After a three year absence from the restaurant scene in Cape Town, former The Showroom Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant Chef Bruce Robertson has returned to Cape Town to create The Boat House home eatery in Scarborough. His cuisine and plating is as exciting as it was before he left, and he is not only a perfect chef but the perfect host too.
We got to know Chef Bruce when he opened The Showroom with its open kitchen, which meant that he was in the foreground, showing his great ability to chat to clients, and to get them to return. A change in career plan led him to cook at sixteen private camps in Southern Africa, spanning Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia, and the Okavango, cooking his special dishes in often challenging kitchen conditions, and hosting guests. The love for this extraordinary lifestyle grew from a link he had to an American tour operator company, which brought adventurous gourmet tourists to the Cape, and Chef Bruce led them on exciting culinary journeys, usually preparing their meals out in the open, enjoying the challenge of the outdoors to create unforgettable holidays for the visitors. He has moved from cooking with passion, to lifestyle cooking, and his beautiful young daughter was the most important reason to bring him back to Cape Town, he said. The setting of The Boat House in Scarborough, close to the beach, is perfect, and the beach house has a guest room he rents out too.
From the prim and proper Chef Bruce that I remember, in his white chef’s uniform at The Showroom, the new Chef ‘Barefoot Bruce’ is dressed in jeans and a white shirt, barefoot, and looking very relaxed and unstressed. The welcome was a warm hug, and included a tour of the house, his assistant Tom offering us a glass of sparkling wine, an exceptional Cederberg Blanc de Blancs Brut not commercially available elsewhere. We initially sat on the upstairs terrace, another four guests having booked too. A surprise was to learn that Chef Bruce grew up in Pretoria.
One should not think that Chef Bruce’s food is as casual as his dress. Effortlessly he was preparing the food in his open plan kitchen/dining room. As one chats to one’s table companions one is not so focused on what Chef Bruce is doing in the kitchen. He comes to the tables regularly, checking all the time that all is in order and to one’s satisfaction, and he provides snippets of information about his food or about the Cederberg wines. Chef Bruce not only has culinary skills, but he could recareer as an interior decorator too. In eight months he has made a home of the house, with all his special things, creating groupings of this and that, with lots of family photographs, and his past restaurant awards grace the walls with many other special pictures. He has two rustic wooden tables covered with glass tops and matching chairs, with the odd ghost chair (Chef Bruce probably was the first restaurateur to use them in a restaurant, at The Showroom), a reminder of his great career. If there is one thing that will stand out about the lunch then it is the most beautiful composition of half a lime, olive oil, salt and pepper, butter, and the cutlery, on a sheet of miniature tiles, providing perfect ‘compartments’ for the items, and doubling up as a side plate. A beautiful warm mini-seedloaf was added to this collection.
There is no menu or winelist, and Chef Bruce told us that he almost exclusively serves Cederberg wines, ‘wines with altitude’, the area having a unique terror with very hot summers and snow in winter. He found the Cederberg wines after an extensive search to find the perfect wines to match his cooking. Chef Bruce explained that he wanted us to have three wines for our savoury dishes, and that he did not want to prescribe which wine we should pair with which dish. The 2011 Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc wines have pronounced aromas, and the Sustainable Rosé is made from Shiraz grapes from a single block, a lovely pairing with the main course. For dessert we were offered a glassful of Cederberg Shiraz 2008 as well as a lovely Bukettraube 2011, the latter playing the role of a dessert wine, Chef Bruce said.
Chef Bruce also told us that there is no choice on his menu, serving a “Table d’Hôte, lunch served to guests as a warm home gathering, where the host has prepared what the guests will be served. My home is yours”. His menu is mainly fish-based, given his location and theme, and he gave us a little green SASSI-friendly lecture, confirming that he will not touch red nor orange categorised fish types, and therefore salmon and kingklip will not be prepared in his home. He also said that 99% of his produce comes from within 10 km of his home, keeping it local and carbon footprint friendly. One has the choice of a three course or five course meal, and we chose the former, while the other table had the latter. Chef Bruce adjusts the serving time to the number of courses each table orders, and we ran behind the other table because of all of our talking and Tweeting! Not having a menu, it is hard to capture exactly which ingredients make up each dish, as Chef Bruce talks as fast as before, so I asked him to e-mail it to me afterwards, to make sure that I did justice to each dish. To date, Chef Bruce has not repeated any of his dishes, always challenging himself, and keeping it fresh for his guests. Chef Bruce introduced Tom as his Restaurant Manager, sommelier, waiter, and right hand man, and he was constantly checking on my water glass, and poured the six wines.
Our first course was a Seafood Chowder with home-made gnocchi dumplings, chorizo, courgettes, baby basil, a spicy prawn bisque, and seaweed confetti, the latter most probably not seen or picked up by most. Chef Bruce is proud of his handiwork, and because things are so relaxed, he comes to the tables to show the special little touches, something one would not experience in a regular restaurant. For the main course Chef Bruce had prepared pan-fried Cape Gurnard, a fish I had not eaten before. It is also called the Cape Sea Robin or ‘korhaanvis’. While not the easiest fish to clean and prepare, Chef Bruce likes using it because it is so plentiful. He served it with baby spinach, his own spicy home-made tomato and olive chutney, finger beans, thyme, Niçoise cream, and cream of olive oil potato, all making for a beautiful dish with interesting flavours.
The ‘Cape Malay dessert’ required quite a bit of explanation. Chef Bruce made a panna cotta-like melkkos Boerber jelly from sago, wonderful samoosas filled with stewed fruit and Old Brown Sherry, chocolate meringue sprinkled with Nachtmusik liqueur, malva pudding with rooibos liqueur, yoghurt, honey caviar, and pomegranate molasses, a beautiful collection of different tastes all served on a pure white tile, a proudly Cape Town dish! The ‘honey caviar’ would not have meant anything to us at all, and we probably would not even have picked up the little balls, had Chef Bruce not come to our table before serving the dessert, and asking us to guess what they were. We could taste the sweetness, but could never have identified them to be pollen. Although our 3-course menu did not include a cheese course, Chef Bruce wanted me to try it. Presented on a wooden board with textural bumps created via caramelised sugar, it consisted of ‘rondebokkie’ cheese I had never heard of before, mature cheddar, black fig chutney (‘suurvy’), mint, and a chilli bite. Eating at The Boat House is not only for sustenance, but it is most educational too, because Chef Bruce is so excited about his discoveries that he spontaneously shares them with his guests. The second course in the 5-course menu is a home smoked snoek pâte served with a fresh pea and mascarpone cream on ciabatta, with Chef Bruce’s kitchen greens.
While Scarborough is as quiet and isolated from the rest of Cape Town as it was on a last visit more than ten years, everything has changed, now having one of the hottest secret eateries in this suburb, worth the drive of about 60 km from the city centre. One can also book a picnic basket from Chef Bruce, and one is sure to be equally spoilt, given that Chef Bruce originally designed Warwick’s gourmet picnic.
The Boat House, 36 Beach Road, Scarborough. Tel 083 305 8533. www.chefbrucerobertson.com Twitter: @ChefBruce Monday – Saturday lunch. Maximum of 12 guests. 3-courses R325, 5-courses R495. Must be pre-booked.
POSTSCRIPT 3/11: Chef Bruce Robertson moved from Scarborough to Simonstown, where he opened The Flagship, a restaurant and guest house. Very very sadly he passed away from leukemia today, diagnosed only a few days ago.
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter:@WhaleCottage