Seared tuna with a red pepper & clementine salsa – and dining out in Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth



Damn my procrastination problem, damn it to hell!!  Who else do you know who spent a week in South African in June  (June, people!) and by the end of the year had still not got round to writing it up for her blog?  Well, no prizes for guessing.  And now I have a week’s worth of posts about the south of France languishing in the limbo that is my “Drafts” file, plus I need to convert my sketchy diary notes of my Christmas trip to South Africa into posts.  I weep.  So to ease my own guilty conscience and rigid sense of chronology, I will use this post as a springboard to do a potted history of the June trip to SA.  Why?  Because the rather delectable dish pictured above was inspired by something I ate in a restaurant on that trip.

For someone who professes to love living in London, I still manage to go into a state of near-religious rapture when I look out of the aeroplane window and see the red soil of Africa below me. Having taken off over the green, summertime patchwork that is southern England, you come in to land over the reds and browns of wintertime Gauteng (it’s a summer rainfall area so EVERYTHING dies in the winter). The two landscapes don’t seem capable of existing on the same planet, so different are they – but there is something exhilaratingly familiar about the flat, open emptiness of South Africa that I can never feel when looking down on the English landscape. So by the time we land at Johannesburg International airport, the lack of sleep, crows feet brought on by the dry air and the possibility of DVT from the long flight are all but forgotten in a rush of joy at being home. Like many South Africans living abroad, I am always anxious that I will find the country somehow diminished since my last visit – maybe the roads are full of potholes, maybe the airport looks run-down, etc etc. But I have to say that every time I go home, the country looks in better shape to me – Johannesburg International now looks more First World than most of Heathrow, and although I know that international chains like Accessorize are homogenizing the way we dress around the world, I still get a little thrill to think that they find it viable to open shops on the Southern tip of Africa. So as you can gather, the trip was off to a good start!

This trip, I decided not to fly straight home to Port Elizabeth but to spend a night in Johannesburg with Alison, an old friend of mine. After picking me up from the airport, she took me to her house where I was going to stay until she got home from work at lunchtime, so I had a shower and called a few friends with a view to meeting up for dinner. One of said friends, Duncan, whom I have known since we were at university together, said he was busy that night but could he take me to lunch? No problem. 10 minutes later he pulls up outside the front door in… a black Ferrari. Now I have been around exotic cars my whole life as my dad used to collect them, so the mere fact that there was a Ferrari outside was not exactly going to thrill me. But the fact that it was being driven by a guy that I remember as a beach bum who didn’t take the whole university lark too seriously – now that did thrill me!! You go, dude. And so with the throaty roar of the Ferrari engine, we were off on a whirlwind tour – visited the Ferrari dealership in Kyalami (more beautiful cars) and the lovely flat Duncan shares with his girfriend with its stunning view over Jo’burg. Then we set off for Melrose Arch, a new mixed-use development in the northern suburbs. First Duncan had to show off his new gym – it is the flagship Virgin Active gym in the country and man, it is a palace! Marble changing rooms, wooden lockers, state of the art equipment… more hotel than gym, really. I would never go home! We also checked out the Melrose Arch Hotel next door – OK, now I was really impressed! I have been to the Ian Schrager’s Sanderson Hotel in London and this is the closest facsimile that I have seen of this style of hotel. It is post-modern, eclectic, African and funky in the best possible way. We wandered up to the pool area where there are giant zinc buckets with ficus trees scattered among the tables and chairs by (and in!) the swimming pool. Alongside the sun loungers there were 2 fourposter beds draped in white muslin and full of scatter cushions – kind of like a poolside Bedouin tent. I flung myself down and thought I might have died and gone to heaven. But no, I was merely dizzy with hunger… So the next stop was JB’s for a long lunch. I had forgotten what a South African menu looks like – and boy, have I missed them!! JB’s is a middle-of-the road restaurant for South Africa – nothing pretentious and the kind of place you will go to for a quick bit to eat as opposed to a fine dining experience. And yet, compared to the “equivalent” places in England, there were ten times as many dishes that caught my eye. (I use the term equivalent loosely – it’s my experience that reasonably priced, casual-meal-out restaurants in London are either ethnic {Indian or Chinese} or pubs – and none of these offer the range of choices I had at JB’s. In the end I chose a fried haloumi salad – and it was HUGE!! About 3 times the size of any salad I’ve seen in London, and everything was perfect – fresh, delicious and crispy. There was a ton of haloumi too, which is always a winner in my book. Anyhow, after a very long lunch with rather too much wine, it was back home for a quick change and then off to dinner in Melville at Meza Luna with a bunch of girlfriends. I seem to recall I had haloumi salad again (clearly I REALLY miss it in London!) but the wine was flowing freely to the extent that I don’t feel qualified to express an opinion on the specifics. I can tell you though that Meza Luna is a lovely place with an intimate atmosphere and a varied and interesting menu which won’t break the bank. Recommended.

After that brief sojurn in Johannesburg, it was off down to Port Elizabeth to spend some time in the bosom of my family, so to speak. Most of the time I ate at friends, so there wasn’t that much to report on in terms of culinaria, but here is a rundown of the establishments I did visit:

  • Cafe Blue Waters – one of my favourites. The menu, once again, is a long and varied affair. I think this is the perfect illustration of why I get frustrated at eating out in London – this type of menu whcih is taken so for granted in South African is hardly available in London. Many restaurants in SA will advertise steaks, seafood, salads and pastas all on one menu. And it will usually all be fresh and properly cooked – not like ordering egg and chips in a curry house 😉 In England you will probably have to go to four different restaurants to get a decent rendition of the four items listed – and you will probably have to pay a fair whack for the privilege. Anyway, I digress. On this occasion I eschewed my usual crab and avo salad (they do a great one!) and went for something more warming for winter – the calamari steak smothered in spinach and feta and olives. Oh. My. Word. The calamari steak was so tender you could probably have cut it with a fork, and the topping was generous and delicious. The venue is quite lovely, with wraparound windows and balcony for sunny days, and the waves crash onto the rocks not 10m from where you sit. Definitely recommended if you are in the area.
  • The Verandah at the Beach Hotel – my father’s favourite lunch venue. The Beach Hotel is approximately across the road from Cafe Blue Waters and lacks the proximity to the sea, but you can still enjoy fine views of the bay and enjoy a meal outside on their sheltered verandah, even on windy days. The hotel is one of the older Port Elizabeth hotels but has been refurbished and upgraded recently, so it looks and feels quite plush. I am in love with the garden, which is full of alyssum and Australian lavender and consequently smells like heaven. But as a restaurant, the Verandah has limitations. For one, the menu is severely limited and relatively expensive, but far worse is the fact that service is almost without fail abysmally slow and they are often out of menu items. But if you can get past all that (!!), it’s a relaxing place to spend an afternoon with a tall drink in hand. I had the ploughman’s platter which is good, if unremarkable, and my dad had their daily special (there is one for each day of the week) – I seem to recall it was a Malay chicken curry. The one thing I have had there which was spectacular was their version of eggs Florentine – poached eggs on a slice of smoked salmon, topped with spinach and a bechamel sauce. Now that’s worth going back for! And I have in the past had lovely meals at both the hotel’s other restaurants, The Crest and The Bell.
  • Wickerwoods restaurant – this one came highly recommended by friends. It”s situated in an old house in Cape Road which is a big plus in my book – this paves the way for a series of intimate spaces rather than a large and impersonal dining room. The menu is written only on a chalkboard which I personally find a bit annoying, but I guess it’s an indication that the chef cooks what’s freshly available, rather than to commit himself to fixed menu items regardless of availability. Anyhow, enough detail – what about the food? I started with a potato latke with smoked salmon & cream cheese and it was heavenly – crispy latke contrasting with the succulent, yielding texture of the smoked salmon and cream cheese. For mains I had the linefish as it was Cape Salmon (geelbek), something you don’t see in the UK. I had it very simply grilled with garlic butter – it is a meaty gamefish that can easily be overcooked and dry but this one was lovely – moist and gamey. Other mains at our table were Cajun chicken breasts, green Thai chicken curry & lamb shank, all of which got compliments. Only one of us had space for dessert, and she wisely ordered the most unusual thing on the menu – chocolate spring rolls. OK, sensitive readers who have issues with fat or sugar need to look away now. Imagine a pair of mini spring rolls, stuffed with chocolate, peppermint crisp, and chopped nuts, deep-fried and served piping hot in a vanilla cream sauce. To die for. Such a clever idea and so very very delicious. I would go back for those alone…

After a week of indulgence in Port Elizabeth I spent my last night in my favourite place on earth and only about a two hour drive from home. The trip took us (me, my father, brother and sister-in-law) down the famous Garden Route – a stretch of road along the southernmost coast of Africa, extending some 800km between the cities of Port Elizabeth and Cape Town.  It is an area of unsurpassed natural beauty (mountains, forests, beaches…) and dotted with beautiful places to stop and spend a few days exploring. Our destination was Plettenberg Bay – more specifically, the gorgeous Southern Cross Beach House, built right on the sand dunes of the 12km stretch of soft golden sand known as Robberg Beach.  I cannot sing Southern Cross’s praises loudly enough – I don’t know how I was ever persuaded to leave in time to catch my flight home…  The house is built in light and airy plantation style and guest accommodation is on the ground floor while your charming hosts Neill and Sue Ovenstone live on the first floor.  The entire place is decorated in the colours of the sand, sea and sky and furnishings are sourced (I am pretty sure) from the decor shop that Sue runs in the village, The Old House Shop.  And believe me, you will want to take some of their stuff home with you!!  As it was out of season, we were the only people in residence and we had the gorgeous lounge with its sea view and fireplace to ourselves.  Despite the overcast weather, my dad and I made our way down the wooden boardwalk that leads from the house over the dunes and had a lovely sunset walk along the pristine beach.  As the sun set and it turned chilly, Neill brough in a decanter of sherry and some glasses and we all sat by the fire and congratulated ourselves on our choice of accommodation – it felt more like an upmarket houseparty than paying accommodation!

The most arduous thing we had to do that evening was choose a place to eat.  Plett has a disproportionate number of good restaurants for its size, mainly due to its huge popularity as a tourist destination for both locals and foreigners, so finding a restaurant can result insome squabbles!  But luckily we chose fairly easily and settled on The Med, a seafood restaurant that has been open for years and years and where my mom always loved to eat prawns and get dirty up to her elbows!  Turned out to be a very good choice.  I started with a Caesar salad, usually my acid test as to how good a restaurant is, and this one was delicious.  Liberal use of anchovies, proper Romaine lettuce and (yippeeee!) fresh Parmesan shavings, not the revolting dry sawdust that so many restaurants seem to think is OK to pass off as Parmesan.  I followed this with something truly marvellous – in fact, the dish that inspired the recipe below – seared peppered tuna steak.  For the first time ever in a South African restaurant I was asked if I wanted my tuna rare, medium or well-done and I immediately opted for rare.  As long as my fish can no longer flop about on the plate, it’s cooked enough for me!!  The tuna that arrived was a revelation as to how incredible tuna can be.  Two small but thick tuna steaks, both liberally coated with fresh black pepper, had been cooked for the briefest of periods – in fact, just long enough to develop grill marks – before being deposited on my plate together with a red pepper and fresh mango salsa.  Oh. My. Word.  The tuna was still raw in the middle, but crispy-peppery on the outside – exactly how tuna should be.  (The temptation to cook tuna right through till it is the consistency of tinned tuna should be resisted at all costs!!)  Its rich taste and the spiciness of the pepper was beautifully offset by the sweet, fruity salsa – and how pretty it looked!  Add to this a spoonful of creamy potato and cheese bake and that was me in heaven for the night.  Sigh.  After all this unrestrained feasting, I could not face dessert, however charmingly the waiter tried to persuade me.  But I was tempted by something that I often miss in London but that I have sadly discovered is a South African invention that has not travelled: the Don Pedro! OK, that’s not strictly true – it is known outside of South Africa, but only as an ice-cream based cocktail – only in South African restaurants do you see it on the dessert menu as a matter of course.  It is basically a grown-up milkshake consisting of ice cream and Kahlua and/or whiskey mixed in a blender and topped with whipped cream.  You can have one and convince yourself that you have actually not had dessert, just a little iced coffee 😉  Take my advice people, just try it.  Very very yummy and guaranteed to warm the hearts of any South African friends you may have!

Sadly, the next morning after a sumptuous breakfast on the terrace and a long walk on the beach, we had to head back home so that I could pack my bags and head back to London.  But the memory of that fabulous tuna steak stayed with me until recently, when Tesco had some fresh tuna steaks and I decided to try and do a version of the dish in the comfort of my own kitchen.  It’s actually dead easy and makes a great dish to impress (although it may be tricky to do it for more than, say, four people at a time).  As always happens in my kitchen, I rushed home in a state of excitement and forgot totally to buy mango for the salsa, so some improvisation had to be done.  But it turned out very very well – as you can see from the picture!



2 fresh tuna steaks, rinsed and patted dry
olive oil for brushing the steaks
lots (a Tbsp or two) of freshly ground black pepper, preferably a mixture of red, green and black [I also used a spice mix from South Africa – Woolworths’ Lime Coriander and Jalapeno rub]

For the salsa:
1 medium tomato, very finely chopped
2 spring onions (white parts only) very finely chopped
1 small sweet red or yellow pepper, very finely chopped
1 satsuma or clementine, each segment peeled and shredded [if I had mango, ahem, I would have used diced mango instead, but the sweet citrus taste actually worked really well]
a dash of sweet cider vinegar
[I might also have tried adding some fresh cilantro leaves if I had any]


Chop all the salsa ingredients finely and mix in a bowl.  Cover and leave in the fridge to let the flavours develop.  If you have one, heat your skillet on the stove until it’s very hot (a drop of water dripped on it should sizzle).  If you don’t have a skillet, any frying pan will do, but you won’t get grill marks :-(  While the skillet is heating up, brush the tuna steaks on both sides with olive oil and coat with as much of the pepper mix as will stick to the fish.  Once the skillet is hot, place the tuna steaks in the skillet and (this is important) count down 60 seconds.  Then turn them over and count down a further 30 seconds.  Then take them off the heat and serve immediately.  If you want lovely moist tuna, at all costs resist the temptation to cook them longer!! I served mine on garlic mashed potatoes topped with a generous dollop of salsa, and I do believe we drank a bottle of Riesling, which worked rather well and stood up to the richness of the fish.  The whole thing takes no more than 30 minutes to prepare, start to finish, and you eat like Poseidon himself.

So for those of you who would like to visit South Africa but lack the finances right now, take heart from the fact that you can cook this dish, maybe followed by a Don Pedro for dessert, and pretend that you’re there.  I know I do!  😉 Hey, at least your tastebuds get to take a trip…

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  1. Sarah says

    hey Cooksister! have been reading you now for a couple of weeks, love the site. Am a fellow Saffer living in London and love reading up on what other’s think about living so far away from home. Have you eaten at Chakalaka in Putney? If so, what did you think? I enjoyed it, had the most divine springbok, so rare it almost proinked off the plate, and kudu carpaccio. Of course had a don pedro to finish. Interesting thing those, used to call them Dom Pedro’s when waitressing back in SA years ago. Found them on the menu here in London for the first time outside of a South African establishment, at The Gaucho Grill… where we had the best steak I have eaten outside of SA. Was wondering what the connection was with Don Pedro’s and South America, any ideas?

  2. says

    OK OK firefox geek but there’s something odd happening to your font size. It’s three different sizes
    Hmmm safari too.
    [goes back to looking out door for man to pick him up in a black Ferrari]

  3. says

    Hi Sarah! Glad you are visiting and glad you like what you find – I’m always glad to have fellow-saffers dropping by. I haven’t been to Chakalaka (I’m on the other side of London, unlike the rest of SA!! ;-)) but I have been tempted to try. With that recommendation and the promise of Don/Dom Pedros, how can I resist?? Friends of mine have also been to the Spur in Staines and said that felt… well, like being in a Spur at home!! I have no idea what the origins of Don Pedros are and if there’s a South American connection – and no amount of Googling seems to help. Sorry! As for the spelling I think it’s one of those terms like cappuccino – every restaurant in SA (terrifyingly) has its own take on how to spell it…
    Hey Anthony – no for a change it has nothing to do with your being a Firefox geek – it shows up in the wrong font sizes and colour in IE as well. And I knew it did this as I put the post up – mea culpa, mea culpa. I have just totally lost patience with trying to fix it – you are seeing the FIXED version!! After much effort!! It seems that if I type something in Word (as I often do) and paste it into Typepad’s editing screen, it loses all sense of reason and changes the font at will. Even if it looks OK on the editing screen, it screws up when you save the page. It started off displaying in black text on the site and there were more font variations. In the end I just got bored fixing it and gave up. Maybe I’ll have another go when I’m tired of watching paint dry or something…:P But thanks for noticing!
    *UPDATE* – OK, I’ve now fixed the colour and there’s only one font change and I just can’t face tackling that – so think of this post as a fine Persian rug – the one flaw proves it is hand-made and not mass-produced!
    Oh, and re. waiting by the door for a man to pick you up in a Ferrari… maybe you should put on the cerise spandex to improve your chances in that department?? Wanna race my motor, vroom, vroom and all that?? Get out of my dreams, get into my car??? [gets carried off by the nice men in white coats, no Ferraris in sight here either]

  4. says

    The Gaucho Grill… where we had the best steak I have eaten outside of SA. Was wondering what the connection was with Don Pedro’s and South America, any ideas?
    How about Gaucho Grill is ownded by a Dutch company (they have a chain of Gaucho’s in Netherlands). The Dutch have a big connection with SA. Feasible?