Until the Ocean Basket chain of seafood houses came along, there was precious little that passed for a seafood restaurant in the Mother City that would not put you seriously out of pocket. There seems to be an unwritten rule that a fish restaurant must be expensive – no more ‘free from the sea’. Far from it. This in a city surrounded, arguably, by two oceans. Glass-half-empty people will say the Indian and Atlantic meet at Cape Agulhas. But I’d sooner align myself with those who fancy savouring what’s still in the glass.
Either way, it is bordering on criminal that so much swims freely in our many waters yet by the time the creature has been landed and brought to your restaurant table, it has managed to become packed to the gills with vast amounts in costs.
So I’m a fan of these ubiquitous fish eateries that start from the point of view that we can afford to eat seafood, simply prepared, without having to slice into the access bond in order to do so. They’re like pizza parlours for fish. Crustacea-rias. The decor is simple, the price affordable, and your accompaniments are as straightforward as you’d expect from a steakhouse chain. Honest, good, and there’s nothing wrong with all that.
But there are happy exceptions to the supposed rule that a seafood restaurant either has to be wildly expensive or a no-frills franchise. One such is Millers Thumb, one of the best ‘local’ restaurants I know, in that it serves its own loyal local community in Cape Town’s City Bowl to a formula that hasn’t changed since they first opened their doors in the md-Nineties.
It’s all very orange. A vivid, zesty punch of orange on interior walls and even the exterior of the house that is home to Millers Thumb. And green to offset the dayglo spotlight of all the orange. But hey, it’s a warm and happy place, and you soon learn to like the feeling that you’ve landed inside a big, welcoming butternut.
Solly and Jane Solomon run the place with personal style, Solly in the kitchen and Jane front-of-house, and in their gleaming bar, quirkily named Jolly and Sane’s. Or Sane and Jolly’s. No temptation, then, to name it Jolly Insane.
Supported by an ever able and friendly complement of staff, who seem to stick around forever (generally a sign of good service), they serve a small but excellent range of Solly’s personal take on a variety of rather different fish and crustacea dishes, and a handful of things decidedly unfishy. And here’s the rub: for all his expertise with things from the sea, Solly is also a master of the humble steak. I go to Millers Thumb as much for his searingly good steaks and espetada as for his fish. I’m talking about the kind of steak where you touch it with a sharp knife and it simply glides through to the plate with hardly any pressure at all. Ever since the wonderful old Buccaneer steakhouse nearby closed down, such a great steak has been hard to find in the City Bowl. Well, Millers Thumb is where you will find it.
There are printed menus which make good reading in themselves, with plenty of information about various kinds of fish. Various saucing options are set out for your centrepiece of fish or steak, while blackboard menus placed on the walls here and there offer the day’s particular choice in brief. The fish available on the night we were there, for instance, were dorado, angelfish, bluenose, tuna and kingklip. They will also advise you as to which sauce is best suited to which species of fish, so do ask them as they are expert at this.
For the meatier tooth their starters include perenially good spiced chicken livers with paprika, cream, sherry and chilli, and springbok carpaccio, while the pescier of tooth might prefer the mushroom topped with Emmenthaler and crab, or fresh Saldanha mussels with tarragon cream, white wine and garlic.
The obvious benefit of the Sassi list advising us as to which fish to eat, which to avoid eating and which to think twice about, is that it is helping to build up stocks of threatened species. But an unexpected benefit is that it is pushing species that were less popular up the ranks. And dorado, which has become commonplace on restaurant menus as a result of its Sassi green status, is the most wonderful fish worthy of taking centre stage on your plate. It has beautiful texture and flavour, and the one that Solly had obtained, being quite enormous, allowed him to cut a handsome segment that sat proudly on my plate with a simple cream sauce that enhanced it without masking its charms. I was converted, that night, and now rank dorado as one of the greats.
We’d started with calamari with pesto and chunky bread, which makes a change from the ubiquitous lemon-garlic scenario, and a bowl of Solly’s fish soup. The latter was enjoyable, but the tomato dominated, whereas I’d have preferred much more of a fish base to the soup, in the French style. But that is just a personal preference rather than a criticism of the dish. But a thought: it would be good to see a Soup de Poisson in the style you find in Provence, if Solly would care to rise to that challenge.
Another favourite on Solly’s menu is the Yaki Soba, a Japanese-inspired dish of chicken, prawns, cashews, vegetables with soy and oyster sauce, with noodles. He also makes a superb New Orleans Jambalaya and ‘Chilli con pesche’ – ‘all manner of fishy things’ with peppers, refried beans and nachos. Such dishes typify the couple’s approach, and the formula works.
Millers Thumb, 10b Kloofnek Road, Tamboerskloof 021 424 3838