Born to be wild

Born to be wild

There’s a clatter of dishes and chatter of voices in the background, as I steal a word with chef Kobus van der Merwe at the end of a busy lunch service. The foreign guests who arrived by helicopter have wafted their way back to Cape Town, and calm once again descends on the sleepy West Coast village of Paternoster.

“It’s been a very good summer season for us,” says Kobus, who opened Wolfgat in the spring of 2016.

But he’s being modest. In truth, it’s been a remarkable year for this innovative chef, with Wolfgat quietly making waves as one of the most exciting restaurants South Africa has seen in some time.

Kobus first began dabbling in West Coast cuisine in the tiny garden restaurant at Oep ve Koep, the rustic Paternoster farmstall run by Van der Merwe’s family. Back then there were a handful of tables and a chalkboard menu of dishes inspired by the west coast. Humble beginnings, but they laid the groundwork for Wolfgat and allowed Kobus to distill and refine his notion of cooking authentic Strandveld cuisine.

At Wolfgat that means a menu largely defined by the wild ingredients foraged from the local coastline.

“It’s a menu that’s really inspired by the landscapes,” says Kobus. “We’re all about cooking intuitively with seasonal local produce. They have become such buzzwords, but in our case we really mean it.”

For while other chefs may evolve their menu with each season to suit the mood of diners, at Wolfgat it’s a necessity driven by the foraged ingredients that form the backbone of the ever-changing tasting menu.

“It’s not just about cooking for four simple seasons,” he explains. “We have to constantly adjust our menu according to the weather and what’s available in the veld.”

Winter is a time of plenty here, with everything from slangbessie to dune spinach to soutslaai growing abundantly. It’s also peak season for veldkool, a sought-after asparagus-like wild flower only available in July and August.

With the veld dictating what’s in the Wolfgat kitchen, don’t expect a wide-ranging à la carte menu. Instead you’ll find a seven-course tasting journey that offers a complete range of Strandveld flavours.

“At Oep ve Koep I noticed that many guests, especially in small groups, would simply order all of the dishes off the chalkboard and share them, so they could taste all the flavours,” explains Kobus. “Guests wanted to try a bite of everything, and this menu allows people to do that.”

And it’s not hard to understand why, for this tasting menu takes the fortunate few – Wolfgat only seats 20 diners at a time – on an edible wander along local shores.

It starts with a pair of snacks to whet the appetite: the mosselmelktertjie is an unusual savoury interpretation of a traditional milk tart, here made with mussel stock and topped with dune spinach. On the side, a soutslaai leaf comes stuffed with fresh watermelon and fennel blossoms.

Unsurprisingly, seafood looms large on the menu. The first course makes full use of locally caught tjokka deep-fried in mielie pap, flavoured with wild garlic marsala and complemented by sour fig nectar and mango sambal. Served in a raw cabbage leaf, it’s Wolfgat’s unusual take on a West Coast taco.

“I just don’t understand why chefs use imported squid all the way from Patagonia!” exclaims Kobus.

Farmed oysters from nearby Saldanha Bay are another firm favourite. In winter they may be poached and served atop bean purée, while in summer they’re done fresh in their shells; the scattering of preserved quince granita, dune celery and kelp delivering what Kobus dubs simply, “a nice mouthful of sea flavours.”

The same could be said for some of my favourite dishes off last year’s winter menu: limpets pried from local rocks, diced, and simmered in garlic and white wine. Equally more-ish is the simple skillet of sizzling hot bokkom butter served with fresh bread; a dish that is simplicity itself, but delivers a powerful hit of salty sea flavours.

They’re made all the better by the gorgeous sea views from the Wolfgat terrace. Set in a century-old fisherman’s cottage on a hill overlooking Paternoster’s main beach, Wolfgat’s decor deftly blends modernity and tradition in the industrial steel table that doubles as the pass, the deep hearth, and the jars of pickles and drying herbs lining the kitchen.

It’s a homeliness that seeps onto the menu too, with the likes of heerenboontjie pâté served with coastal succulents.

“It’s like having a small bowl of veld crudités to eat with your bean pâté,” chuckles Kobus, who says that, depending on the season, the pâté could be served with fresh and salty samphire, the juicy leaves of brakvygie, or perhaps veldkool picked and pickled in the abundant winter months.

Strandveld lamb is another new addition to the menu. Sourced from a farm on the banks of Verlorenvlei, the flocks graze on wetlands of samphire and coastal herbs. Kobus mirrors those salty seaside notes on the plate, with everything from dune spinach to limpets. Lamb tartare is seasoned with samphire and crispy seaweed, while a lamb ham – made to a recipe from C. Louis Leipoldt – is cured with salt and the seeds of dune celery.

“It’s thinking about lamb in a coastal context, so I like the idea of playing with those elements to make it more unexpected,” says Kobus.

The dessert is equally surprising, with smouldering branches of wild sage brought to the table, smoking the nectarines for a dessert of amasi sorbet served with wild sage meringue.

It’s inventive, adventurous cooking inspired by the West Coast’s culinary traditions and wild ingredients. Little wonder Wolfgat has become a gourmet destination attracting foodies from far and wide.

And though a restaurant full of contented diners is likely reward enough for Van der Merwe, last year saw him add another feather to his cap.

At the 2017 Eat Out Mercedes-Benz Restaurant Awards Wolfgat bagged a spot in the coveted Top 20 list of the country’s best restaurants, and Kobus went home with the Eat Out Graham Beck Chefs' Chef Award; an award voted for by the country’s leading chefs.

“It was a complete surprise, and such a massive honour,” enthuses Kobus. “We do feel like we’re a little off the beaten track here, so it is nice that people are paying attention to what we’re doing. And to me it’s the most special kind of recognition when it comes from your peers.”

It’s all a long way from the quiet garden eatery he ran at Oep ve Koep, where a tiny kitchen and a stranded rowing boat of herbs were the incubator for what is today one of the Western Cape’s most exciting restaurants. If you’re in the mood for a gourmet adventure up the West Coast, best you book early.

Wolfgat is open for lunch from Wednesday to Sunday, and dinner on Friday and Saturday evenings. Bookings are essential. The seasonal tasting menu costs R750 per person, excluding drinks and service.

10 Sampson Street, Paternoster

Who is OnAnotherPlane...

RIchard Holmes headshot web smallRichard Holmes is a freelance travel, food and lifestyle writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. His work on African and international destinations has appeared in a wide range of consumer publications both in South Africa and abroad.