Harbour House, Kalk Bay fish restaurant with a view

Beside the seaside there is an itsy bitsy teenie weenie*… family of fishies.  Stuck to beach cottage walls by Pisscatorial, the Cape’s leading holiday home decorator, these wood-carved artifacts – displayed in descending order of size (daddy fishy, mommy, Wendy and little Johnny) – have spawned and entire cottage industry. 

Harbour House Restaurant
+27 (0)21 788 4133
upstairs building
Kalk Bay Harbour
Kalk Bay
Cape Peninsula

The backdrop to these fishies are whitewashed walls and every unimaginative hue of blue from Churchhaven turquoise to, well, Arniston turquoise.  It is the Greek island I have never been to.

Harbour House, in Kalk Bay, is such a place though the aquamarine has been forsaken for royal blue on a white canvas and it is sans the wall fishies.  They prefer to serve them on a plate.  Most of the walls are taken up by glass anyway, affording you views out to sea (literally beneath your nose) and of the quaint fishing harbour over which this mini-empire (that includes four restaurants **) keeps a close eye. 

Apart from the vista, we are here for the fish at one of the few harbours in the country where you can buy it fresh.  In double-quick time a mini-lighthouse of raw tuna (ordered from the specials board for R85) comes out of the kitchen.  This is not sushi but rather tartare (finely chopped bits of the meaty fish).  Apparently the tuna in most of our restaurants is frozen but this tastes fresh.  Unusually for fish it is rich from the morsels of chopped red onion, spring onion and mint it is mixed with.  And this even before you reach the creamy basil mayonnaise that encircles it. 

Unlike a traditional tartare there is no raw egg on top but after a start this good it is a poached egg that tempts me to order the sporty swordfish as a main.  Two medallions of the dense whitish meat from this muscular fish perch on a bed of mash with green beans nestled between.  On top is the pretty egg.   Runny egg yolk sliding over any green vegetable is both a sensory and savoury delight.  Another circle, this time of salsa verde (Italian for green sauce) made from freshly chopped parsley, sage, salty capers, garlic and olive oil, lines the perimeter.  Like freshly cut grass with a spoonful of West Coast sea.  It starts off good but unfortunately it eventually builds to overpower the fish. 

The Olympia Café down the drag have done better justice to fish, letting the the simple flavours speak for themselves (This is not to say some robust flavoured species, such as snoek, don’t deserve a tangy treatment.)

My companion for the afternoon, the Kalk Bay Local, orders my favourite Cape fish the kob (kabeljou) and says it too is overly dominated by a basil cream sauce.  She has dined at Harbour House more than a couple of times and eaten much better fish dishes here.  The baby carrot in her dish retains his leafy top, a bit of cutesy that works for me.  The beans in my dish are neither topped nor tailed which bothers me not a jot.  It will irritate some. 

Both mains take ages to arrive.  This is explained by the fact that a new chef is being trained.  The slow service doesn’t appear to bother a couple in the corner who have found young love in late middle age but the Bishopscourt househusbands who have kids to pick up from school would get irritated.  At R138 a pop these mains, both specials, aren’t great value for money.  According to the Local the huge parcel of fish (presumably hake) and chips in the takeaway downstairs (same owner) is excellent value at R38. 

Harbour House advertises the board specials as fresh fish.  Today there is also crayfish for R280.  Items of interest from the permanent menu include starters of seafood ceviche (fish, prawns, mussels and calamari briefly marinated, so not technically raw, in lime and coriander); and grilled yellow fin tuna Salad Nicoise (R165).  From the mains non-seafood options include rack of Karoo Lamb, fillet and for vegetarians a gnocchi that includes portobellini mushrooms, butternut, artichokes and of course parmesan.  The limited three course August menu R160 (no line fish).

The restaurant is bright and huge: outdoor bits, an indoor sunny side and a shady side to suit Cape Town’s ever-changing weather.

The wine list has a couple of glasses of white wine under R30.  A glass of Brampton Sauvignon Blanc, don’t recall the vintage, is R30.  Good selection of whites as you would expect in a seafood joint.

Once walking into the downstairs Polana during a winter gale I found the floor to be covered with marbles.  On closer investigation I realized the picture window had been smashed by a wave and was comforted by the fact that their safety glass broke up into little balls.  More enthralling were two sea otters that once popped their heads up behind the rocks at night (the spotlights were excellent).  

On leaving the restaurant today we notice a lively crowd has gathered on the wharf to check out snoek, hottentot, harders (mullet, the fish salt-dried bokkoms are made from) straight off a trawler.  A salesman shouts out the prices.  We might have done better today smoking the less celebrated snoek at home than paying restaurant the prices.  But then only having smoked a chicken before I probably would have cocked it up the first time.  Read Hilary Prendini Toffoli’s story on snoek’s global appeal in Showcook.

Harbour House 3/5 stars today 

* acknowledgement to songwriters Paul Vance and Lee Pockriss who wrote Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini (and anyone else that I may have ever inadvertently plagiarized) 

** Other restaurants in the same stable are the downstairs Polana and Live Bait as well as the seasonal Sirocco on the Kalk Bay Main Road 

Tom Robbins
Posted August 6, 2010

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