There’s nothing obvious about Ryan Smith’s food. This chef is on a journey—and he’s taking his guests right along with him. At his Franschhoek restaurant, embark on a culinary odyssey that stretches to formative cooking styles in South African history, to the intangible flavours of childhood nostalgia—all fuelled by the scent and mystery of the Spice Route.
There’s elegance and reverence in his edible storytelling. Don’t expect gauche or gimmicky ‘African food’; with a head full of memories and a gentle touch, Chef Ryan conjures up dishes of unique complexity.
Chef Ryan and his wife, Lana have been steering this ship for the past five years—though with a move in-between. The hands-on pair relocated from a small 10-table restaurant to Place Vendôme approximately a year ago. A beautiful heritage building, Ryan calls it the ‘white elephant’—and it has all the nobility and bones of the majestic creature. The tranquil ambience is complete with wide windows that let the light and mountain views spill in.
Though renowned for a small plate, sharing style menu, Ryan’s opus is the tasting menu ‘Tastes from South Africa’ (available for the entire table only). Guests who are put off of the idea of tasting menus due to the usual stiff and starchy surroundings are in for a surprise here.
From the open plan kitchen at the helm, the restaurant radiates outwards creating the feeling that every table is a ‘chef’s table’. It’s an interactive setting, from which guests can appreciate the fluidity of movement in the kitchen and all its alchemic processes—like a painting in flux the open kitchen enhances the diner’s experience rather than interrupting it.
The calming Cadet-gray walls are adorned with contemporary prints and art, and from the ceiling hang Edison lights bulbs. Designed with long, languid feasts in mind there’s a comfortable banquette running along the perimeter, which guests can sink into, propping themselves up with the equally lush pillows. The home-styled (a very nice home at that) interior acts as the perfect stage for Ryan’s elevated homespun cuisine. In the courtyards flanking the building, there are a number of tables outside too.
“It is South African food taken to the modern day,” says Ryan describing his menu. “Flavours that South Africans would intuitively recognise.” At inception Ryan’s Kitchen started off with a more approachable bistro style of food. “It used to be a little more informal; but our guests have inspired us to push the envelope.” It’s a menu with imagination, flair and ingenuity.
Throughout the offering local and indigenous ingredients are woven together with historical and cultural references. Another part of the South African story is told on the tasting menu with Lana’s deftly matched wines (the majority come from estates in Franschhoek) —the harmonious and complementary pairings neatly tie the experience together.
“When it comes to food and wine pairing it’s more of an intuition thing for me,” says Lana. “I love South African wines and Living in the wine region it is very easy to find wonderful wines. I’ve come across a few boutique wineries with very small production and careful personal approach. I especially like those.”
The wines come as a surprise to the table as they aren’t listed on the tasting menu; and as the dishes change so do the pairings. Dishes are swapped out on a regular base as the seasons change and inspiration strikes.
The experience begins with an unusual bread service; along with the tomato ciabatta, comes silky roti with hummus and salt-and-pepper butter. This is followed with ‘snacks for the table’: the vibrant selection includes, Duck Liver Parfait, Red Cabbage and Chicken Sponge and Mielie Pap with Chakalaka Dip. For a burly chef, Ryan has a delicate touch and an artist’s eye when it comes to presenting his dishes. The food is plated in exquisite crockery, created by local ceramicists; including Diana Ferreira, Mervyn Gers and David Walters.
The tasting menu officially begins with seared tuna, fennel kimchi, lemon and rooibos whipped jelly and a ginger granita, which sings with the Two Dogs, a Peacock & a Horse Sauvignon Blanc from Black Elephant Vintners.
This neatly segways in the Blou Wildebeest tataki with compressed apple, pickled baby turnips and meringue, complemented with a glass of golden Chenin Blanc from Leopard’s Leap Culinaria Collection.
Ryan accelerates the spice exploration with sautéed linefish, enhanced by granadilla atchar and a red pepper confit, and balanced by the Lynx Viognier. Following on beautifully is the bobotie pancake with pineapple and chilli; a whimsical and textured dish, puffed rice pops beneath the soft pancake in the savoury-sweet-spicy mince, foil for berry-burst of the Ken Forrester Petit Pinotage.
The main meal is refined simplicity: seaweed crusted impala loin with glazed chicory, cherries and blackpepper gel, the spice and depth a match for the Rickety Bridge Shiraz.
The sweet courses also stretch into childhood food memories. “Growing up my mum would treat me with an Eskimo pie” and now Ryan treats his guests with an elevated version of it too with a grownup glass of Nederburg Winemasters Reserve Noble Late Harvest.
The experience culminates with petit fours of South African breeding: Dadel Fingers (date fingers), Orange Malva, and Amarula Chocolate Lolly.
Ryan’s Kitchen also offers a Chef’s Selection 4-course menu (with or without wine pairing) as well as an à la carte menu offering small plates (starters), main courses and desserts. One of the signature dishes is always a soufflé—whether savoury or sweet—and Ryan is famed for his unusual flavor combinations with this fluffy classic.
The journey here is not prohibited to the sit-down experience in the restaurant, guests are welcome to pop in and enjoy the bar area at the back for cocktails, local wines and bubblies as well as a selection of delicious snacks.
An odyssey can be defined as ‘a long wandering or voyage usually marked by many changes of fortune’ and here at Ryan’s Kitchen those markers are ones of vibrant flavour.
Open Monday to Saturday, lunch 12:30 – 14:30; dinner 18:30 – late; (soon to be open for afternoon snacks and drinks.) Ryan’s Kitchen is situated in Franschhoek at number 1, Place Vendôme, Huguenot Road. Bookings are advisable, call (021) 876 4598 or email firstname.lastname@example.org For further information visit www.ryanskitchen.co.za