A Tale of Two Global-Award-Winning
South African RESTAURANTS:
Both Mini in Size but Maxi in Effect,
One at the Coast and One in the Desert,
Both Punching Well Above their Weight.
Indulge in the Contrasting Allure and
Exceptional Foragings at KLEIN JAN and
The best things come in small packages, and seldom has this old adage been more apt than in the case of two extraordinary restaurants, run by two exceptionally passionate individuals and their devoted local teams. Both owners/chefs are native South Africans with culinary superpowers, both have excelled on the world stage in celebrating the unbeatable and endearing magic of family recipes, home-grown local ingredients and generations-old tried-and-tested cooking methods.
Uncannily both restaurants are physically relatively tiny in stature but immense in credibility. Furthermore, both have received overwhelmingly glowing global recognition for the unique and authentic fruits of their labours.
And fascinatingly both restauranteurs had deliberately opted to bypass South Africa’s acclaimed and celebrated food capital Cape Town as location, and have on the contrary been luring tourists and locals away from the cities, westward down the rugged, scenic Cape West Coast in the case of Wolfgat Restaurant, and inland into the dusty Kalahari Desert with its gentle sand-covered plains in the case of Restaurant Klein JAN.
By the same token visitors and locals alike have been enticed into immersing themselves into the vastly contrasting geographical regions in which the two restaurants are situated, to explore and experience this wilderness for themselves in order to get a true appreciation for where the organic food on their table comes from.
Combining in one epic road trip the unbeatable offerings from the gastronomic portfolios of Michelin star chef Jan-Hendrik van der Westhuizen of Restaurant Klein JAN and chef Kobus van der Merwe of Wolfgat Restaurant is a win-win for culinary fundi who flock from all over the world for an experience that is so much more than merely an out-of-this-world set of food offerings.
If you’re after that once-in-a lifetime thrill of, not only the actual food that unforgettable memories are made of, but an unrivalled ambience and five-star service by the friendliest of locals in two vastly opposite and unforgettable parts of the country, this is for you.
See our recommendations for a perfect stay in the vicinity of the two restaurants.
And, by all means, read on for a taster of what’s in store when you visit!
RESTAURANT KLEIN JAN
TSWALU KALAHARI NATURE RESERVE, SOUTH AFRICA
All Image Credit: Restaurant Klein JAN
Nestled deep in the remote Tswalu Kalahari Nature Reserve in the Northern Cape’s dramatic and arid Green Kalahari Region is a giant of a gem … not in physical stature, mind you, but in the potency of the punch it packs.
Brainchild of Michelin Star chef Jan-Hendrik van der Westhuizen (who already boasts supremely successful and celebrated restaurants in Nice, France called JAN – his namesake, and MARIA – after his grandmother), the highly anticipated Klein JAN opened to much aplomb in South Africa and has forthwith been awarded the International Hidden Gem at the La Liste Awards 2022 in Paris on November 29th, 2021, dubbed “a restaurant worth going an extra mile for”.
As for local awards, Klein JAN has been racking up accolaides from the Tourism and Hospitality Counsel of South Africa at the 3rd annual Luxe Restaurant Awards in no fewer than three categories: Culinary Pioneer, Restaurant of the Year (Restaurant Klein JAN) and Chef of the Year.
TV show host, cookery book writer and luxury food & lifestyle publisher, Jan-Hendrik van der Westhuizen is a familiar household name in his local South Africa. His wizardry with local ingredients and recipes – passed on through generations – has come full circle in Klein JAN, the endearingly special South African ‘love child’ of his ingenious global empire.
As for the setting of Klein JAN the restaurant … to liken the ambience to a spaghetti western is not an exaggeration: an unassuming, whitewashed, century-old Karoo farm cottage that was lovingly restored by chef Jan-Hendrik & company sits defiantly in the dusty landscape flanked by another Karoo icon, a solo windpump. The flamboyant starched white tablecloths flapping gently in the breeze on the verandah hint at the extraordinary piece of gastronomic theatre that’s about to enfold.
It is to this escapist haven that locals and visitors to the country flock (a scenic 12.5 hours’ drive from Cape Town, a trek deeper and deeper into the heart of the desert) to experience Jan-Hendrik’s culinary master strokes in this somewhat unconventional setting. Stepping inside the restaurant, much of the quaint furniture, such as the chairs made from old wine barrels, has been lovingly repurposed and given a new identity. The characterful pantry is stocked with local wines, ports, pots of pickles and preserves – edibles and drinkables that are entirely part of the language of this desert symphony’s setting.
With Klein JAN being four hours’ drive from the nearest dusty town, Upington, the chef and his team put much meticulous planning into each food offering on the menu, and indeed planning on that scale needs done days in advance. The opportunity for impromptu replenishing a missing ingredient is a luxury and simply impractical considering the distances! Neither would the team waste a morsel – out of principle, they’d use every ounce of an entire melon, for example: they’d cook the leaves in a way one would spinach, dry out the flesh to use it in a stew, roast the seeds and in turn grind these into flour – not a fraction of these hard-to-come-by ingredients gets discarded!
Klein JAN is situated in an arid geographical area where finding foodstuffs is notoriously challenging, but Jan-Hendrik and his team have been single-minded in their quest to not only discover, but to creatively celebrate and make the most of all the indigenous ingredients at their disposal: they typically go the extra mile to unearth hidden gems in the local Northern Cape region, for example Senqu River pistachios, locally reared meat, local springbok venison, table grapes, pumpkin, spekboom (an indigenous, succulent plant), local desert melons (for the melon margaritas!), artisan cheese, camel milk (for the ice cream and milk tarts), ginger beer and the special treat of over-a-million-year-old Kalahari Desert salt that’s liberally used to flavour most dishes.
For obvious reasons the Kalahari Desert is a meat eater’s paradise, with venison in abundance and inevitably at Klein JAN plenty succulent game lands up on the menu: springbok, for example, with tantalizingly contrasting flavours that are simultaneously savoury, salty and tart … arguably a combination more suited to the local taste buds, but curiously also one that culinary-minded visitors have found titillating and exhilarating in its multi-layered complexity.
As for the exotic plant-based ingredients on offer, particularly fascinating are the vegetation that typically grows on the dry desert beds, like the spiky cucumbers and tsamma melons (a type of watermelon favoured by the San Bushmen of the Kalahari for hydration and nutrition) and that Klein JAN’s chefs manage to magically transform into umpteen delectable dishes.
Find some typical recipes prepared for you at Klein JAN:
Watch a short video here:
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WHERE TO STAY NEAR RESTAURANT KLEIN JAN:
PATERNOSTER, WEST COAST OF SOUTH AFRICA
Image Credit Wolfgat Restaurant and Wolfgat Restaurant Social Media (unless stated otherwise)
In 2019 a diminutive, modest-looking restaurant in a tiny, picturesque West Coast fishing village filled with simple whitewashed cottages called Paternoster, in South Africa’s Western Cape – was crowned ‘Best Restaurant in The World’.
South Africa was bowled over – this little eatery isn’t even in one of the main cities, it is in literally the middle of nowhere – a good 90 minutes’ drive from Cape Town. Overnight Wolfgat was the word on everyone’s lips. The world wanted to experience this marvel of a place with its humble architecture – a 130 year-old fisherman’s cottage converted into a tiny, open-plan eatery where the kitchen and dining area share a space – perched on a cliff high above a sprawling bleached sandy West Coast beach overlooking a handful of local fishing boats. Here diners sit on the humble verandah and breathe in the fresh sea air, seeing for miles across the Atlantic Ocean while they wait for chef Kobus van der Merwe and his team to serve up, platter after divine platter of their now world-famous foraged ‘beach vegetation’.
Despite lockdowns the success of Wolfgat was no flash in the pan. When the World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards ceremony took place on October 5th 2021 in Flanders it saw South Africa’s Wolfgat Restaurant placed 50th – making it the best restaurant in Africa according to the list.
What makes this success story more remarkable is that Wolfgat operates on a tiny staff of highly motivated and talented locals who grew up in the immediate area. None have any formal hospitality training! It’s hands on deck for each meal, from foraging to preparing and serving as they cook and create alongside chef Kobus van der Merwe.
They don’t use any luxury ingredients (everything is locally foraged within a 10 km radius) and serve no more than seven meals a week, to no more than 20 extremely fortunate guests in an intimate setting overlooking the waves crashing off the Atlantic Ocean.
The food is sensational, it’s pure artistry, no less: each meal is a perfect gastronomic feat that combines the best of pre- and post-colonial cooking. Being a coastal restaurant, it boasts a seafood-focused menu, one which takes freshness to quite another level: the local seafood (mussels, oysters, yellowtail, angelfish, seaweed and the likes) is literally caught or foraged shortly before it appears on the plate, often an hour before serving! Needless to say nothing gets frozen here.
The extraordinary dishes include local wild herbs, seaweeds and succulents and in season, some offerings include lamb or venison, often cooked with a local vermouth. The foraging is seasonal, organicand entirely subject to the tides and the weather. Oh, and all the ingredients used are on the sustainable list.
The seven-course menu is an unashamed celebration of the flavours of the rugged West Coast of South Africa, with dishes including springbok loin with Saldanha Bay mussels, veldkool (a perennial plant), sourdough flatbread with wild sage and Wolfgat’s signature butter made with bokkom (a local salted and dried mullet). The traditional loaf of bread accompanying some of the dishes is flecked with seaweed, the butter is farm butter – yellow, rich and creamy.
Perhaps you’ll allow me to tempt you with a typical set of tasters. How do minced limpets poached in white wine and garlic served with sparkling wine, plump and sweet black mussels with nori in a cream and wine sauce, local abalone with split fin kelp, yellowtail pickle with ice plant (a ground creeping succulent plant), a salty watermelon salad served with raw yellowtail, an Italian carpaccio of thin slices of deep red meat with grassy !nara shoots (a local desert plant), creamy olive oil and dried sprinkles of snoek roe (a typical Western Cape seawater fish), sound?
Dessert is something out of this world. It could be the simplest, palest green ice cream, served on a biscuit crust with sugary pistachio wafers, with hints of herb, lemon and coconut … or rich and creamy buchu (a local indigenous herbal plant) ice cream served with a pear that has been poached in fynbos (indigenous plants that typically only grow around the Western Cape of South Africa) vermouth with grated lemon zest, topped with three-leaf clovers.
If some of the ingredients seem unfamiliar, that’s because they’re exclusively home to the West Coast of South Africa only, and all the more reason to book a table and experience this culinary extravaganza for yourself, whenever you visit. But be warned, this restaurant is fully booked months and months into the future … yet another mouth-watering reason to put the marker down well in advance. Hard-core culinary tourists have literally been known to come to South Africa – in their case not to visit the extraordinary wildlife, not to do a safari, not to experience the exceptional beaches – but simply to experience the unbelievable magic of this humble little whitewashed establishment and to tick it off the wish list of ‘most memorable eateries in the world’.
Watch Chef Kobus van der Merwe prepare a seafood dish:
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WHERE TO STAY NEAR WOLFGAT RESTAURANT: