Look at this picture.
Don’t you instantly wish you were there? There’s a mesmerising quality to natural spaces like this, and Wolfgat perfectly captures the essential nature of this part of the Cape’s West Coast by being housed in a historic fisherman’s cottage (luckily) with wind-protected views – and then having the sensitivity to minimise all else so that you experience, simply, being here. It’s quite remarkable.
Then look at this picture.
Yes, that is a coupe glass, for which there are fantastic origin stories, but which has not been the go-to vessel for sparkling wine for some time now, as they disperse bubbles rather quickly. The coupe is now used mainly for cocktails, so here it’s used either for its whimsy or its “old-fashioned” look – but it also signals a chef who has an aesthetic sensibility that is not slave to the contemporary, or the “correct”.
Chef Kobus van der Merwe was featured on our Story of a Plate series a while back for his bokkom butter, and this is still a menu standard with the bread course; while at the moment (for this summer season) he is revisiting some of the recipes that appeared in his cookbook, Strandveld Food, which is currently out of print. Happily, there is a reprint in the works for early 2019. The Strandveld is the arid coastal region of the west coast of South Africa that chef Van der Merwe celebrates in his cuisine, the menu also supplying the Latin name for the vegetal items that he collects from both land and the rocky coastline. These unique plants are paired with seafoods, frequently, and occasionally some locally-sourced meats. Here the meal takes the form of a tasting menu, with no à la carte.
Lunch began with a series of “Strandveld snacks”. “Kiesieblaar” with angelfish was first, “kiesieblaar” being the leaf of the widespread malva (pelargonium) plant, here crisped to become the “sandwich” to the sashimi-style raw fish. Angelfish was a slightly egregious point of departure, as it is a by-catch of offshore commercial trawlers and so not quite in keeping with how the rest of the meal told a local supplier story – but the idea of the plate was good, and the textures lovely, crisp and essentially marine.
Next up were a couple of oysters, lifted by a granita of lychee plus a nub of veldkool (a wild asparagus-like plant) to give it a herbal plus slightly fruity dimension. A delight of subtlety.
Then lightly smoked black mussels perched amongst scorched wild sage which adds its distinctive aroma. Presenting mussel this lightly cooked is not typical, but again signals Wolfgat’s focus on the pure and less adorned flavour of things.
The first plated course that followed was paired with its own (savoury tomato) drink – an idea that was repeated quite frequently in the meal and added another interesting dimension to the plates – although it did detract from the usefulness (and question the place) of also having a wine pairing. (These wine pairings feature local and more unusual bottles.) The watermelon with soutslaai, dune celery, tomato and bokkom was absolutely superb – the bright, crunchy textures and the fascinating interplay of sweet, salty and savoury flavours made this plate one of the highlights of my dining year and it’s sure to be a summer classic.
Smoked angelfish with heerenbone and dune spinach followed. Heerenbone are an increasingly rare type of bean that is grown only here on the west coast – with their delicious full flavour it would be a tragedy for them to disappear. The fish was enhanced with crispy skin, and the dune spinach added another crunchy dimension to the soft-textured fish. A subtle but satisfying plate, and more about round, rather than angular, textures.
Another seafood course followed in the form of locally-caught Cape bream with seepampoen, klipkombers and seekoraal – the latter two items being varieties of seaweed found on the local shores. Served sashimi-style, the seafood was allowed to showcase absolute freshness – and the accompaniments added savoury marine layers. A delightful cup of light and fresh bream bone stock came with it.
The fullest flavoured plate, in the sense that here the flavours had been the furthest enhanced by ensemble and added elements, came in the form of Saldanha Bay mussels, tjokka, wild garlic masala and sambals. Tjokka is local for calamari and its essential texture is celebrated on this plate – along with delicate curried elements.
Amasi, strawberry and soutslaai was a pre-dessert, amasi a light yoghurt – so a take on “strawberries and cream” with accompanying strawberry shrub – the most refreshing drink you can imagine.
And finally, nectarine ice cream with wild sage meringue – elegant and delicious – partnered with (in a traditional enamel cup) a house-made vermouth. Chef Kobus uses the local aromatic plants in his seasonal bitters to make up the base for this vermouth, explaining that “the top notes change between winter and summer” according to the different plants used. Perfectly refreshing and a fitting lightly astringent accompaniment.
I’d been looking forward to a meal here for some time – and you know how it is when you have expectations. Happily, the experience was all I was hoping it would be, and a few of the plates went even further in leaving an indelible impression and a yearning to return.
There were a few minor issues – for instance I do not think their wine regime is as well conceptualised as the food is; and service, when you are not engaged with chef Kobus, can be vague. But Wolfgat is unquestionably a restaurant where the individualist aesthetic of this chef is explored and brought to life. It’s a purposeful and unique dining experience – something that is quite vanishingly rare. It is also purely and absolutely South African through the focus on indigenous ingredients, most of which are not seen in any other restaurant in the country.
All of this makes Wolfgat a standout dining experience and a must for anyone who has a real interest in food with artistry and intent, or an interest in local flavour. It is certainly not for everyone – but how can a place with this clarity of purpose ever be?
Wolfgat is, without a doubt, one of South Africa’s very best.
10 Sampson Street, Paternoster
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