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)

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