The surf was heaving off a calm blue sea when I walked onto the deck of Ristorante Enrico at Keurbooms outside Plettenberg Bay. Aromas of salt, mollusc-shell and garlic drifted from the kitchen as we crossed the outside space in search of a table as close enough to the ocean as possible.
It had been a long drive from Cape Town, the only sustenance being a set of heavy meat-pies, consumed roadside and in hungry silence while stopping in the sleepy town of Riviersonderend. Here now, in Plettenberg Bay, a feast was required to repair the tired souls and strained bodies of weary travellers. And according to my travel companion Joaquim, Ristorante Enrico was there to provide the needs which had developed, increasingly, during those seven-hours in the saddle.
When a fellow of Portuguese stock recommends an Italian place, one knows it has to be acceptable. The folk from the Land of the Long Sardine protect the perceived superiority of their culinary heritage with the fierce jealousy an octopus mother guards over her hatchlings. To even walk across the gates of an eatery sporting food offerings of another European nation is still deemed as treasonous. To recommend them, other-worldly.
The deck at Enrico looks onto rocks, beach and ocean. The sun was setting to the west in picture-perfect glow, softened further by the salty mist rising from the sea. Everything was perfect as can be. All that one could more wish for was to be tapped on the shoulder by Uma Thurman wearing a sarong and offering a vial filled with Covid-19 vaccine while humming a Steely Dan tune and handing-out tickets to next year’s tests between the Springboks and British-Irish Lions.
Two cold Castle Lite draughts appeared, and the charming waitress answered my table-partner’s question to the affirmative. “Yes, we have oysters.”
Joaquim ordered 12, leading to raised eyebrow from my side. Recent contact with Cape Town restaurant oysters had been disappointing, to say the least. Lifeless shreds of slime lying in brittle shells and hanging limp and listless from an oyster fork, much like a post-coital bat penis, had eased my usual hot romance with these kings of edible ocean matter.
I was, however, ensured that here at Enrico oyster nirvana would be experienced. By a person of Portuguese DNA from a nation that worships seafood like no other. Besides, he was paying.
Someone had just seen a dolphin swimming close to the deck when the oysters arrived and ruined any prospects the marine mammal had had of providing me with showy maritime entertainment. It could be humping an elephant seal while eating a whale, I could not give a damn.
For on the table before us lay 12 things of pure beauty, fatty plump morsels of flesh shimmering in the mauve light of dusk as their heavy shells glistened like the mothers of all pearls.
I quickly glanced to Joaquim with a dumb smile of appreciation before offering these wonderous creatures my unreserved attention.
Being wild oysters plucked from the rocks, the presentations are not clinically uniform in that the shells differ in shapes and sizes. Some are flat and shallow in cusping their oval meats, while other shells are deep and long requiring one to burrow into the crevice with a small fork in search of the fleshy morsel lurking nervously in the crevice.
Freshness, a non-negotiable foundation of oyster-eating, is ascertained with the squirt of liquor from a lemon-slice. Upon experiencing the acidity of the citrus, these oysters reacted with delightful vigour, drawing-in the thread-like rims around their bodies with irritation and alarm.
They were still so alive I had to look around to see if representatives from Animal Welfare were not around to reprimand me for acid-bombing these creatures of god before inserting the mollusc into my mouth and chewing it gently to death before allowing the thing to slide down-throat. Chased by a rivulet of cool, steely Sauvignon Blanc to ensure a painless death.
Eating oysters is as much about texture and sensorial experience as it is about taste. Wild ones such as these have heavy, sweet meats providing satisfying, hunger-sating fulfilment along with the feral maritime flavours of ocean, iodine and mollusc.
Such was the pleasure, a dozen more were ordered as we loudly sucked shells, glugged wine and swallowed enthusiastically with bobbing Adam’s apples.
Ristorante Enrico has a bunch of usual suspects on the menu, including pasta, fish, veal, calamari and pizza, the challenge being to offer something coming even close to the experience provided by those oysters. The seafood pasta was suggested by the Portuguese wingman, who had been here before, so who was going to argue?
It proved to be an apt choice.
The dish was pasta cooked to a perfect state of el dente and containing only morsels of creatures who had once lived in the ocean. There was no cloying sweet acidity of a tomato sauce to mask the purity of flavour, only white wine and bit of garlic being deployed to enhance the dish.
It was too dark to see what I was eating, but that is what a superior palate and extraordinary food knowledge is there for. Squid was tender, while slices of line-fish provided a comforting base. Sumptuous prawn meat was still in its shell, while the familiar nutty, saffron taste of mussel lurked behind every second mount of pasta.
It was pitch dark when we finished eating. The waves crashed against the rocks and a cool breeze drifted in from the south. I placed the fork on my empty plate and looked for the Southern Cross and other stars. And saw them all.
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