The beach shacks of Paternoster – a remote fishing village two hours from Cape Town – call to mind creamy mussel pots, grilled crayfish with garlicky butter, strings of seashells, unpretentiously mismatched wooden furniture and the feeling of sunshine on the skin. Among the many winners at The World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards 2021, the 20-seater Wolfgat, located in a humble cottage above the beach, has been named the 50th best restaurant in the world and the best in Africa. We snapped up seats at this off-the-beaten-track West Coast wonder months in advance to see if it’s worth the hype – and the significant detour out of the city.
Like a kind of mirage, a cluster of impossibly white buildings receding into the distance appears from the coastal path on the rugged West Coast peninsula. From a whitewashed heritage fisherman’s cottage with just 20 seats, chef-forager and home-grown native Kobus van der Merwe is shaking up the sleepy fishing town of Paternoster. Wolfgat’s name translates to ‘wolf cave’, referencing an archaeologically significant cave with remnants of an early civilisation, whose entrance is rumoured to be directly beneath the terrace. Fun fact: 2,000-year-old bones were found here during an excavation not too long ago. It couldn’t be closer to the water, with open-porch dining that looks right onto the beach – and pods of passing whales and dolphins. The kind of place you can while away an afternoon, drinking natural and organic wines paired with a foraged beach vegetation menu. But as well as thoughtful food that lets the produce tell its story alongside a delightful wine list, Wolfgat has an ambience that feels like home … and a sprinkle of seaside magic. Essentially a one-room affair, it’s a tiny restaurant that’s about as far away from the glamorous city life as you can get – think animal hides; rough-hewn pottery; pale blue doors; shades of pearl and oyster; nicely spaced-out tables under wooden slates; a fireplace for cooler months; a free-standing counter used to plate the food in full view; and shelves of ingredients like shrubs, homemade vinegars and flavoured salts covering one wall. The relaxing and unpretentious space feels fresh in its un-décor. If it sounds pretty obscure, it is. In this case, tiddly size does nothing to diminish the appeal – instead, it forces the diner to direct serious attention to the plate. It’s important to note that Wolfgat cannot be compared to the likes of La Colombe Restaurant (81st in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 51-100 list) and FYN (92nd), so leave your haute cuisine expectations at the door.
The story with the food
Chef Kobus has gained a cult following for his South African take on veldkos – or ‘field food’ in Afrikaans. Even with a R1,050-a-head price tag, this far-flung destination for coastal cuisine can be a tough reservation to score. Still, it’s worth the hassle (and cost) to experience ingredients that you’ve never tried before, such as seaweeds, wildflowers, indigenous shrubs and seasonal wild herbs, served raw or only minimally altered. The strandveld fynbos – the West Coast’s unique flora on the windswept dunes – changes with the seasons, so the wildly imaginative seven-course tasting menu varies with the seasons and the weather, depending on what chef Kobus finds on his daily field trips. In a word, we’d describe the food as mind-bending. Our meal started with heavenly fresh-baked sourdough flatbread to dip into a pan of bubbling hot butter with bokkoms (dried fish). Another six courses followed, written on the menu with brief descriptions accompanied by the Latin names of the plants featured in the dishes, but explained verbally by chef Kobus himself.
The beauty, tradition and craftmanship of veldkos – often inventively presented on stones or plants with a wood or shell spoon – incorporates unfamiliar ingredients specific to the region, like the strandveld snacks. A refreshing wild oyster, creamed white mussel served in its own shell along with a limpet (another bivalve), ground up with white wine and butter and served warm, was served in shallow bowls on beds of locally found stones. Catch of the day, served raw with brakvygie (an evergreen and fast-growing succulent), ginger, sea moss and kapokbos (wild rosemary) followed – sophisticated tweezer food that’s not cloying, just exactly precious enough. Waterblommetjies, meaning ‘small water flower’, were bedded on amasi and duineseldery (sea parsley), topped with kiesiblaar (little mallow or cheeseweed) and suring; a small plant with bright yellow flowers and leaves like shamrocks that’s native to South Africa, where it’s endangered. Mussels ‘Leipoldt’ from nearby Saldanha Bay came with wild garlic masala, peach mebos and sambals. A lush medium-rare portion of blesbok loin, served with klipkombers (a type of seaweed), sea lettuce and seekoraal (samphire), was the first main course. We were a little disappointed that for this course, the pescatarian menu simply replaced the local antelope with pickled beetroot, despite advising Wolfgat of dietary requirements upon booking. (The restaurant makes it clear on their website that they’re unable to accommodate any menu changes on the day.) However, the second main course – angel fish, dune spinach and sweetcorn – was beautiful, but also intriguing. Pelargonium capitatum (a shrubby or bushy, low-growing plant) ice cream with pear and almond provided the finale. Some of the dishes, the dessert for example, may be austere in presentation, but that’s understandably part of the appeal. There’s a considered approach to every dish – house-made, house-salted, house-pickled, house-churned – resulting in cuisine that straddles tradition and innovation.
The wine situation
Begin with a signature cocktail, then head straight to the wines from organic vineyards such as Mother Rock, Intellego, Wildehurst, Cape Rock and AA Badenhorst. The hyper-local diligence is likewise applied to the brief wine list, which includes bottles from local Swartland and Olifants River Valley right over the hill. There’s a wine-pairing add-on to the tasting menu (R850), but we recommend ordering by the bottle from the boutique selection of alternative, unfiltered, natural-ferment wines. Despite that the food is helplessly heterogeneous from course to course, it’s not foolish to commit to a full bottle of the astounding Mother Rock Kweperfontein Chenin Blanc. With its yeastier characteristics and a cloudy appearance, it’s certainly not a wine made to have mass appeal. This characterful and very well-balanced chenin blanc doesn’t look or taste like a typical wine – in fact, it tastes more like a sour beer or kombucha – but it’s vinified with finesse. Poured into delicate stemware, the nose shows top notes of flowers and herbs before peach, pear and citrus. We also ordered a bottle of the more fairly priced Lemberg Rosie’s Blanc de Noir from Tulbagh – an easy-drinking rosé with red berries and a lively acidity.
The staff, most of them women, have no formal training. But don’t let that – and the informal uniforms – fool you. In a tasting-menu-only restaurant, timing is everything, and this team is flawless in executing it at just the right rhythm. You’ll have a lot of questions about the food and wine, and they’ll all be answered by chef Kobus. Prepare to hear a lot of Afrikaans spoken, which is sort of how it goes with cult (but not fussy) restaurants. Voices never climb to overexcited levels, but it’s clear everyone is having a good time.
Is it worth it?
Unpretentiously locavore-ish, welcoming and personal. Wolfgat is a revelation that deserves its cult status. It’s totally worth it to celebrate an anniversary or special event – for the seven ethereal mini-courses of uniquely wild flavours of South Africa alone. With that being said, don’t necessarily believe the hype. You can’t compare a foraged lunch or dinner at Wolfgat to the delicate presentations, modernist bits and bobs or legendary bastions of molecular gastronomy that you may have experienced at some of the city’s upscale stalwarts. That wouldn’t be comparing apples with apples. Wolfgat is a three-hour pared-back, no-tablecloth rustic dining experience you likely won’t forget. Come with an open mind to tick it off your ultimate foodie bucket list and you’ll have an unforgettable meal.
Top tip: Make your reservation at Wolfgat even before you book your ticket to Cape Town. If you can snag a table, plan your trip to Paternoster from there. Wolfgat is booked solid for more than three months and reservations are always snapped up within minutes when they open. Keep an eye on their Instagram page for a heads up on when the next availability will be released on Dineplan (reservations can only be made online).
Wolfgat opens for lunch on Thursday to Saturday at 12h30, and on Sunday at 12h00. The restaurant opens for dinner on Friday and Saturday at 19h00.
10 Sampson Street, Kliprug, Paternoster