A Garden Route seafood spot worth a road trip
Nature’s Valley was a culinary desert for years, until around 15 months ago, when one of my absolute favourite cooks, Melisa Allardice, became the new owner of Blue Rocks Café and Grill.
Nature’s Valley is the jewel in the crown of the Garden Route. Rolling hills, fynbos and marine herbland border a coastline full of intertidal pools. It’s sublime for swimming and hiking.
It lies east of Plettenberg Bay on the edge of the legendary Tsitsikamma forest and is easily the most beautiful place on earth.
Road-tripping in South Africa is one of the most exciting things about living in this country. That early start, brewing coffee on the roadside, fish paste sandwiches (and fish paste is available again), hard-boiled eggs and salt in twists of paper, the sun steadily warming the day.
But the very best thing was the anticipation of a stop for food. Thirty years ago there were few places to eat, and we knew them all – the Albertinia Hotel was one of them. Now there are more, but many are disappointing.
“Let’s stop here,” we used to say. Although our imaginations conjured up spices and ginger and real butter and tiny sweet vegetables, honeyed tomatoes, lettuce still growing, beetroot no bigger than a penny, carrots the size of one’s little finger, we were always confronted with a “Greek” salad that had been made the night before with freezing pieces of cheese (do Greeks really put cheese in their salads?) and onion rings as big as hoola hoops and a pizza as tough as an old shoe.
David Hockney said about America: “You drive through this stunning scenery and then you stop to eat and are confronted with the same food – and it’s uneatable.”
We are all familiar with the garage, where you can pee, buy a frozen meal, change a baby, take a shower, buy a Peppermint Crisp, eat a horrible samoosa (one of the most inedible foods, for my taste) and gaze at a Swiss Roll under a glass dome.
Nature’s Valley was the same culinary wasteland for years, until around 15 months ago, when one of my absolute favourite cooks, Melisa Allardice, became the new owner of Blue Rocks Café and Grill.
Melisa is a legend in the business of hidden secrets; for years running Gusto, a small nondescript place on Cape Town’s Hope Street that served such sensational food that if you got there five minutes late, there was nothing left.
And cooking away with her friendly manner and a real feeling for food was Melisa, a specialist in quirky tastes, who always had a scintillating surprise, a piece of almond cake, smoked salmon crostini with herbed mayonnaise, lemon spaghetti with walnuts.
Although Blue Rocks is not an exclusive seafood restaurant (somehow restaurant seems the wrong word) it is a café and grill and just sommer a place to satisfy hunger with the best food around.
And why not eat seafood when you are near the sea, so fresh you can smell the salt?
Start with the Patagonian calamari and then the Backwater curried hake, divinely quirky and a little rakish with spices.
I am addicted to the Portuguese Sardines, grilled with a sprinkling of sweet smoked paprika, a sprig of rosemary, squeezed lemon juice and a touch of chilli: wow, as good as fresh harders out of the Langebaan lagoon.
However, the signature dish here is the prawn curry. I know someone who drove seven hours from Cape Town just to taste it. Cooked in or out of their shells and smouldering with just-off-the-fire succulence – a timing job if there ever was one, a single second more and they would be rubber – it is kick-ass.
Prawn curries are always a crowd-pleaser. When I dream of food, it is often a prawn curry. Melisa’s prawn curry, not always the simplest dish to make, is softly silky and succulent with just a hint of tamarind and ginger to give it thrust.
There is a great art to making a good prawn curry. Ginger, tamarind, turmeric, a lingering taste in the mouth of a lot of fugitive tastes, even star anise and cumin. When I was a child in Sri Lanka, my pa would take me to Chettinad in India for what he assured me was “the best prawn curry in the world”.
Melisa is an appurtenance queen and served up with meals is an assortment of short, startling tastes; chilli and mint sauces (ask how hot before you eat), rosemary leaves stripped and bruised, poppadoms, naan breads and homemade dhal, tomato and onion sambals, potatoes with mint and garlic and an absolute must try batata vada, an Indian street food made from spicy potatoes, mouthwateringly delicious.
Blue Rocks has a plain and very seductive style. Robinson Davies, author of The Deptford Trilogy, wrote of the potency of plain style. The tablecloths are white, and the food is exactly what you have imagined. I have too often been disappointed in what I have seen in my mind’s eye, compared to the dish before me.
Blue Rocks is not a moment before its time. It is worth a drive from Cape Town, Gqeberha or further afield, but it is a step away from Plettenberg Bay and has blitzed the entire area with new culinary sensations. DM