Daisy Jones: Wolfgat is the world’s best restaurant: Why does it matter?

By , 23 February 2019

Wolfgat

The view from the Wolfgat terrace.

Earlier this week, Kobus van der Merwe’s small Paternoster restaurant, Wolfgat, was named Restaurant of the Year according to the inaugural World Restaurant Awards (see here).

Naturally, this provided us with a Proudly South Africa moment, but what was the significance in terms of international fine dining?

It mattered because Wolfgat does not fit the stereotype – it doesn’t even fit in the fitting room of the stereotype – of a fine dining restaurant.

Wolfgat is not in an urban centre like London, Paris or New York. Wolfgat does not use luxury ingredients. Wolfgat does not guarantee signature dishes.

Wolfgat has a tiny staff, none of them with formal training. Wolfgat’s chef patron, Kobus van der Merwe, is always there, and often serves. Wolfgat produces no more than seven meals a week, to a maximum of 20 people per sitting.

In terms of most people’s knee-jerk idea of fine dining – capital F, capital D – Wolfgat winning Restaurant of the Year seems like crowning someone Miss Universe for being thoughtful.

It’s not.

The judges didn’t care about what Wolfgat wasn’t, they cared about what Wolfgat was.

What Van der Merwe’s restaurant does is to push current fine dining trends to the limit.

Wolfgat takes freshness to another level.
Five mornings a week, Van der Merwe and his team set off to forage coastal plants like dune spinach and soutslaai. They stand in rock pools to collect seaweed. The farmed mussels and oysters Wolfgat orders from nearby Saldanha Bay are delivered live. Fresh bread is made daily. Almost none of Wolfgat’s ingredients have travelled, and if they have, they haven’t been part of a cold food chain. Nothing has been frozen.

Wolfgat takes seasonality to another level.
Using seasonal produce is a no-brainer for chefs. Imported produce is inauthentic, and besides, our mouths want root vegetables in winter and peaches in summer, not the other way round. But the foraging that Wolfgat does is not just subject to the seasons, it’s subject to the weather, and the tides. Peaches link the diner to summer, but dune celery picked after a storm, during low tide, links the diner to the landscape.

Wolfgat takes sustainability to another level.
There’s a good reason why Wolfgat insists on bookings. Van der Merwe is fiercely anti-waste. He collects and orders ingredients relative to the number of diners booked for lunch and dinner. There are five lunches a week and two dinners.

In terms of the ingredients he does use, almost everything is wild – including meats like venison – which means no land-damaging farming.

The mussels and oysters he uses are farmed, but these molluscs are filter feeders and actually clean the water in which they are grown. Unlike farmed fish, they require no feed or antibiotics.

The yellowtail, snoek, angelfish and maasbanker that Van der Merwe uses for his fish dishes are firmly on the Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative’s (SASSI’s) green list.

Wolfgat takes regionality to another level.
Food tastes better when it’s fresh and in season. That’s obvious. Demonstrating what is possible with sustainable ingredients is laudable. The regional bit is more complex. This is where we start to understand Van der Merwe’s artistry; how he creates within the boundaries he has set for himself.

The principle of regionality is simple: From a taste point of view, the chance of a dish being sublimely delicious are higher if the tastes on the plate relate deeply to each other. For instance, if a lamb grew up nibbling wild oregano on a hillside it will work to cook it with that very plant. If the two are cooked in oil from olives that grew on the same hillside, so much the better. In regional cooking, the tastes run into each other, forming echoes and amplifications. There’s an evenness of tone, if you like, and that is potentially beautiful, as it is in a painting. Regional cooking also enhances a sense of place. The joy and interest that comes from eating authentically regional food can’t be underestimated.

What Wolfgat does is to take the idea of regionality and crank it up to full. A great deal of what you will eat at Wolfgat was in sight of your table just hours before. Almost all of the other ingredients were sourced from farms within a 10km radius. Van der Merwe tries to resist labels but when pressed he will define his food as West Coast “Strandveldkos” (“beach bush food”). The Strandveld is an endangered botanical region similar to regions in the Mediterranean. It occupies a narrow, 200kstrip of coastline running north from Cape Town

Wolfgat takes heritage cooking to another level
Europeans settled in Paternoster 200 years ago, but San hunter-gatherers lived in the area for thousands of years before that. The many shell middens in Paternoster attest to this. The middens overlap the period before and after the arrival of Khoekhoe pastoralists.

Wolfgat the restaurant is named for the ancient cave that sits under the restaurant building and above the beach. Some of South Africa’s earliest people would have sat in this cave and eaten items that now appear on Van der Merwe’s menu: mussels, oysters, shallow water fish and coastal vegetation.

Van der Merwe often says he was inspired by C. Louis Leipoldt’s “Cape Cookery”, written in the early 1900s. The book contains forgotten recipes for Cape fish, game, seafood and vegetables.

What Wolfgat does, most deliberately, is to link pre- and post-colonial tastes and cooking methods. In the South African context, it’s both progressive and gastronomically inspiring to develop culinary styles according to region, not culture.

Wolfgat takes deliciousness to another level.
Homework is done, let’s eat. It’s easy to agree that Wolfgat is pioneering, but is the food delicious? Principle is nothing compared to the palate.

Here comes a glass of cool water, a sprig of fat, wild thyme suspended in it. Would we like the wine pairing to go with the seven courses? We would.

The wines and craft beers have been selected – as you would expect – from the surrounding areas. The nearby wine farming areas are Darling, Swartland and Kelp Coast.

Van der Merwe likes a nice liquor. He has been known to cook with a Strandveld fynbos vermouth. His knowledge of local wines is good and his pairing choices are careful.

The bread selection has arrived. Sometimes a loaf of bread is flecked with seaweed; sometimes it is served alongside herb and bokkom butter. The butter in question is farm butter, and it’s made here. Sometimes the butter is flavoured with bokkoms, then melted and served with homemade breadsticks. Bokkoms are small, salted, dried fish (usually maasbanker – horse mackerel – or harders – mullet), a West Coast speciality.

Van der Merwe is a dab-hand at farm butter and bakes. His father was a farmer, and so was his grandfather. When his parents retired to Paternoster, they bought Die Winkel Op Paternoster. The shop quickly became famous for the family’s fresh farm bread, buttermilk rusks and soetkoekies.

Oyster

Warm oyster with dune spinach and gooseberry on beach stones.

Here’s the first course, a single plump oyster, lightly roasted with a touch of Van der Merwe’s own butter. It’s served warm, the shell resting on warmed sea stones. Your oyster – alive in the sea just hours ago – is topped with a square of young soutslaai leaf – cool and salty – and a single dune spinach leaf — slightly fat and sticky. The greens form a refreshing contrast to the warm, sweet richness of the oyster.  A single, just-picked gooseberry spikes the dish with sweet acid. Today, the dish is served with a Strandveld fynbos vermouth, made on the premises.

Another day at Wolfgat, the first course might be poached oysters with tsamma melon and samphire. It could be wild sage soup, with a single scoop of pickled onion floating on top.

The second course is here: black mussels with oven-dried “klipkombers” (similar to Japanese nori seaweed). The fast-cooked mussels are plump with sealed-in sweetness, the cream and wine sauce is luxurious and sophisticated. The thin strips of seaweed added to the sauce infuse seawater salt and deep green flavour. A shard of the crackly seaweed crowns the dish and offsets its silky textures.

Another second-course possibility is minced limpets, poached in white wine and garlic, served in a shell on a bed of snoek sout. This dish comes with local sparkling wine.

Equally, it could be Saldanha Bay mussels with cauliflower and dune celery or mussel umqa (pap) with shoreline greens. It might be Jacobsbaai abalone with split fin kelp.

What’s next? Yellowtail pickle with ice plant? Smoked angelfish with slangbessie, soutslaai and spring flowers? Watermelon soutslaai with raw yellowtail?

The meat course – springbok, in this case – is both familiar and exotic: thin slices of deep red meat with grassy !nara shoots, creamy olive oil and dried sprinkles of snoek roe. The dehydrated roe is an umami agent; it acts like Parmesan in this dish. Together, the roe, game, oil and greens mirror an Italian carpaccio.

If we’re lucky the fourth course will be grilled fish served alongside a tea-smoked tomato and masala heerenbone. These big, cream-coloured local beans are one of Van der Merwe’s favourite ingredients. Then again, it might be carrot and dune celery bobotie.

Dune celery ice cream

Dune celery ice cream.

Dune celery is used for dessert as well as the main course. This ice cream is a triumph: palest mint green with flavours of herb, lemon and coconut. It’s served on a biscuit crumb, with sugary, pistachio and wheat-coloured “wafers” generously and numerously plunged into the scoop.

In the days of Oep ve Koep –Van der Merwe’s first restaurant, adjoining Die Winkel – I was served half a pear that had been poached in the fynbos vermouth. It was accompanied by a buchu ice cream. There were citrusy flavours – orange oil in the vermouth; grated lemon zest on the ice cream – to contrast with the rich cream and earthy buchu in the ice cream. The ice cream was topped with three-leaf clovers, a taste that took me back to school fields at break.

I loved the wooden dessert bowl. How better to underline pudding comfort than with a bowl that won’t be scraped or clinked?

Wolfgat’s deep, dark espresso with its thick, caramel-coloured crema is served in a wonky mug with no handle.

Van der Merwe is an aesthete, as well as being a flavour artist. The conversion of a 130-year-old fisherman’s cottage into a small, stylish restaurant has been achieved with extraordinary restraint.

The interior is low-ceilinged and open-plan, with the dining area and kitchen sharing the same space. The terrace offers a full view of Paternoster beach and the bay. This is the end of the beach where the fishing boats come in.

Importantly, the sky view dominates. Wolfgat’s menu is not just a product of what’s at ground level, it’s also a product of the weather.

Wolfgat garden

The garden at Wolfgat.

Beyond the terrace, gravel has been lain between informal beds of coastal fynbos. A café table waits under a tree for diners wishing to take coffee in the sea air. This is Van der Merwe’s world: where the water meets the land. If your image is of a Van Gogh-type figure, laboring silently for his art – “away from the noise and haste” – you wouldn’t be far wrong.

Van der Merwe is a marvel, and his star has been on the rise.

In spite of the fact that he dropped out of cooking school, his farm upbringing, his dedication to vision and his artistry led to him being voted Eat Out Chef’s Chef of 2017. The voters were the chefs of the country’s top 30 nominated restaurants that year.

Last year Van der Merwe was Eat Out’s Chef of the Year.

The members of Wolfgat’s staff, which consists mainly of women, are not formally trained. Van der Merwe describes the dynamic in the kitchen as “democratic”.

In addition to being named Restaurant of the Year, Wolfgat was awarded Best Off-Map Destination for “remote restaurants where the journey to get there is a story”.

These global awards are richly deserved and will send a message to local and international chefs that humility, dedication and creativity – even in the humblest circumstances – will attract notice.

  • Daisy Jones has eaten several meals prepared by Kobus van der Merwe. She was inspired by his book, Strandveldkos, published in 2014. She reviewed Oep ve Koep in 2015, and dined at Wolfgat in April 2017.

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