REVIEW Hout Bay relief in nick of time

Are you also annoyed and irritated, tired of being overcharged for food that under-delivers at mediocre eateries passing as restaurants? Surely I can’t be alone here. After too many recent disappointing experiences, I’ve realised I have three alternatives: one, resist spur-of-the-moment meals at popular places because I can often prepare better results at home with similar ingredients. Two, stop dining out completely (impossible). Or three, eat out less often and frequent only owner-run places for modest meals. And occasionally, spend more but eat better at fancier establishments run by chefs with a proven reputation. I’m opting for three.

You’ve surely had similar dismal meals at neighbourhood eateries, entering after assuming the venues can’t be too bad if routinely packed with people? Try strange sauces concocted from the condiment shelf, ruining grilled calamari and chips, or a prawn and chips dish respectively, at Bravado! in Green Point. Nearby, Doppio Zero delivered a R60 salad with contents out of a catering pack. Did the kitchen staff think diners wouldn’t notice old, soggy leaves partnering underripe avocado segments? The offending salad removed, a gristle-ridden steak roll didn’t do much to improve the mood. Take-away pizzas from Southpole near Milnerton revealed a curious bulk cheddar-dominated mozzarella topping (a kitchen cutting corners?), and a hefty R15 charge for basil leaves with additional rocket leaves curiously charged at R5.

dsc_0001.jpg Rather doubtful of ever finding a modestly-priced culinary pick-me-up, six of us went for Sunday lunch in Hout Bay. And I’m happy to report that a new venue called Wild Woods saved the day. A one-page menu offered enticing options, many ingredients sourced from small-time farmers or artisan producers. I spotted some nostalgic dishes I recall eating as a child, but with a creative twist here and there. A hand-selected wine list ignored boring co-operatives or monopoly wineries with convenient distribution, and instead showcased labels from interesting small-timers such as Adi Badenhorst. Six options came in at under R100 a bottle.

Wild Woods opened in January 2010 on the former site of Comida restaurant, adjacent to Chapmans Peak Hotel. Chef and restaurateur Pete Goffe-Wood hasn’t bothered to alter the previous venue’s décor so the loos look a little tacky. But it means hefty overheads aren’t passed on to diners and menu mark-ups are moderate – he wants locals to return as regulars, and a kids menu will attract families (management specifies ‘restaurant-friendly’ children).

The menu punts artisanal and free-range ingredients where possible, and between us we taste-tested a good range of dishes. A platter of talked up Spanish-style ham from Prince Albert’s Jamon Lucas offered salt-cured tanginess with rocket and shaved Parmesan (R60). Wellington’s artisanal Buffalo Ridge mozzarella was the other pricier starter (R60), equally delicious with miniature tomatoes roasted on the vine and homemade pesto. Most starters are between R40 to R50, ranging from Caesar salad to free-range chicken liver parfait, toast and onion marmalade.

dsc_0007.jpg Bistro favourites dominate main course options too, ranging between R60 and R100. Between us we tried crackling-crisped hunks of pork belly - comfort food if ever there was – in a pool of mustard sauce, mash and roasted fennel bulb. Along similar lines, a deliciously old-time Sunday roast beef included creamed horseradish, perfectly puffed Yorkshire pudding and a glossy gravy. Grilled sirloin was nicely aged and ably matched by Café de Paris butter and crunchy narrow chips. Roasted free-range chicken breast sounded an unusual combination with fresh porcini slices, potatoes and béarnaise, but worked surprisingly well on the plate. If anything lagged behind it was service. Friendly enough, but staff training is obviously a work in progress.

We had the choice of gorging on a chocolate pot with homemade malt ice cream or a grape pannacotta with raspberries. The cheese plate offered a good local selection, with toasted homemade bread and relish. Sorbets of the day made a great lighter option, peach working well with a really refreshing grapefruit and Campari combo. It left a sweet note on an uplifting experience all round. Oh, and don’t expect to try all the dishes I’ve recommended - the menu changes often.

WILD WOODS, adjacent to Chapmans Peak Hotel, Hout Bay. Tel 021 791 1166, wild woods Open for lunch Tues to Sat, dinner Tues to Sun. Series of shared platters for Sun dinner at R135 per head.