It fascinates me how easily food transforms from good to great by adding one simple ingredient. If you have ever forgotten salt in a dish you understand exactly what I am talking about.
It’s this perfect balance of ingredients that creates harmony on your plate and on your palate. The evolution of food is intriguing. Don’t you ever wonder how food pioneers stumbled on salt, or who figured that fire would cook meat and transform it into something exceptional? Or if you add a bulb of garlic and a pinch of salt, what you would create is a phenomenal meal that would be the base of thousands of other dishes? Food for thought.
Today, in the restaurant arena where thousands of chefs compete in an oversaturated market, it is far more difficult to put fire, meat and salt together and expect it to wow your guests. So when I find a place creating exceptional food, by chefs who continue to push ingredient boundaries, I want to shout it from the rooftops. So hear goes! Exhibit A by Chef Rikku Marais-Ó’Donnchü and Chef Warwick King is a place to intrigue and confuse your tastebuds (in a good way of course).
There is nothing you will recognise on the menu because nothing they create is conventional and that’s a good place to start if you want to understand their food. If you’re looking at the menu you better hurry up because a few courses in, the menu becomes part of the dish.
Exhibit A – true to it’s name – is the first piece of evidence that food is evolving in Cape Town. A 12-course tasting menu seems a little daunting but it has been perfectly portioned to satisfy your appetite.
Located on the fourth level of Villa 47 on Bree Street, the name is an interesting combination of art and science. An art-decor suspended ceiling at the entrance of the restaurant gives you a little insight into what to expect from the food. The main dining area is saturated in soft light and emerald green walls with circular, triangular and cylindrical accents which create a futuristic look.
Chef Rikku describes the menu as fun-dining not fine-dining. Which is a great way to look at it.
“We like to play with your senses through our food and it’s not a stiff or over-calculated space. Anybody, dressed anyway is welcome here,” says Rikku.
The menu is presented on a little white sheet with four sections, the Earth, Sea, Farm and Field.
A square box imitating the perfect miniture flower garden is the first course. And so begins this unique journey of uncovering Chef Rikku’s most loved destinations.
“My favourite thing to eat is any version of curry, from anywhere in the world, whether it’s Thailand or Malaysia. It’s a real flavour impact, where your senses are booming and alive – and that is what I try and portray in all my dishes,” he says.
And Exhibit A sits in front of us. I am a huge fan of panipuri – an indian delicacy in the form of a crispy pocket filled with smoked jalapeño, cucumber and coriander relish with a mint yoghurt sphere. In one bite, the pocket melts and the goodness tucked inside swirls together to create the perfect mouthful.
The dish that has defined Rikku’s excellence is served next and it’s called Holy Smoke. Holy because it needs to be revered for the genius behind it. It is a cigar made of bread and an ashtray complete with smoke, ash and fire made of onion mousse, onion embers, onion jam and a bao bread cigar.
He first created it in the UK at Merchants about seven years ago and it has evolved since.
“The dish has become somewhat of a trend. Everybody knows us for it,” he says proudly.
The tangy smokey ash melts as soon as it touches your mouth and the bread is beautifully light. After each bite, you are trying to convince your brain that you are consuming something edible because it so closely mimics a cigar and ashtray.
A dish from the sea arrives in a scallop shell on a block of dry ice. Inside the shells, scallops are sliced and drenched in a Cape Malay and raspberry vinegar dressing, raw okra and fermented lime emulsion. Sweet, salty and succulent is the best way to describe this course. I have never had raw okra before and it pairs surprisingly well with the scallop.
My favourite ‘from the farm’ course is without a doubt the cowpea and truffle Panna Cotta. It is an indescribably rich, balanced and sexy flavour. A black yolk sits on a plate with Kalahari truffle, a maize cracker, chive flowers and white balsamic. When you break the yolk, the flavours mesh together symbiotically, your palate is utterly confused but your heart is so happy. Truffle is the flavour your senses remember after each spoonful.
Rikku explains all the twists and turns on the menu perfectly, “There are quite bold flavours going on a lot of the time but that’s my palate, so I am cooking for myself and hoping everyone is going to like it,” he laughs.
More trickery comes in the form of dessert. The star of the show is beetroot which gives you a false positive on the calorie front. Are you consuming a dessert or a salad? Or a salad in the form of a dessert? I’m still wondering. Beetroot parfait, ganache, sherbet, meringue, sorbet, candy and gold leaf were arranged beautifully on a plate. Then in one swift move, our menus were dipped into liquid nitrogen and sprinkled over dessert. Nose to tail, meal to menu – nothing gets wasted.
Between the dramatic effects, bellows of smoke and exquisite flavour profiles lies organic and seasonal simple ingredients that are turned into extraordinary pieces of work by the very talented chefs. The charm of the eatery is the worldly experience.
“You don’t have to leave Cape Town to taste the world,” says Rikku. “We’re hoping this space transports you to whatever place you would want to be.” And he would be spot on, this is a space where flavours from the world collide on one unconventional, edible menu.
Food is about fun, and at Exhibit A you can enjoy both food and fun, together on one plate, with smoke and a pinch of salt.
Contact: 060 392 2234
Address: 47 Bree St, Cape Town City Centre