For chefs Neil Swart and Anouchka Horn, the journey to their latest restaurant began with a simple question.
In a seaside city with a thriving culinary scene, why are there so few – if any? – great seafood restaurants?
And not those quayside fish and chips joints that do a fine line in ‘catch of the day’ served battered or grilled. Where were the restaurants with a healthy dose of creativity in the kitchen? Places that would truly give South African seafood a chance to shine?
“For a coastal city, it’s just so strange that there’s a lack of restaurants celebrating the incredible fish and seafood from the oceans on our doorstep,” says Swart.
Happily, the pair have provided the answer to their own question with the opening this week of Galjoen, a seafood-focused restaurant offering relaxed fine dining with a firm commitment to sustainability.
While no strangers to the Cape’s restaurant scene, Swart and Horn really made a name for themselves when they opened Belly of the Beast in August 2018. With a set menu served to just 24 (fortunate) diners each sitting, ‘Belly’ offered a culinary journey in which diners happily put themselves in the hands of the chefs and let them dictate what was served.
The experience at Galjoen follows a similar structure, with a set menu – created by Head Chef Isca Stoltz – dictated largely by what’s fresh off the boats that day. Vegetarian diners can be easily accommodated, but strict vegans and those with nut or shellfish allergies cannot. Picky eaters with a long list of dietary preferences? You’ll probably be happier eating elsewhere.
Holding diners to a set menu may prompt debate around how much agency diners should be given, but for Horn and Swart, it’s all about creating a unique culinary journey that will both delight and challenge their guests.
And there are other issues at play too.
“A set menu allows us to keep waste to an absolute minimum,” says Swart. “We really try to keep our kitchens as sustainable as possible, and by offering limited seating and a single menu we are able to order and prepare precisely what we need each day.”
Also key to the ethos at Galjoen is a commitment to sustainable sourcing. While sustainability has various interpretations, for Swart and Horn it’s about celebrating what swims in South African seas.
“People come to Cape Town and eat imported seafood, and that just makes no sense to us,” says Horn. “From the beginning, we decided we’re not going to cook with anything that’s imported. No prawns from Vietnam. No salmon from Norway. No calamari from Argentina.”
To that end Galjoen has partnered with some of the Cape’s leading seafood merchants, from The Mussel Monger to Abalobi and Greenfish; suppliers who provide a range of seasonal seafood caught largely by self-employed artisanal fishermen.
While some chefs may find that restrictive, at Galjoen it opens up the menu to a world of unsung discoveries. Seasonal highlights – the likes of yellowtail and snoek – will certainly make an appearance but also expect to find less fashionable fish on the menu.
“We have had incredible chub mackerel from Abalobi. We’ve used haarders before. I love silwers. Cape Bream is incredible. There’s katonkel, and Skipjack tuna. These are all amazing fish that you don’t often see on the menu,” enthuses Swart.
And you certainly won’t see the namesake galjoen on the menu: it’s red-listed by SASSI, and cannot be sold commercially. But for Horn and Swart the name was the perfect opportunity to “raise awareness of our national fish and spark a conversation with our guests around sustainability in seafood,” says Swart.
It’s a conversation that’s woven into every aspect of the dining experience, whether it’s the oyster tank filled with rocks foraged by Stoltz herself – and expect more sustainably foraged ingredients down the line – or the bespoke crockery hand-made by local ceramicist Amelia Jacobs.
Alongside ceramic interpretations of mussel and perlemoen shells, also look out for the clever plates modelled on a cast-off oil carton, a subtle commentary on plastic pollution in our oceans.
“There’s more plastic than fish in the seas!” says Swart. “We all have a part to play in that, and we really do want to make people think a little more closely about the oceans when they dine at Galjoen.”
And that’s precisely the allure of Galjoen. It’s a restaurant that’ll make you think twice. Firstly, about the state of our seas, and how we can relate to them more sustainably. And secondly, why it took Cape Town so long to open a restaurant like this?
99 Harrington Street, Cape Town.
Lunch, R550pp. 12h30 Wednesday to Saturday
Dinner, R750pp. 18h45 Tuesday to Saturday