Sole of the East Coast

Sole of the East Coast
Sole at Coachman on the Bay

It’s one of my favourite South African cities now that I’ve actually got to know it instead of speeding past it on the N2 en route from Durban to Cape Town. What a mistake that was, I know now. And when in Port Elizabeth, and you’re planning a meal out, and it’s hot, there’s really only one answer: Find a seafood restaurant near the sea.

Port Elizabeth was the place you skirted past. No need to leave the N2, which neatly avoided having to visit the metropolis of car production lines and wind. Even its dull abbreviation, “PE”, brought on a sad sigh. But… and it’s a big one — we were all wrong. Very wrong. Port Elizabeth has become our nearest metropolis in recent years, and our first reluctant visit there — to visit the Tax Man — has made way for trying to find excuses to spend another weekend there. Port Elizabeth is a beautiful, placid city of broad boulevards and rolling hills, with a splendid seafront and, the real cherry on top, it’s as integrated a city as I’ve seen anywhere in South Africa.

Searching for seafood haunts was our latest reason for spending a weekend there. We’d been to the Ocean Basket on the border of Humewood and Summerstrand, and its neighbour, Coachman on the Bay. The two share a broad, very long deck facing the sea, each very different from the other bar that expanse of sea view.

Being relatively new to the city I asked friends for recommendations. We were pointed to Praia Prawns in Heugh Road (that’s the main arterial route from the beachfront to the sprawling suburb of Walmer), with the rider, “best supplies but pricey”, or Shanna’s for Portuguese seafood. G suggested Cubata in Sydenham (“near the stadium, great if you’re a crowd”), adding, “basic but lekka”. I replied: “Looking for betta”. “Go to Grass Roof, Sardinia Bay Road, or Sacramento at Schoonies.” This was now becoming a foreign language. The former’s a farm stall, restaurant and bakery, while Sacramento is at Schoenmakerskop — “quaint, seaside”, which was pretty much what we were looking for. But kept looking.

A colleague who used to live at Die Baai pointed us to Fushin in fashionable Stanley Street, Richmond Hill (sushi and Eastern), Fish Finder, and the Chartroom at Algoa Bay Yacht Club. Or rather, its new incarnation, the Nelson Mandela Bay Yacht Club restaurant. After a renovation, the former Chartroom in the (formerly named) Algoa Bay Yacht Club opened three months ago in its new guise, offering sushi and fresh seafood in an air-conditioned venue with Wi-Fi and a cool, sea-breeze ambience. Surely one of the best choices if you’re seeking seafood at the sea — but sadly this one only came to our attention after our visit. Next time.

Next recommendation was Suki, for Japanese seafood and other exotic fare, not least sushi. But that was in leafy, gentle Walmer, and on a rare visit to the coast, if I’m having seafood, I kind of want the sea too. So we headed for Coachman, a real old Port Elizabeth institution, although this was the newer incarnation, Coachman on the Bay, at Brookes on the Bay, a mall of eateries and bars with a beach and sidelong harbour view.

Coachman on the Bay. Ocean Basket is further along the same broad deck.

The original Coachman opened its doors in 1978, specialising in meaty grills, Greek fare and seafood, moving to new premises on Cape Road in 2006, and that’s still operating. In 2012, Coachman on the Bay opened, richly decorated in blue hues, psychologically connecting you to the sea over the road. Even the waitresses wear ankle-length blue gowns, floating here and there like Greek goddesses. I was reminded of the frocks worn by the usherettes at the old Nico Malan Theatre in Cape Town, before it became Artscape; just a tad too formal, with the worry that the staff might be better-dressed than the customers. But the theme works, and more important is that their service is top-rate.

This is your old-fashioned grill house at heart, but modernised; a happy place to be, every table of many occupied. The turnover must be massive. There’s plenty of fish and crustaceans on the menu. Twice now I’ve started with Baby Garides (R79), baby prawns given a delicious crunch by being dipped in a Greek baste and then pan-fried. A generous portion of six really meaty prawns, succulent and golden. Natalie’s Delight (R72) was no less pleasing: Calamari tubes and heads, perfectly tender, the tiny heads having a lovely crunch. These were among nine seafood starters, so there’s lots of choice.

Baby Garides at Coachman on the Bay.

I had first gone to the Coachman on the Bay for sole. This is the East Coast, and East Coast Sole is a Thing. That said, it is not always available, our waiter, Bronson, told us. But it was, on both visits. First time out, I had gone with the urging of my farmer mate (also a qualified chef), who knows his food. I had to have the house speciality of Sole Coachman, “topped with our delicious Coachman sauce”. It was a very large sole, soft and succulent, when you could find it. Great dish, but so very much sauce and served with so much mashed potato that you needed a forklift truck to get you back to your hotel.

Second time around I chose the simple sole option: Dusted in seasoned flour and grilled on the flattop, basted with lemon, paprika and garlic and finished with cream, said Bronson. Even without all the mash and “Coachman” sauce, this is a hefty meal, and perfectly cooked. The ticket for that: R255. This brings me back to the “free from the sea” debate. But with the sea in your nostrils and flap of a gull overhead, if you’re gonna splurge on seafood, well, that is the way to do it.

Now, here’s another Thing. I used to complain, when I wrote a weekly food column in the Nineties, that prices put seafood out of reach, and that it would be great if someone came along and opened a seafood restaurant franchise much like the idea of a pizza franchise, but specialising in quality but affordable seafood. And then, along it came: Ocean Basket. The Port Elizabeth branch (at Brookes; there’s another in Walmer) must be among the best, given its proximity to the actual sea, and its very constant standards. Love the firecracker squid with its crunch and gentle chilli bite, and the succulent white meat within. I had the 300g kingklip and calamari combo (R199), and as always everything was cooked just right. That’s all you want in either your pizza or Ocean Basket franchise: Consistency, and hence your trust in spending your money there. There’s a lot of value for seafood-loving South Africans in having our local Ocean Basket to hand. Or one like this, when travelling. It was even near our hotel.

But there had to be something deeply authentic and super-local. And we found it down in the docks. And we’ll go back every time we go down to the Bay. It’s called This Is Eat (lest you thought Sole of the East Coast was a bad enough pun) and it’s your no-frills, harbour cafe type place; no liquor licence either, and open only by day, not night. Just nearby there’s Fisherman Fresh, where Port Elizabeth goes to buy its fresh fish (we bought kingklip fillets next morning).

Here is where you have your hake or calamari fried and served for you in a polystyrene container, at prices that make you think about what things really cost that come out of the sea. You order and pay at the counter. Soon, large aunties barrel out of the kitchen bearing trays and tickets with numbers. “Number Sixty-Two!” “Number Fifty-Nine!” It’s tempting (once you’ve finished your Number Sixty-One) to put your hand up for the Number Sixty-Four as well, but I think they’d rumble me.

There’s a lot on the menu. Fried or grilled: Hake, snoek, calamari, Cape salmon a.k.a. geelbek, cob, gurnard, kingklip, mostly R47 to R75, kingklip R100. These are full portions, n0t starters. Prawns: 6, 12, 18 or 24, priced at R115, R185, R245 and R285 (for 24, mind you). Curry: Fish R52; “Spice Box” R56; calamari curry for R57.50; and prawn curry for R79. Again, full portions.

Then there are combos, grilled or fried. I chose the Ebie’s Indian Ocean Combo — grilled hake (or snoek) and calamari tubes and heads, for just R78; top price is R195 for the “Lady Aqeelah” — kingklip, six prawns and a side.

Next morning we went to Fisherman Fresh to buy some fresh fish to take home in the cooler box. There was gurnard, kingklip, haddock and some or other fish I’d never heard of. I asked the two ladies behind the counter if kingklip was still on the SASSI list.

Sorry sir?”

Kingklip… is it still on the orange list?”

Blank looks.

We don’t know about that here, sir.”

You sell fish and you don’t know about the…”

But then I stopped myself. I felt like a real Big City prat. And condescending. Sometimes, manners must prevail.

I’ll take two large sides of kingklip please.” And she chose them for me and wrapped them up just like they used to do in the olden days.

What do you do? Give in to the part of your mind telling you you’re a bad person if you eat kingklip off the orange list? Or give in to the part of your mind sending a signal to your palate, reminding you of your boyhood deep-fried battered kingklip for supper every Tuesday and Friday? Ah well. My palate won this round. DM


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