On the restaurant reviewer’s tick list, the décor of Harbour House in Kalk Bay has always scored high. It’s not just the location of the building, boundaried by sea and harbour. The combination of wooden surfaces, picture windows, navy-and-white upholstery fabrics and curved metallic surfaces sends a powerful message to our brains: “I’m on a yacht! Or something! I might be in a millionaire’s penthouse! Let’s get oysters!”
In all his restaurants, owner Michael Townsend has never erred on the visuals. At next-door Lucky Fish & Chips the crisp blue and white décor has a Greek seaside vibe; La Parada across the road nails the sunset tapas mood with exposed brick, bullfight posters and pavement barstools.
But here at the just-opened, ground-level extension of Harbour House, there’s not much that’s new. It’s colonial-coastal chic, expressed in deep brown, cane-seated chairs and a terrific amount of wood painted white. Somehow, down here, it feels more cruise ship than yacht.
Still, it’s bright and smart. I settle into my sea-view seat with the hope – the hope I have every time I visit Harbour House – that the food will be better than last time.
I order the hake. I’m not trying to catch anyone out here. Yes, hake is a difficult fish to turn into a hero. It can be watery and bland. But I’m hoping the hake here will be revelatory. This is a seafood restaurant after all, and one that charges three figures for a main and R220 for a glass of Vin de Constance. My pan-fried hake is to be served on a bed of wilted spinach with citrusy beurre blanc sauce, orange and grapefruit segments, slices of grilled artichoke, fondant potato cubes, cherry tomatoes and deep-fried sage leaves. Hake is local – and sustainable if it’s trawled. Any effort to raise its culinary status is a good thing, as far as I’m concerned.
What a shame. Despite the brochure-ready plating and all the delicious accompaniments, the hake was – sigh – a little watery and bland. During one mouthful, about halfway through the plate, the phrase “very good hospital food” popped, unwelcome, into my mind.
Unwelcome it was, but telling. Harbour House, unlike almost all Townsend’s other restaurants, attracts an older crowd. Many of them seem to be visiting from the UK. Harbour House takes tour buses now.
The staff are upbeat and smartly-dressed. The service is snappy. The location and décor are, as previously mentioned, photogenic in the extreme. On the whole, the food is well-cooked. The wine list has something almost everyone will recognize.
But as I sat looking out to sea, with English-accented tourists oohing and aahing about a seal on the rocks (“Look! He’s got a crayfish!”), I thought how proud I would be to have an envelope-pushing seafood restaurant on this harbour.
There has never had a visionary in the kitchen here, someone to tease the taste possibilities out of the day’s catch; someone to challenge the palette with local ingredients juxtaposed in a new way.
I wonder, what would Rick Stein have made of this place? For that matter, what would the late Bruce Robertson have made of this place? His innovative seafood restaurant, The Flagship – just down the road in Simonstown – featured foraged kelp, sea lettuce and shellfish. Chef-author Kobus van der Merwe, of Oep ve Koep in Paternoster, makes use of foraged sea plants, coastal plants and “heritage” seafood like air-dried, salted fish.
What could a chef committed to sustainable, local seafood do with this menu? They might ditch the unsustainable crowd-pleasers like the prawns and crayfish for a start.
Wouldn’t it be great, I mused, if the staff could talk authoritatively about the provenance of the featured seafood – when, where and how menu items were caught – and not just how they appear on the plate? It would be nice to feel more firmly cemented in Kalk Bay and less like a guest in a floating hotel.
Harbour House doesn’t need a chef in the kitchen. It’s been open for over a decade without one, and it’s done well enough to expand. I salute Mike Townsend – as he once saluted me from his moving scooter – but I dare to dream that one day Kalk Bay restaurateurs will take a risk on gourmet seafood.
Harbour House 021 788 4133; Off Main Road, Kalk Bay Harbour, Kalk Bay