REVIEW: Paternoster’s best seafood

dsc_0019.jpg I ate my best fishy lunch in years on a recent drive up the West Coast to Paternoster. It was one of those simple meals in a modest environment where expectations were lowered. You know, as a defence mechanism after the previous visit to the area left memories of gusty sea views and emotions bruised by over-oily fish, stodgy chips and a mussel sauce congealed with bad margarine.

I’d heard about Kobus van der Merwe but never imagined the sheer joy his humble seafood could bring. There are food people who know his culinary background very well and I’m not one of them. I can only write about what I tasted and felt, and know I had that switch-on-the-lights culinary moment when your brain realises that you’re experiencing something very special. Oep ve Koep is colloquial Paternoster chatter – open for business. The old fisherman’s cottage shop sells all sorts, and leads to tables in the enclosed garden.

dsc_0005.jpg When I called a few days ahead, Kobus answered the phone and said to please book 24 hours in advance. Something about serving a set menu on Sunday but the restaurant not having sufficient customers to open routinely on a Friday. I can’t imagine why not.

One of my biggest disappointments of Cape Town life has been the limited range of sustainably sea-harvested, affordable fish and seafood. The city is on the Atlantic coastline yet pressure on our oceans means that each year a bountiful supply of fresh local sea gems – to cook or order off a menu – becomes more out of reach. Farmed will soon have to do.

dsc_0007.jpg Oep ve Koep offers a taste of what seems missing. The focus is products from the sea, supplemented by fish farmed in the area. The chef grows herbs and edible flowers, and forages the coastline for seaweeds and dune spinach. It’s what gives his dishes such unusual flavours.

We snacked from a basket of misshaped bread sticks and old-style bread with angelfish pate, farm butter and a lemon rind preserve made from a thick-skinned, old-fashioned variety. Rose geranium and wild sage leaves made it smell beautiful. Large, imperfect salt flakes from KhoiSan in Velddrif, on the table.

dsc_0012.jpg To drink, Groote Post Old Man’s White (R114), the ideal seafood wine with its uncomplicated Sauvignon-Chenin-Semillon blend. Craft beers, Swartland and Darling wineries make up the balance of the small list of mostly modest labels, with Sir Lambert’s Bay Sauvignon Blanc (R180) if you wanted to be posh.

We picked at the delicate flavour of pickled angelfish (R55), fillets lightly treated in lemon juice and white pepper, on a giant textured sea leaf called summer ice plant, with delicate fennel leaves and naartjie segments. The fishy freshness reminded of lemon juice-cured ceviche.

The Saldanha Bay mussel starter (R65). We liked it so much we ordered it again with our main course. Mussels in shells poached gently in olive oil, a dash of cream and wild garlic. Small strips of springbok Carpaccio pre-smoked with rooibos tea leaves curling up in the hot broth, producing a cheekily light yet smoky-frothy-creamy-stocky broth with just the right ratio of each ingredient.

dsc_0015.jpg Die Mogens (R115). Is that Paternoster slang for the morning? I’m not sure, but I liked this main course dish very much. A large fig leaf from the neighbour’s tree, enclosing half a farmed kabeljou fillet-half baked inside a paper bag that had held country-ground flour for the bread. Unusually, a drizzle of black olive oil, dune spinach and a few perky waterblommetjies and nasturtium leaves for greens. The unusual sea and land elements creep up on you, cementing the awareness that you’re eating things of aquatic origin. A comforting neutral canvas in mashed white beans.

We didn’t have dessert. The purity of unadorned sea flavours and feeling full-but-not-weighed-down cancelled other cravings. Paternoster is around 150 kilometres from Cape Town. When I’m next asked for a Cape seafood restaurant recommendation it will be an easy choice. I just hope they’re open.

OEP VE KOEP RESTAURANT, St Augustine Road, Paternoster.
Tel 022 752 2105.