet enough, the dinner had a fun ending, with edible helium Red Bull balloons, the fun element when eating the balloons being one’s voice changing, as did Jamie’s after he had eaten his (Photograph). At the launch dinner the balloons deflated before they reached the table, and were very sticky to eat. Last Friday they were perfectly made, but I remember how sticky they were to eat, so Bernard and I declined, despite hand towels having been brought to the table. A beetroot edible balloon had been offered at Gåte when Chefs Rikku and Warwick were still working there.
About three hours after our arrival we had only one desire, and that was to leave, something I have never experienced at any restaurant before, the pace of serving the dishes in the not full restaurant feeling to be slower and slower towards the end. It had become unbearably cold due to the freezing airconditioning, and everyone was tired after a long day, Bernard feeling his reduced sleep due to flying into Cape Town from Zurich earlier in the day. The final blow was when I requested the bills of Neville, and this took time to prepare. I was shocked to see that a service charge of 12,5% was added to the bill without prior communication thereof on the menu, and was most certainly not deserved last Friday, only seeing it mentioned on their website while writing this story. I then had to request the credit card machine, and was surprised to see it being a tiny Yoco machine, not befitting the stature of a restaurant aiming to be number one in our country. It was brought by another waiter, and is complicated to use in conjunction with an iPad, the payment not working. By then I had got up out of total impatience, walking towards the restaurant door. Then we were told that the machine had not been charged, and would have to be charged, which Chef Rikku said was not correct. Waiter Neville managed to finally take the payment from Bernard’s and from my credit cards, by which time I was so irate that I just wanted to get out of the restaurant. I felt totally embarrassed that I had invited my son and his partner, as well as persuaded my tour client Bernard to join us to eat at what I believe will become the hottest restaurant in Cape Town if not in our country, but it was nowhere near that quality level on Friday, and I wanted to cry in disappointment and embarrassment. A very expensive evening that ended so disappointingly.
From our conversation, my dining companions were very negative about the furniture of the restaurant, not reflecting the stature of the restaurant. There were too many dishes presented with liquid nitrogen, a by now has-been smoke creation technique, Chef Rikku having told me that he is at great pains to avoid doing what other chefs do. Technically they felt that the dishes were robust individually, but that the dinner lacked a story, it not being told, and there being no connection between the various menu sections. The difference between the Farm and Field menu sections was not clear, sounding very similar. I had provided feedback about the music of the launch evening, and it had definitely improved, but the initial Jazz was too loud and too Hotel-like.
For diners like myself, who enthusiastically follow Chef Rikku and his team for its cuisine creativity, and in all likelihood have eaten at the restaurant at Gåte where they opened a year ago, at the SŸN pop-up during our winter, and now at Exhibit A, there is too much similarity in some of the dishes originally created by Chef Rikku and served at Gåte, and now at Exhibit A, with one difference: at Gåte there was more molecular gastronomy, while at Exhibit A this has shifted to more use of liquid nitrogen, with none of the former. I liked the cuisine theatre at the table, something we got a taste of at Gåte already.
I have experienced that Chef Rikku accepts feedback, and that he works with it to make his restaurant better. This applied to the dishes, there being a huge improvement in the Cowpea panna cotta and Wagyu beef dishes within two weeks. But sadly and very disappointingly, the Service had deteriorated between the two dinners, and is nowhere near the standard of the dishes which are served by a most creative team of chefs at Exhibit A. Exhibit A is a jewel which needs a lot more polishing to get it to where it is aiming for!
Exhibit A, 3rd floor, 47 Bree Street, Cape Town. Tel. 060 392 2234 www.exhibita.co.za Instagram: @exhibit_a_by_syn @chef_rikku @chefking29 @chrismorrison_88
Chris von Ulmenstein, WhaleTales Blog: www.chrisvonulmenstein.com/blog Tel +27 082 55 11 323 Twitter:@Ulmenstein Facebook: Chris von Ulmenstein Instagram: @Chrissy_Ulmenstein