Story of a Plate: Saldanha Bay Mussels at Upper Bloem Restaurant

On the menu: Saldanha Bay mussels – spekboom / samphire / parsley oil / sea essence

We asked chef Andre Hill to talk us through his favourite dish on the menu at the newly opened Upper Bloem Restaurant.

Chef Andre Hill: The dish that I enjoy the most – because it reminds me very much of growing up – is the mussels. The dish itself is fairly simple; nothing very complicated in terms of either ingredients or techniques – we make a broth from smoked snoek, which we cook the mussels in, and use again to make the emulsion that goes with them. We then take some leeks, cook them for about seven minutes in a bit of oil, and then char them. So the plate consists of a mussel emulsion, the actual mussels, charred leeks, a bit of parsley oil, and then we finish it off with spekboom.

For readers who aren’t familiar – spekboom?

Andre: It’s an ingredient that’s starting to come in with a lot of suppliers – a plant you can find all over, but which was overlooked for many years. It’s slightly citrusy, with a lovely sort of juiciness, and a slight acidity which has a great impact on the dish by balancing out the smokiness from the smoked snoek, the richness from the emulsion and the parsley oil, and then you get little bits of this succulent exploding in your mouth as you eat it, which really lifts the dish up.

So it’s a pretty simple dish, but the reason I like it the most is that I spent a lot of time on the West Coast as a kid – my uncle was a snoek fisherman, so we used to go out on the boat with him, and we would often chill on the rocks and get some mussels off the rocks and cook them up on the beach. It’s the taste of what I remember from those years…

A nostalgic dish, then?

Andre: Exactly. With the restaurant itself – a lot of people are calling it Cape Malay, but it’s not exclusively Cape Malay – it’s about a lot of different experiences of Cape Malay. We don’t want to be disingenuous in our approach and say that this is a Cape Malay place, because that’s not true. Obviously in the Bo-Kaap where I grew up, there’s a huge Cape Malay influence, but that’s not our only experience of Cape Town; there are other elements too.

It’s understandable that many chefs prefer not to be categorised in that way, because it does influence people’s expectations, and can “box” you in in some ways. But there’s definitely a thread throughout the [set] meal where even big, punchy flavours work together in a very nuanced way which may not be familiar to palates that didn’t grow up in the Bo-Kaap. Still, would you say that this is “your” dish, or at least one that you created to evoke a particular memory?

Andre: Correct, but as a chef, it’s important that everyone gets acknowledged for their input, from bottom to top. So, another important thing about the restaurant is that Henry [Vigar, co-owner of Upper Bloem, and chef-owner of La Mouette, where Andre worked previously] also plays quite a big role, and there is a team that contributes – the limelight was never really something that I sought out.

Let’s bring the limelight back to the mussels then! They’re sourced from Saldanha, and are presumably farmed and therefore sustainable? And what happens to the snoek from the broth?

Andre: Yes, unless you get someone to go and get “wild” mussels, most of them are farmed, and they have farms out at sea in Saldanha, so sustainability is thankfully not really an issue when it comes to mussels here.

As for the snoek, it gets cooked for quite a long time (and we cook both the bones and the meat), so you can’t really use it again. If there is anything leftover, we just move that along to staff sandwiches.

But moving it into staff sandwiches is using it again – part of the whole cycle, and the involvement of the whole team!

Finally, you do realise that the name of the restaurant can be a bit confusing, seeing as you’re located on Main Road in Greenpoint?  

Andre: [Laughs] Yes – we do realise that, and we did deliberate about that in the initial stages. However, we thought it made sense to the story, because that’s physically where I grew up (on Upper Bloem Street – my folks stayed on the one side of the road, and my grandparents on the other side of the road, so that was quite cool), and Upper Bloem is one of the highest streets in the Bo-Kaap, with incredible views. So, we decided the pros outweigh the cons.

Nothing wrong with a bit of confusion, as long as it doesn’t prevent anyone from finding the restaurant!

Where to find it: Upper Bloem Restaurant, Shop 1, Winston Place, 65 Main Road, Greenpoint. 021 433 1442.

P.S. Chef Andre promises the mussel dish will remain on the dinner menu for at least the next two weeks, but you’re bound to find something equally enticing in its place when the kitchen decides to make a change. (The triple cooked potato with Muizenberg sour figs, curry sauce and bhaji powder is worth the trip alone.)