SEAGULLS swoop up from the shimmering Indian Ocean below and alight on the edge of the rim pool, then dip their feet in and plop on to the cool azure, evidently regarding the guests’ pool at the PlettenbergHotel as their own private pond.
This is your immediate view if you’re dining at the venue’s spanking new Seafood restaurant on a warm spring day, either in its crisp inner confines or on the open terrace with its views down to a beach that has changed almost beyond recognition.
When we used to visit here at the turn of the millennium, a broad swathe of pristine beach sand stretched north-east towards the densely-clad cliffside of Keurbooms and you felt you could walk for miles, kicking up sand and soaking up sun.
The storm that hit South Africa’s eastern coastline about five years ago changed the contours of this famous stretch of beach, “giving us an island we never had”, as hotelier Liz McGrath told me recently.
It is still utterly beautiful, but different, and locals say that the signs are already evident that the beach is returning and one day will resume its old shape. It happens, has happened before, and will happen again, is the local wisdom. For the seagulls, doubtless it makes little difference, and anyway, there’s always McGrath’s hotel pool if they can’t find the beach.
For many years the restaurant here was called Sand, but considering how much less of that is now evident through the windows, perhaps it makes sense that a few weeks ago the venue was given a lift, a shake-up, a new name and a new menu.
Like one of the restaurants at the hotelier’s hotel in Hermanus, the Marine, it’s now called the Seafood, clear and simple. There’s no doubt when booking here that you know what you’re in for, and the choice of such a straightforward name is refreshing in an age of so many pretentious choices when choosing a moniker for an eatery. Whenever you encounter a new hotel restaurant with a name of the ilk of “Dish” or “Bowl”, you can expect the almost guaranteed combination of the pretentious, the plain, the unimaginative or the forgettable, the menu most likely assembled in a series of meetings by the hotel management with a brief to suit all tastes.
Knowing that the executive chef here is Peter Tempelhoff, who helms McGrath’s flagship Greenhouse restaurant at her Cellars-Hohenort hotel in Constantia, can only inspire confidence. At the reins, in fact, is Gideon Landman, a chef with a sure hand with flavour and texture, and those are the two things you most want in a chef whose brief is to prepare seafood.
Even if it is cool enough to sit indoors here, the vistas are brought in through panoramic windows through which to watch the sun turn orange as it sinks into the cool sea for the night. And to peruse a menu which, like many of the best, gets it all over with on one page. The breakdown here is “from the soup kettle” (market vegetable soup or the Plettenberg’s seafood soup), “from the cold kitchen” (a “Garden Route” salad or home smoked salmon) and “from the hot kitchen” (crispy fishcake, fish and chips, or ravioli of prawn and creamed leeks).
“From the pan” offers West Coast mussels steamed in beer, stir-fried calamari, pan-roasted Mossel bay sole, or old-fashioned lobster thermidor, while “from the oven” gives you a choice of Martha’s Cape Malay fish bobotie (a favourite from the Cellars-Hohenort), tandoori-spiced line caught fish, seafood potjiekos, or tempura tiger prawns.
The final section (other than desserts) caters for the bloodier of tongue, with sesame-crusted chicken salad, seared sirloin steak, free-range baby chicken, and Outeniqua springbok loin. The only disappointment of our two evenings at the Seafood was from this section: though beautiful to eat, “free range baby chicken” did seem to me to suggest a whole, if somewhat tiny, pettit poussin, whereas only a half – and not very big either – was served. I raised this with them, suggesting that at the very least the menu should state “half chicken”. Either way, this is only a quibble, and I very much enjoyed the dish.
Best dish of our stay was the crispy fishcake, which was a plumply pleasing affair packed with flavour, topped with a perfectly poached egg and set on a lovely chive sauce.
The beer-steamed mussels were perky and great to eat, and the stir-fried calamari was gloriously scented, subtly spiced and quite different from the norm. Nice to see some fresh thinking instead of the usual lemon and garlic.
The lobster thermidor was not much like the old standard of lobster meat in a creamy brandy or Cognac sauce, gratinated with cheese in the shell. In those days, I used to think that the lobster meat’s flavour tended to be lost, delicious as it was. Chef Gideon has a different take on it, much lighter, delicately flavoured with herbs and gratinated with finely sliced mushrooms. I’m not sure that it needs to be called a thermidor at all, given how different it is from the classic. But very good.
We ended with their caramelised lemon tart, served with variations of raspberry and chocolate soil, which was delicious and right on-trend, not that one can eat a trend. Still, that’s what some customers are looking for while the rest of us seek great food.
I’d struggle to think of a more perfect setting anywhere on our coastline for a seafood dinner, especially if the night is long and hot and, after your meal, you might want to send the seagulls back to the sea where they belong and reclaim the pool with a nightcap before going to bed.
Seafood at The Plettenberg, Look-Out Rocks, 40 Church Street, Plettenberg Bay 044 533 2030