There have been some ambivalently rave reviews of swank new Riboville, a restaurant which spans a block from St. George’s Mall to Adderley street. I was taken by reviews and last night Freddie Shoulda-Known-Better and I decided to take it in.
We had no reservation, but we went early so we could finish early enough to go and watch Liverpool lose to Chelsea. Walking in at 18h35 from the mall side, it wasn’t exactly welcoming. They open for dinner at 18h30, but there were hardly any staff around, and no one at the entrance to welcome patrons – not even any signage to point the way. The size of the place obviously added to my own feeling of being a drifter in a strange place. Kitchen staff behind various counters gave us a glance, but goddammit, where was the host to show us to a table? We were early diners, yes, but if they open at 18h30 they should be ready at 18h30 certainly.
We wandered around a bit. Far, far away on the Adderley side were two people standing around chatting – clearly staff, but they paid no attention to us. We could have been rogues, murderers and thieves (it was a bank before) and could have made off with some tuna and barracuda.
Freddie Shoulda-Known-Better walked up to the host in her very short harlequin dress; yes, we walked up to her – she didn’t come dashing professionally up to us, which I thought would rather be the case. She made a show of consulting her reservations and gave us a table. That done, we thought maybe a pre-prandial in the loungey area close to the Asian kitchen (it has two kitchens, a sushi bar, a deli bar, and some other counter and bar areas). The cigar lounge was at that moment occupied – a staff meeting that, of course, explained the empty train-station feel.
The host was a bit slow in sending a waiter to us – well, there were none around at that time, but, gawd, seeing that the place was still empty, couldn’t she herself then have helped us in the meantime?
A waiter finally arrived. After wrestling with a rather finicky ring-file drinks menu, we had our pre-prandials, perusing menus and watching the place start filling up. The menu explains the setup: two main kitchens – Codfather’s, specialising in fish (one redmeat dish: Fillet Mignon), and an Asian kitchen with, erm, that fusion type food. As always, my mind went into indecision-overdrive.
What surprised both Freddie and I were the relatively reasonable prices. It is pricy, with mains in the R100-R120 range, and well above average good restaurant prices, but from the raving reviews I had seen, and the accolades that the place was garnering, I was expecting much higher prices.
The architectural space of Riboville is certainly a marvel and it feels like a restaurant in which you might just bump into a godfather or two, perhaps sitting three tables away from a politician on his payroll. Think City Hall with Al Pacino and you have a sense of the art deco grandeur of the place. For this reason it is perhaps best not to go too early, because the place needs people in it before you can appreciate it’s aesthetics. When it’s empty it is just too vast.
Our starters were ready, so too the table, by which time the place was starting to hum. And, thank gawd, the music was background enough so that you didn’t have to shout at your dinner companions.
But this is where my heart sank. My calamari starter was horribly overdone. While I like crispy tentacles, these were hard as jawbreakers (R36). Freddie’s sardines (also I think R36) he enjoyed, with so much gusto that one fish head landed under the table. (I think it’s still there.)
My indecision with my mains continued and, while standing at the fish counter pondering the rather limited selection of fish (swordfish, tuna, sole, barracuda, kingklip – sign of the times I guess), my mind ranged through teh menu again, from fillet to lamb rack to duck back to lamb rack but maybe some swordfish or, mmm, even barracuda, all with their own fusion type accompaniments… You know, wasabi mash, savoury mash, coulis of this, coulis of that.
But warned by the disclaimer on the menu that food ordered from different kitchens may not arrive at the same time, we chose fish: Freddie settled on tuna, me on barracuda, each piece in the region of R120 (yes, they were big pieces).
The food was ordinary – his tuna was seared, my fish spent perhaps two minutes too long on the grill. I’ve had better seafood, often, at the Ocean Basket, and just couldn’t understand the rave reviews the place had garnered. There are negative reviews, and I concur; I just don’t understand the good ones.
And I am loathe to accept the ‘bad night’ apology, because there are places that serve consistently good food. Caveau springs to mind immediately, and I remember very good food stretching back to their opening at Heritage Square.
We decided on a smoke break before sorbet and headed for the cigar lounge, which, in relation to the size of the restaurant itself, can only be characterised as a bus-stop. Packed with oversized leather couches, it has space for perhaps ten people cramped in. We were seven in there and the smoke was enough to make me want to give up smoking.
Freddie said the berry sorbet was from Woolworths and after the delicious apple sorbet we had at Balducci’s a few weeks ago, this was again an ordinary affair.
Overall then, I was deeply disappointed with the food. At the prices, I expected something more than decent, but got only ordinary, if not worse than ordinary. I’ll go back there, and try the duck. The lamb going to another table also looked good. So, I’ll be back, but my first visit was certainly not inspiring.
Dinner courtesy of Freddie Shoulda-Known-Better. Brought to you by the Black SouthEater. We be diggin’, you be watchin’ this space