Friday, August 22, 2014

A Seafood Feast Worth the Journey

Cooking on the open fire, Muisbosskerm
How far would you travel for a special restaurant?   Muisbosskerm, an open-air restaurant on the Western coast of South Africa, is a about as hard to get to as it is to spell.  A direct trip from New York requires nearly forty hours in transit including three planes and a three-hour drive once landing in Cape Town.  In this food lover’s opinion, the journey is worth it because there is simply no restaurant like it in the world. 

Most of the Western coast of South Africa is sparsely populated, and the fishing village of Lambert’s Bay is no exception- a few guesthouses and a discount market clustered near the end of a gravel road.  It is a wonder then that Muisbosskerm, a couple of kilometers south of town, has thrived for the last 28 years, now attracting more guests (including more foreigners) than ever before. 

We pulled into the parking lot as the sun was setting, an early 6:30pm on our recent winter visit.  Mud walls were the only real structure, enclosing about four-fifths of the interior, leaving enough space to walk out to the ocean and catch the fading light over a Windhoek lager.  Looking up there was no roof, just the first stars.  This is because all the food we would be eating from grilled fish, to simmered stews, to bread, would be cooked over the open fire.  

Going back for seconds on snoek liver
The owner, a large, friendly Afrikaner, told us to pace ourselves, that the food would be served communally- we could eat as much as we wanted but there would be a lot of food coming out over the course of several hours.  Keeping that in mind I held back as the first arrival, a large platter of steamed mussels with a cast iron skillet of melted butter and garlic, was set down on a high table.  A few of the thirty or so other guests clustered around the pan leaving their mussels shells in a bowl to the side.  These shells would be cleaned and later reappear as “spoons” for scooping paella and stew.

We finally went in for a solid first course when the lady working with a large pot of oil placed a tray of two types of fried fish next to the mussels.  The texture was a dense on one and the taste a bit metallic and rich on the other- we loved both.  Later the owner would tell us those were the roe sack and liver of snoek, an abundant local fish.  We filed that under “Things We Are Glad We Didn’t Know Before” and went back for a second helping.

As the evening progressed over a bottle of wine, we saw two types of smoked fish and four kinds of whole, grilled fish including Angelfish, Kabeljou, and the body of the Snoek.  The paella came off the fire bursting with crawfish, mussels, and squid.  A few more fried pieces appeared, this time of the actual meat of the fish.  There were salads (a bit beside the point), fried potatoes, and bread still steaming from the oven (very much on point). 

For an extra 40 rand per person (about $4) we each had a half of a large crawfish, grilled and painted with butter.  It was sweeter and more tender than most lobster I have had.  This was our kind of dessert.  Though a couple of stews appeared and coffee served, we could not fathom another bite. 

On the surface, it is hard to believe that people would travel so far for a restaurant with no roof, where plates are made of Styrofoam, paper towels work as napkins, and the only utensil available is a mussel shell.  As we warmed our hands by the fire, listening to the crashing of the waves and staring up at the Southern constellations I could not think of another restaurant with this unique combination of atmosphere and wonderful, abundant, local food.   For a restaurant unlike any other, the journey is always worth it.  


Lambert’s Bay, Western Cape, South Africa

Make reservations far in advance.  The restaurant only opens when they have at least 15 people on the books.  Check in two weeks before your visit to confirm they will be open.  Dinner only except on Sundays when they do lunch.
Note: Dress warm in winter and it doesn’t hurt to bring a blanket.

Where to stay:
The owner’s brother has a campsite across the street from the restaurant (about 200 rand for the night with showers).  There are several guesthouses in Lambert’s Bay.  For those looking for more luxury, the Clanwilliam Hotel in the charming village of Clanwilliam is a 40 minute drive. 

About US$20 per person, $4 extra for the crawfish when in season.  Drinks are paid for separately.  Beer and wine available but BYO is also okay.  CASH ONLY (South African rand)

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Where the Real Ends and the Fake Begins

Rabbit Sausage at La Boca, Santa Fe
The first thing we noticed pulling into Santa Fe was that every building looked the same, and surprisingly, it looked kind of great. Pueblo-style motels, pueblo-style strip malls, even a pueblo-Burger King.  It was a whole city of curved-edged walls in a terracotta palette to match the surrounding salmon and copper colored desert . 

Walking to dinner that night through the narrow, well-preserved streets of downtown, John and I passed by the windows of softly lit galleries, jewelry stores (heavy on turquoise and silver), and Southwestern-themed restaurants with the obligatory cactus in the cover art.  The almost full moon, a band playing in the distance on the square, it was all perfectly pleasant.  It was just…. “You know,” John said, looking down the cobble stoned street ahead, “it is hard to tell where the real ends and the fake begins.”

Our dinner that night was not any version of Southwestern cuisine but rather one influenced by a distant cousin across the ocean.  La Boca, a Spanish tapas restaurant, sits just north of Santa Fe’s main square.  The menu held some familiar tapas that were at the same time very local.  Patatas bravas, for instance, were made from locally grown fingerlings, skin left on and fried, then served with a sauce made sherry vinegar.  The gambas ajillo, another tapas staple, here felt fresh with the additional of local chiles served in a garlic broth instead of the usual oil bath. 

On a tip from an REI salesperson in Albuquerque, the next morning we woke early to head to the Pecos Wilderness, a part of Santa Fe few non-locals ever see.  Minutes after our car left the town square we were climbing out of the pink desert dotted with scrub and cacti and into a lush, conifer-filled forest. 

Gambas ajillo at La Boca
The 14 mile round trip to Lake Katherine is supposedly one of the most popular hikes in the area but for whatever reason, we were almost alone that day (save for one grumpy couple who tried to talk us out of the hike, convinced we would never make it back before the afternoon thunderstorm rolled in).  The trail rose in sharp ups and knee-busting downs until were emerged above the tree line, snow still visible in some shady patches. At the saddle we gazed to the horizon- on one side was the uninhabited wilderness stretching as far as the eye could see.  On the other Santa Fe, its dotted adobe structures almost disappearing into hillsides. 

Lake Katherine hike, Pecos Wilderness near Santa Fe
 We made it to the crystalline lake and back in time for a quick dinner at a restaurant frequented by locals and tourists alike.  At the bar we were surrounded by regulars who hadn’t seen each other in weeks or years, catching up on deceased spouses, new homes, and where they “winter”.  We might have lingered longer over our green chile enchiladas to see what the OCD woman sitting next to us would do next- she who pulled up a chair only after disinfecting it, the menu, and the bar with wipes.  But our time rubbing elbows with the locals would be short that night as we had an opera to get to.

Perched on a mesa, the Santa Fe Opera is one of the most unusual, stunning music venues I’ve seen.  The permanent tented structure seems designed to showcase the surrounding environment as much as the world-class singers who pass through the space. 

The night’s performance, Carmen, was a favorite.  But as Carmen seduced soldiers and men smuggled goods over the border, not even Escamillo’s sequined green toreador costume could compete for our attention with the thunderstorm that raged just beyond the tent walls.  Lightening cut gashes through midnight blue sky, thunder boomed over the orchestra, wind gusted through audience causing well-heeled women wearing too little clothing to huddle against their partners for warmth.  There was action on the stage that night, but the real drama was playing out in the night sky. 

Given its tourism draw, that Santa Fe felt a bit manufactured was not surprising.  Taos, on the other hand was a place that fired my imagination with thoughts of famous artists and writers.  Surely a place that once hosted such literary greats such as D. H. Laurence and Aldous Huxley, not to mention dozens of painters and photographers, had to have a palpable magic.  I was eager to have a bit of that fairy dust rub off on me.

Famous sign of the historic Taos Inn
Instead I found myself the next day looking at Google Maps and saying to John, “We can’t possibly be only a mile from our hotel.”  The hotel where we would be staying, the historic Taos Inn, was supposed to be across from the town square.  From where we were on the main road into town, all we could see were fast food chains, discount stores, and strip malls in none of the faux architecture of Santa Fe, just your standard, depressing suburban sprawl. 

To our relief on arrival, the hotel had some charm.  Each room was unique, decorated with art and furniture from different artisans working in the area.  The hotel bar, with nightly music and some of the best margaritas that have ever crossed my lips, was clearly the epicenter of Taos nightlife. 

But it turns out those were the only advantages of staying in what Taos calls its “downtown”.  An exploration of the main square turned up little more than a sad collection of junk-filled gift shops and more “Southwestern Art” galleries.  Finding a place to get a decent cup of coffee and read the paper was only possible thanks to a small café inside a hotel.  And the only restaurant with “local” cuisine was about as Southwestern as something you might find in Omaha.

What we needed, we discovered, was to head north, past downtown, as if we were leaving.  We needed a hearty Fourth of July, pre-hike breakfast the next morning and we found what we were looking for at the Bear Claw Café, a mile north from our hotel. Breakfast burritos with eggs, potatoes and bacon; blue corn pancakes; scones; food came out of that kitchen fast and furious for people of all ages and sizes looking to get fortified for a big day ahead. 

List of local suppliers at The Love Apple, Taos
The night before, up the road from the Bear Claw, we had discovered the Love Apple- a farm-to-table restaurant listing so many vendors on a blackboard that if I would have sworn I was in San Francisco or Portland, not New Mexico.  A bit further north, we found a hippie-dippie coffee shop called The Spot, a quirky mostly locals joint featuring slow service for great coffee and bathroom walls lined with art work where tin cans became canvases for space aliens and mythical creatures. It was the kind of coffee shop I could see stopping by each day for my morning tea in the unlikely event we ever moved to Taos.

The further we traveled from the center of town, the more Taos became a place where we felt comfortable.  But then food is only one part of understanding a place, and Taos still seemed a bit blurry around the edges.

Hiking to Mt. Wheeler, New Mexico
We drove north toward the Taos Ski Village nestled in the imposing mountain range jutting up from the desert floor.  We were destined for Mt. Wheeler, at 13,200 feet, the tallest peak in New Mexico. All along our hike we met people- Native American families, Bavarian tourists, a man who had last hiked the to the peak 30 years earlier and vowed to come back, as well as local hikers.  The final two thousand foot ascent was a strenuous push through a scree field with uncertain footing, screaming calves, and burning lungs.  Along the way up people would pass us on their descent saying, “you have this”,  “almost there”, “keep going, it is worth it”.

I don’t know what D. H. Lawrence and Aldous Huxley saw in Taos that inspired them.  I saw a town that is like a drive-through window, that does little to encourage you to stop, get out, and walk around.  But a bit out of town, on a mountain, we shared moments with people not unlike ourselves.  We tagged the top then shared it forward, encouraging our fellow hikers on the way down. 

At the bottom, we raised a glass and toasted with the Bavarians and other fellow hikers at the brauhaus near the base of the trail.  The beer was frosty, the mountain air crisp and clear, and our legs exhausted.  This was real. For me, Taos had finally come into focus. 

Every good hike deserves a beer. 

La Boca
72 W Marcy St, Santa Fe, NM 87501, United States

Bear Claw Bakery and Cafe
228 Paseo Del Pueblo Norte, Taos, NM 87571, United States 

The Love Apple
803 Paseo Del Pueblo Norte, Taos, NM 87571, United States

The Spot
 900 Paseo Del Pueblo Norte, Taos, NM 87571, United States
Amy Powell is a food and travel writer currently on her honeymoon, en route to a new home in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell