When I first received an invitation to experience Willoughby & Co. in Hyde Park, I was under the very real impression that this was a new venue. I had just seen a burst of updates on it all over social media and I was dead keen to try this new dining experience, as everyone was raving about it.
Little did I know that the Hyde Park branch is in fact the original Willoughby & Co. and has been there for 30 odd years. The family who originally opened the Hyde Park branch has since moved on and opened another Willoughby & Co. in Cape Town but, though the original has changed hands a few times, it has stood the test of time.
And it’s for good reason that the restaurant is currently experiencing a resurgence. Owner Brett Whitehouse, who bought the restaurant about 4 years ago, is passionate about serving the best, freshest fish dishes, and ensuring that he does so in a responsible manner. To him, it’s vital that what is served at Willoughby & Co. is not only delicious, but in fact good for you. “I think we have a responsibility as restauranteurs, chefs, as food representatives, in what we’re giving to you … I think it’s a massive responsibility.” He takes the craft of delivering great fish and seafood very seriously.
We spent a lovely evening discussing the industry and what makes Willoughby & Co. special, and why fish should be enjoyed in its purest form, rather than loaded with sauce. “As the public, we identify fish with that sauce flavour. That sauce will be fantastically tasty, but you’ve never tasted fish. We don’t put sauce on our fish, so if I overcook it here, you’ll know straight away ‘cause there’s nothing to hide it.”
As always, I asked for recommendations, and Brett suggested I start with Tuna Tartar, a light meal rather than a starter, and a substantial amount of food at that. As Brett promised, the tuna spoke for itself, noticeably fresh and full of flavour. And that was even before I added any lemon or tasted it with some of the fried capers or nacho chips. The deep-fried capers were a revelation, adding a lovely zesty flavour element and crunch to an already delicious dish. The tartar is also available with salmon instead of tuna.
For main, I got to enjoy a combo dish, not straight off the menu but available separately. I cannot express enough how much enjoyment I had from the very first bite of my line fish main (kabeljou available on the day). Subtly herbed with fresh thyme amongst others, it was melt-in-your-mouth buttery and delicate, perfectly prepared. This gets a very definite #JFWRecommends nod, and if you only try one thing, I suggest you have this for a divine fish experience.
Line Fish main, #JFWRecommends
The other part of my main was a collection of king prawns, in this case sourced off the coast of Argentina. They had a very langoustine-like flavour, being deep-water prawns. Once again, the kitchen had created magic here, with subtle herbs, as well as just a hint of spicing (a secret ingredient Brett wouldn’t reveal and I couldn’t put my finger on), which magnified the natural flavour of the prawns.
I got to taste some of Brett’s beer-battered hake pieces off his own plate. When I went back for lunch with Tall, Dark & Handsome soon after, I came very close to ordering this dish because it was so incredibly delicious but I forced myself to have something new and different.
English Style Fish (Calamari added, not standard on menu)
I had absolutely no room for dessert but our waiter, Brian, assured us that the bread & butter pudding would’ve been the way to go. I promised to have some the next time I went for a full course dinner.
I did return the very next week to take Tall, Dark & Handsome for lunch. I knew this would be right up his alley as he loves nothing more than a beautifully prepared fish dish. He opted to have the same dish I had waxed lyrical about: the line fish main (and luckily, kabeljou was available again). On that occasion, I opted for the Kingklip, Prawn & Chourico skewer, a lovely light main option.
Kingklip, Prawn & Chourico Skewer
“The real secret to fish is in the texture and the juices.” Brett Whitehouse
I get to try a great many restaurants and it’s very seldom that I return again the next week to have another meal. My hectic calendar does not usually allow for such luxuries. But on this occasion, I made a very definite exception. Fish like you’ve never had it before, perfectly prepared. Great, friendly service seals the deal. Don’t go when you’re rushing to a movie. Make this a proper relaxed dinner that you get to linger over. Enjoy every bite.
Side of Al Dente Green Beans, Parmesan, Sautéed Red Onion & Roasted Baby Tomatoes
Some other things that are worth noting:
- No corkage fee means you can take your own wine and help the budget along just a bit.
- You can order fresh fish from Willoughby & Co to prepare at home. It’s not on display but chat to them. No matter how you like it, whether whole or filleted, with skin or without, bone in or out, and you also get to choose from a number of different fish options. You can even purchase shellfish for your next braai.
- The Hyde Park branch hasn’t got much in common anymore, other than the name, with the Cape Town branch. Their menu is not quite the same and their style of preparing sushi, especially, is quite different so be aware of that if you’re keen on your mayo and spring onion and deep-fried sushi options.
“I’m a believer that it’s all about your ingredients. That is the key aspect of any restaurant. The main ingredient is the feature of the dish and I think it needs to stand by itself.”