Wolfgat, a Far-Flung Destination for South African Coastal Cuisine

PATERNOSTER, South Africa — Reaching Wolfgat, a restaurant in a small seaside cottage seating only 20 in this fishing village, takes a good two hours plus by car to reach from Cape Town, about 100 miles away. The payoff is a singularly memorable multicourse dinner that tastes more of the sea than anything else and is served with personalized charm in surroundings that are at once rustic and elegant.

The remoteness is part of the appeal. It deserved its title as the world’s No. 1 Off-Map Destination, given by the new World Restaurant Awards, IMG, which were announced in Paris in February. (The group also named it restaurant of the year.)

Wolfgat is not as distant as Faviken, Magnus Nilsson’s 16-seat Swedish cabin nearly 400 miles north of Stockholm, but this South African restaurant is far more obscure. Kobus van der Merwe, a chef who has not been in the spotlight of the world stage, runs it.

“The award came as a complete surprise; even the nomination was amazing, to be on a list with other restaurants we hero-worshipped,” said Mr. van der Merwe, the chef and owner. “We’re so remote we don’t feel like we’re part of the restaurant scene.”

Mr. van der Merwe, 39, calls his cuisine strandveld, a word that refers to the plants along the shore of the Western Cape, or Atlantic Coast of South Africa. They are an essential component of his food.

South African cooking, much less the particulars of strandveld, has not become a global trendsetter the way Nordic fare has. Its hallmarks include a frequent presence of local seafood and game like kudu and springbok, ingredients that do not travel well. The climate and the cooking of South Africa are often described as Mediterranean, with a bounty of local olive oils, tomatoes, herbs, and vegetables like artichokes, zucchini and peppers.

Many of the ingredients in Mr. van der Merwe’s kitchen, and on the plate, are hyper-local and bear virtually no carbon footprint. Seaweeds and seafood come from within walking distance at the edge of the sea. Mr. van der Merwe forages daily with his staff of five or six, something he started doing as a boy, with his grandmother.

Mr. van der Merwe came to Paternoster several years ago to help his parents, who had a small grocery there called Die Winkel but wanted to retire. (His mother is from the village.) Mr. van der Merwe had been writing music reviews in Cape Town. Classical music has been an abiding interest — he’s a pianist — but he wound up in journalism after quitting culinary school. Jobs for chefs were mainly in hotel kitchens, which did not interest him.

In Paternoster, he returned to cooking, taking over a kind of fish and chips spot attached to the grocery store. He changed the menu with ingredients he gathered along the shore. Then, to establish a place of his own, three years ago he found the whitewashed 130-year old cottage that became Wolfgat. “I feel very lucky to have this place,” he said.

Many of the dishes, often inventively presented on stones or plants, incorporated unfamiliar ingredients specific to the region, like those limpets, and made it clear that the shores of the United States can be underutilized. Mussels were also bedded on white bean purée with chewy dune spinach leaves. Pickled silvers (fish spiked with Indian seasonings, like turmeric and cumin) and wild garlic followed. Smoked snook, a South African fish, wrapped in seaweed sat in a pool of tomato broth. A lush medium-rare portion of springbok fillet with a slightly sweet flavor, like buffalo, came with biltong (jerky) also made from the same local antelope. A swirl of amasi, a fermented yogurt-like product, served with figs was a palate-cleanser. Pear ice cream with meringue provided the finale.


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