Story of a Plate: Citrus Cured Seabass at The Pool Room

On the menu: Citrus cured seabass with duck liver parfait, fine herbs, pickled cucumber, red pepper essence

We recently enjoyed the suprising combination of duck liver parfait with cured fish in this very pretty dish. How did you conceive of putting those two together?  

Chef Gordon Manuel: This dish is from our Discovery menu, and while The Pool Room and Oak Valley have always been well-known for their pork and beef, those can get a little bit heavy, so part of my thinking since we took over the operation of the restaurant was to add a bit more finesse, but finesse without being overly finicky – no tweezers and that type of thing. It’s also about balance; adding something to the menu that’s not so meat-heavy, and that works really well.

The Discovery menu is designed to give our guests a few more different options. But whatever is on that menu is not just there to be different or unusual – it also has to make sense. We offer Oak Valley wine pairings for each dish, and the suggestion for the seabass is the 2016 “Beneath the Clouds” Chardonnay. So we start with the farmed seabass, which we cure with some fennel seeds, citrus peel and sugar and salt, as you would a normal gravad lax. We don’t want to overcure it – one day tops – and then we introduce more acid with lemons, oranges, and some grapefruit. Sustainability is really important for us here, so we want to show off everything we’ve got growing in our garden, like fennel fronds, and nasturtiums – whatever we have available.

Those little yellow flowers – fennel too?

Gordon: Yes, fennel flowers… basically anything we can find in the garden that will help the dish “pop”. But it’s quite interesting that when we tasted the fish with the wine, its pronounced acidity required some other element to stand up to the chardonnay. To my mind, that was something a bit buttery, and with a bit of spice. At first we thought of just adding freshly pan-seared duck liver, but it lacked that creaminess we were going for. So we tried the parfait, which was the right direction, but something was still missing, so we added the red pepper essence, which is basically a red pepper coulis which has been cooked down with a bit of smoked paprika, just to give it a bit of spice without too much heat. That, for me, was the perfect combination. When some people look at it, they’re still a little hesitant, thinking “should we try that?”, but the ingredients really work wonderfully together.

It’s true – when you see it on the menu, or even just look at the picture, it’s difficult to imagine those elements coming together, but when you describe the thinking behind it (and indeed when you taste it!), the dish makes complete sense! And is there fish roe included also?

Gordon: Those are yuzu [an Asian citrus fruit] pearls.

Which you make yourself?

Gordon: Yes – we don’t really do many “molecular gastronomy” type-things, but we give some things a try every now and again. I don’t have a lot of sous chefs, chefs de partie and other staff behind me, so we’ve got to think of things that really work. The Discovery menu does give me a little bit of room to play, but in truth most of the guests who come here are going to want to try the rib-eye from the grill, or the fillet, or the pork belly. Still, the Discovery menu lets me feature things like hanger steak, so it’s more about introducing people to a few new things (which to be honest not everybody “gets” all the time – some guests still expect the hanger steak to be as soft as a piece of fillet).

Though since things like hanger steak are showing up on more and more menus, there’s certainly a higher general level of knowledge of different cuts of meat or unusual ingredients than, say, five or ten years ago?

Gordon: Most definitely – if I were to have put something like that on my menu five or six years ago, I would have had hell on my hands!

And where do you source the ducks that you use to make the duck liver parfait?

Gordon: We try to source as locally as possible. For example I have four or five different farms growing organically for me, so I can Whatsapp them during the week to ask what they have available for me – someone will have spinach; someone will have lettuce. I’ve got a local guy in Grabouw growing king oyster mushrooms for me, so we develop the menu according to what each one brings. I mainly get the duck livers from Elgin Ridge, which is another organic wine farm which has ducks walking around to eat all the snails, and they keep all of their livers for me. It works. It’s not always possible, but we really do try.

It’s such a rich area –  in our feature on the risotto with mussels at Source in Hermanus, chef Warwick also described the kind of network of farmers in the area, and how the whole Overberg region is a largely self-sustaining and really bountiful area.

Gordon: When my wife Emma and myself made the move out here in 2008, to open the restaurant at South Hill, there was the Peregrine Farm Stall, and that was about it! Our original concept is finally what we’re doing now. The produce was available then, but all of a sudden, the network has really grown. And of course, at Oak Valley, the world’s your oyster for farming, flowers, and excellent wine.

It’s certainly become something of a destination – you even have a smokehouse right next door, which seems a bit random at first, but that’s just another sign of people making really good use of the produce. Tell us about the “Chefs in Action” concept of your restaurant?

Gordon: We took over The Pool Room in October 2015, and it has taken a bit longer than expected to get to doing what we believe is the right thing to do. We finally bit the bullet in July and made a proper open-plan kitchen, where guests can see me work every day. I of course can’t make everything, but by having a hand in every dish that comes out from my pass, I have more control over making sure that everything is as it should be before being sent out to guests. Everything now works together, which also allowed our menu to come together. We probably should have done this from the start, but unfortunately it didn’t work out like that.

We all get cleverer in hindsight! If people want to try this dish, can they still find it on the Discovery menu for a while?

Gordon: In season when it’s busy we try to change the menu every two weeks or so, but this will still be on the menu for the next couple of weeks.

Where to get it: The Pool Room, Oak Valley Estates, Elgin. 021 859 4111.