Bacalhau bounces back with an unlikely victory at Sótano Restaurant in Mouille Point

After the brackish bacalhau at Toni’s it is time to check if a non-Portuguese restaurant can desalinate this dried cod.  The restaurant is Sótano.  At first glance a curious choice for this challenging Portuguese speciality, but then Sótano is a generalist Mediterranean café currently offering country specific specials from the lands of the olive.  (Contact them to check what the current regional special is.)

Sótano by Caveau
3/5 stars
La Splendida Hotel
+27 (0)21 433 1757
121 Beach Rd
Mouille Point
Green Point
Cape Town

The dried and salted fish – accompanied by an olive and parsley salsa, boiled egg and potatoes – is the main course in the Portuguese set menu today.  (The other courses are a starter of caldo verde, or green broth, and a pudding of ultimately forgettable custard pastry.)

The baked bacalhau is juicy and just salty enough to stimulate the taste buds.  A sea change from that recently sampled at Toni’s in Kloof Street.  Today my inexperienced Portuguese palate is won over by this difficult to prepare dish that is considered by many to be an acquired taste.   Granted the portion of fish is tiny but then at R110 for three courses how much of this once common fish, that is now a luxury, could the restaurant afford to serve.  At Toni’s a large main course portion goes for as much as R150. 

What is perplexing is how the chef is able to keep enough of this slow seller prepped for cooking without it perishing.  This considering that the fish must be soaked for around two days* to wash away the preserving salt.  Then again with the small portions on offer maybe he or she isn’t that worried about wastage.

Some say outside of Portugal bacalhau should only be cooked to order.  By that it is meant the dish should be ordered days in advance to guarantee proper preparation.  In other words South African-Portuguese restaurants offering the dish, of which there are precious few, should probably adopt this model

If you don’t or won’t get your ocean fix at Sótano from cod, the sea air on the patio will do the trick.  Outside a bevy of crotch-clutching boytjies stand around ragging each other while guzzling tap beer and stronger brews mixed with Coke.  Despite the weak winter sun they wouldn’t be seen dead in longs.  Hell it is only just midday on Friday and they are already getting stuck in.  No chance they’ll let a little winter chill stand in the way of cheer.

Unsurprisingly none of them order the winter greens soup, caldo verde.  Except the broth isn’t green but rather contains while slices of cabbage from the interior of the vegetable.  Traditionally made from kale, a greener relative, it is hearty enough with chunks of potato and chourico nestled in the bowl and a dash of oil floating on top akin to a single malt whiskey.  Slightly sour from the sausage, it may be missing the touch of sweetness provided by onions.  This is not a criticism but rather personal preference as not all recipes call for onions.

Kale is a member of the brassica oleracea family I don’t know well and is uncommon in South Africa.  I do however vaguely recall eating it in a Dublin café where I was told not to mention the politics of either secession or unification. The kale was traditionally served, mixed with mashed spuds and spring onions to make the Irish dish of colcannon, which is often eaten with boiled ham

The cultivation of kale was also part of the UK’s Dig for Victory Campaign in World War II on account of its nutrient-rich nature at a time of food rationing.  This would resonate well today as we teeter on the brink of a second recession.

With the current fad for decorative veggie patches, ornamental kale is also de rigueur.  You can even eat the varieties with pink ‘flowers’, which are really leaves.

Back at the restaurant a glass of Thelema Riesling 2009 at R31 is ordered but out of stock.  I end up enjoying Sterhuis Sauvignon Blanc 2009 at R33 a glass.  The nose is guava-like with bit of an acidic finish to stop the welcome fruitiness getting too out of hand.

The wine and cocktail lists are extensive with plenty top-end wines but don’t notice any glasses of white for under R30. 

The interior is dominated by a white bar in line with the beach cocktail theme and more discreet dining area of to the side for cold and wet days.

Exterior tables and chairs are attractively crafted out of wine barrels but it is a case of style over substance.  The table legs get in the way, recalling that delightful boarding school expression for those stuck at the corner of the table: “Screwing the Pole.”

Two fashionable young women tuck into a shared light lunch of pizza or “flat bread with marinated tomato, basil and garlic”.

Closer by Closer by an older man and woman appear to be tentatively contemplating an inter-office affair across their table over an expensive bottle of red wine and a meze platter of sorts.

Sótano is an all day casual restaurant operated by the group that runs the two Caveau wine and tapas bars.  Situated in the Newmark group’s La Splendida Hotel.  The Atlantic Seaboard across the road makes for a pleasant setting.

3/5 stars over lunch. Main course of bacalhau much better than that.

* soaking time for the cod depends on how salty you like the fish and how much salt was applied when it was cured

Tom Robbins
Posted August 16, 2011

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One Response to “Bacalhau bounces back with an unlikely victory at Sótano Restaurant in Mouille Point”

  1. DomeniqueD says:

    Great review. I know Dias Tavern asks you to order 2 to 3 days in advance for their bacalhau dish. I havent had it yet but Im sure it would be good!

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