REVIEW: Bruce Robertson pushes the boat out

dsc_0015.jpg With his A-type personality, background in creative design and drive that reminds of the Duracell bunny that keeps on going, Bruce Robertson is a chef with a big personality and big ideas. He’s known for dishes you have to sit upright and pay attention to, hence they run the risk of being picked apart by his critics as gimmicky. I recall unexpected ingredients or textures in a dish, from popping candy surprises to dishes with endless sauce options on the side, to gourmet street food bunny chows. He’s worked in high-end game lodges and as executive chef at Cape Grace hotel, but is probably best remembered for the open-kitchen culinary performances he gave at The Showroom restaurant.

Bruce disappeared off the scene for the last few years to lead high-end culinary tours and private chef in luxury African safari lodges for some of the world’s pickier travellers. He still pops off for these cooking stints for short periods. He’s remunerated well. But in February 2012 Bruce put down roots again, using the double-story beach house in Scarborough where he now lives as the venue for his most recent restaurant venture The Boat House. dsc_0004.jpg

What a joy to discover the simpler seafood-focused eating experience Bruce is offering. A series of honest dishes prepared with skill, pared down to flavour and texture essentials – of all his cooking, it’s what I’ve liked best. Bruce flair is there in small doses, but the food isn’t trying to attract a diner’s attention with disco balls and neon signage.

How it works: You eat whatever is being prepared on the day – either three courses or five, depending on how much time you have to kill - and sustainably sourced seafood is the focus. There is a Cape twist to some of the dishes, especially in dessert. The middle course changes on a daily basis – Bruce calls it “the bomb” because it’s always packed with flavour – but the rest of the menu remains largely unchanged.

“I don’t cook for passion any more, I cook for a lifestyle. I buy only what I need, which is why my reservation rule is 24 hours in advance,” he says as diners take their seats. The meal starts with a bang. The Boat House chowder. Homemade gnocchi, fresh mussels and hake bits in a salty, stocky bisque with peas. You’re subtly bombarded by flavour hits: piquant chorizo, lemon juice zing, homemade tomato chutney, fresh courgette rounds, the curried spice of a teaspoon of pickled fish. It’s finished with seaweed ‘confetti’.

dsc_0010.jpg After a welcome drink of delicious Cederburg Brut MCC 2007, three wines are served simultaneously at the start of the meal. The pairings are casual, designed for any of the dishes, in any order. They include offdry Cederburg Bukettraube 2011 alongside the dry Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Rosé 2011 and Cederburg Shiraz 2009.

The middle course is equally impressive: a transparent cup and saucer holds a snoek and hake fishcake in a pickled shark bisque (the only anomaly for a sustainable seafood menu because the shark is in SASSI orange territory). Gentle curried flavour with whole coriander seeds, a mascarpone blob of creaminess, plus spicy crunch from Cajun-spiced cashews. All the while it’s Bruce doing the cooking, wine serving and chatting. A one-man show. “It’s all about the prep. I do that at night with a glass of wine,” he says.

dsc_0017.jpg “I’m allowed to drink and work cause I’m self-employed,” Bruce chirps to the assembled lunch guests, warming up. My husband and I are eating, and nearby a tour guide has brought a casting agent from LA and her son, who works in film in New York. The fact that you’re in somebody’s house encourages conversations between tables. We learn that they’ve eaten their way around a few good international restaurants, and the son “just loves tasting menus”. Notably they leave impressed at the end of this meal.

Seared angelfish fillet from Kalk Bay harbour is served with a piped swirl of olive oil-mashed potato, perky green beans and wilted spinach - the warm Niçoise part of the dish - and a poached quail egg. It’s deceptively simple because flavours dance, thanks to the addition of a chillied tomato and olive chutney, salty caperberry and a lavash biscuit. The genius is in the hot ingredients all pulling together against the cold olive oil-and-lemon-marinated grated fennel bulb salad. Trivia: A strip of nori seaweed has holes cut out with a paper punch (connecting the dots of the seaweed ‘confetti’ on the chowder). Did I mention there are still some Bruce surprises?

Dessert has Cape Malay overtones: Bruce’s ‘melk kos’ boeber jelly incorporates the traditional Cape Malay milky cinnamon-laced boeber pudding set with vermicelli and sago. But it’s fashioned into a tasty panna cotta, topped with crushed meringue and his vanilla “frozen cream” (ice cream to the rest of us). On the same dessert plate, a sherry-stewed fruit samosa, mini Malva pudding with lemon cream and a dash of Nachtmusiek. Tasty and fun. dsc_0001.jpg

The fifth course is a cheese board, served with a dessert wine. The cheeses including a lemon fynbos and an aged cheddar, are sourced locally (Imhoff Cheesery goat’s gouda a mere 12km away). Forget dull crackers, this is served with a chilli bite. Black fig chutney, yoghurt and mint jelly is also part of the plate.

Lunch is drizzled with Bruce-isms. “This is where I live and sleep. I don’t want food critics here.” And [pointing to Spain’s Alinea restaurant cookbook] “It’s beautiful but this for me isn’t food. My food has become real, but there’s still a Bruce twist.” He doesn’t have the assistants required to prepare such intricately complex dishes anyway. Personally I’m relieved. I prefer this matured style.

Go to The Boathouse. It’s a relaxing lunch worth doing, and a beautiful drive.

The deal: Three courses incl glass of Cederberg wine at R325pp.
Five courses incl five tasting glasses of Cederberg wines at R495pp.

THE BOAT HOUSE, 36 Beach Road, Scarborough, Tel 021 780 1789 Boat House. Open for lunch from Mon to Sat. Limited seating so advance reservation essential.