A mid-winter break in Paternoster had to include a repeat visit to Gaaitjie – Salt Water Restaurant, a restaurant with the most stunning setting on the rocks overlooking the bay, and one of the best restaurants on the West Coast. 

Suzi Holtzhausen is the owner of Gaaitjie, and moved to Paternoster from Johannesburg, where she had a cookery school, six years ago.  She started off setting up the Salt Coast Inn, offering self-catering accommodation, followed by the Eatery, which offered breakfasts, “lite meals and sweet treats”, the business card says.   Here I once had a bizarre cheese omelet (ordered as such) drowned in a boerewors and onion sauce for breakfast.  Suzi ran cookery courses.   Suzi’s mother ran the Eatery when Suzi opened Gaaitjie six months ago, but it has been closed down now.

Gaaitjie probably is better suited to a summer visit – in the early summer evening it is still light enough to sit on the terrace outside (I learnt that it is important to book the exact room you want to sit in), and to enjoy the beautiful view onto the sea, and to hear the waves crashing.  Blankets are provided should it become chilly once the sun sets.  For lunches outside it is perfect.  In winter customers have to sit inside, and this makes space restricted, and last-minute bookings hard to make.  The best tables in the main restaurant room, with a fireplace, are the first to go.  I thought I had done well with a booking five days ahead, but other bookings had been received a month ago, I was told, making my power to change my table allocation close to zero.   I was seated furthest from the action, in a room that only had a very smelly gas heater, so I asked to be moved to the main restaurant room.  This is when I learnt of my low rank from Camilla.  The best she could do was to seat me in the entrance room, which has one table, but also a fireplace.   For a single diner it is a very lonely place, but Susan, the manager for the evening and a good friend of Suzi, kept me company as she was buzzing along, checking on everyone.  She is an absolute natural at customer care and friendliness, unlike Camilla, who looked unfriendly.  A new waitress struggled with a simple order for cold water.  She received training behind the counter, which I could hear. Given the stature of Suzi’s cooking, the new waitress was not yet an asset to the restaurant.  She was allocated to my table – again I felt to have hit rock bottom.

Gaaitjie is the name of the building which Suzi rents from the local Sea Fisheries’ department, and they renovated it to her requirements. It looks like a Greek cottage, as do most of those in Paternoster.  One can only see the signage from the road, as the restaurant is so low down, at close to sea-level.   The kitchen is in the middle of the building, and one has to walk through it to get to the main restaurant room and terrace.   The generator for the fridge ticks away, and evokes a farmhouse memory.   The ceiling is covered in reeds, giving it a further Greek feel.   The doorways are low, especially for tall gentlemen passing through them.   The walls have framed yellowing newspaper clippings with general articles about Paternoster.  The cutlery is nothing special, but the serviettes are made from material, with a shell forming a serviette ring.  Here and there a fishy decor touch can be seen – an ashtray filled with shells, a fish-shaped water bottle, and a ceramic fish on the bar counter.

Gaaitjie’s menu is restricted to seven starters and mains each, and four desserts.  Each one of Suzi’s dishes are unique, and her stature as a chef comes from her marriage of ingredients, often demanding a brave palate from her patrons in trying unusual ingredients or combinations.   The paper menu starts with the sentence: “Taking time to prepare the best of what’s around the West Coast area, served by the people of Paternoster”.  The menu can change daily, depending on the produce that Suzi can get hold of.  Gaaitjie is not inexpensive, and hence it is mainly Capetonians and other out-of-town visitors who eat there.  I recognised a fellow Slow Food Cape Town member arriving with a party of six others.

I chose the mielie chowder with scallop and green pea wontons, at R 50, an ideal dish for the first chilly night of the winter.   The wontons were deliciously crispy, and the chowder very filling, topped with green beans, and I regretted having it before the main course, both being very filling dishes.   My pork belly choice was stated on the menu as requiring 45 minutes’ preparation time, so the chowder was a good way to pass the time, giving little action on Twitter that evening.   The chowder was served with the most unusual muffin-shaped bread with an onion marmalade centre and crowned with black sesame seeds and fresh herbs.   It was served with an anchovy, garlic and olive tapenade.   Anchovies are one of few things I do not eat, so I was presented with a slice of butter, beautifully served with a twig of chive balancing on top of the slice standing on the plate, so simple but so attractive.   Other starter options were angelfish bobotie spring roll on coconut and bean sambal; chicken liver peri peri vetkoek with creme fraiche and roasted chilics; spinach and curd samoosas on hot tomato and basil salad; grilled pear and deep-friend labna cheese salad; and a house salad of greens, feta style cheese, cucumber, tomato and seeds, all costing between R45 – R55. On a summer visit I had eaten the chilled pea and fresh crayfish soup, at R75, which was outstanding, but there was no crayfish on the menu as the season closed a month ago. 

The main courses range in price from R110 for the snoek lasagne to R125 for a braised lamb shank and butter bean pie with mint and pumpkin broth.  Other mains were yellowtail fillets simmered in curry leaf masala and lentil rice; a stew of black mussels, baby calamari, sweet pepper and spicy sausage; the crisp pork belly (and crisp it was, with the most delicious crackling, which I left for last) served with an unusual leek mash; roasted quail on a hot beetroot salad; and chicken breast with pesto pasta.

Dessert choices were preserved naartjie and ginger praline cheesecake; malva pudding topped with molten local blue cheese and melon preserve;  baked custard with Witblitz-soaked Cape gooseberries; and rich chocolate mousse with salt dust (I wanted to order the mousse, but could not get a good description of its ingredients, as it was new on the menu that evening – the fact that part of the mousse was white chocolate which contained passion fruit made me decide against it, and none of the other dessert options attracted me).

The winelist is on a separate sheet of paper, and is introduced as follows: “We keep waste to a minimum and km’s travelled low so choices are local and small”.  For this reason most wines are from the West Coast.  Each wine is briefly described, and the wine estate it comes from mentioned.  Corkage is charged at R 40.  One sparkling wine (Kasteelberg) is offered at R 135, five white wines range from R 95 for a Kloovenburg Chardonnay and an unknown La Capra Chenin Blanc from Fairview, to R 145 for Fryer’s Cove Bamboes Bay Sauvignon Blanc, and The Ollo from Altydgedacht.   Four red wines include two Shirazes (Spice Route at R 165 and Nieuwedrift at R 95), an unsual sounding Cappupino Ccinotage (R105) and Cloof Inkspot R 105.  The wine-by-the-glass choice is limited to Cloof (white and rose’ at R 25), and MAN Vintners Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 at R 30.  

I left with mixed feelings, having enjoyed my two previous dinners at Gaaitjie more.   The food is outstanding, but one must make a lot of allowances in the other things one expects from a restaurant in terms of decor, service and wine selection.   Suzi strikes me as one of a rare breed of restaurateurs who believes that a focus on food is of paramount importance in a restaurant, and that little else matters. 

Gaaitjie – Salt Water Restaurant, off St. Augustine’s Road, Paternoster. Tel 022 752 2242.  www.saltcoast.co.za/gaaitjie (page does not open).  Open for lunch and dinner on all days except Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com