Freshly cracked oysters, fragrant langoustines, fillets of fish cooked simply with lemon and butter – Cape Town is a seafood lover’s mecca. Reading each restaurant’s menu is a roll call of the oceans, with meat dishes listed like a hasty afterthought, and the limited vegetarian options limping in last, if at all. One thing is certain: if seafood isn’t your thing, the incredible freshness of the cuisine here will be completely lost on you. Sure, you can order a delicious kudu steak, or some barbecued boerewors, and you’d most probably enjoy a fantastic slice of South African cuisine – but you’d still be missing out on the astoundingly fresh ingredients the surrounding seas have to offer. And Cape Town’s gastronomic scene is not just fresh: it’s creative, colourful, and consistently good.
First up, to the renowned Cape Grace Hotel and its Signal restaurant– named for Signal Hill, a giant lion-shaped mound seated next to the magnificent Table Mountain – where we were swiftly introduced to the outstanding cuisine the Cape has to offer. The region has a wonderfully vivid heritage, including Dutch settlers, Asian traders, French Huguenots and, of course, native African cultures. Ancestral traces of Malay spices can be tasted in the infused curried dishes, whilst European influences assert themselves in rich seasoned flavours, and local specialities proudly fight for dominance in specialities straight from the African plains. It’s no wonder South Africa is known as the Rainbow nation: even its food is distinctive and deliciously diverse, a melting pot of global flavours. In keeping with such a legacy, Signal restaurant delivered exquisite springbok steak, tuna tataki, and kingklip fish – all sourced locally and cooked to precision with an inventive twist.
But the outstanding freshness of Cape seafood was nowhere better on show than at Baia and Harbour House, two restaurants overlooking the plush V&A Waterfront. Where Baia served up incredible langoustines, and sashimi that melted like butter, Harbour House offered a seafood platter fit for a mermaid, including mussels, shrimp, lobster and scallops. These were all catches of the day: light and almost sweet to taste. The impeccable service, especially at Harbour House, made these two restaurants world-class – in fact, they could easily give top London restaurants a run for their money. For the best oysters in town, make straight for Pigalle, a retro restaurant complete with live entertainment every night. Cracked open just before being served, they were so fresh they were practically still alive (trust me, don’t let that put you off). A squirt of lemon and a dash of Tabasco and they were ready to eat. With iconic movie stills smouldering down from the walls, this was a sleek joint, and whilst the live jazz band injected a buzzing atmosphere (their impressive repertoire ranged from 60s classics to modern-day hits), the friendly waiters kept us laughing all the way through to dessert. After all, there’s a reason why Pigalle is one of the top restaurants in town: this wasn’t just dinner, it was a great night, the whole shebang.
And if you just can’t get enough seafood, head to Haiku for truly great sushi and sashimi. Chic and sumptuous, this Asian fusion restaurant in the heart of the city served up all the oriental classics besides sushi: there was Chinese dim sum, fragrant Malaysian hot pot curries, and Japanese tempura, all cooked with great authenticity and care. This was by no means Asian food catered for westernised appetites: it was the real deal, and combined with the crisp freshness of the Cape’s seafood, it worked a treat.
So whether it’s Asian, South African, or a more European flavour your tastebuds are after, Cape Town is guaranteed to deliver. This may be a country once divided by apartheid, but with food the different ethnic backgrounds have peacefully combined forces, each distinctive cuisine lending balance and strength to the other. After all, it’s meal times that traditionally bring people together, no matter what culture, and it was great to see such global connection in Cape Town’s restaurants. There may be a lot in this country’s past that it wishes to heal, but the Cape’s cuisine should be proud in the knowledge that it demonstrates worldly and world-class harmony. Dining in Cape Town proves the Rainbow nation is as colourfully bright as ever. Just make sure you’re prepared to eat seafood.