TABLES Making waves
Christine McCabe visits a tiny cafe on the Goolwa waterfront
HIS year could spell make or break for South Australia’s ailing Coorong and lower lakes system, a scenario not lost on diners at the recently opened Aquacaf. Set waterfront — for the moment — in the old Murray River port of Goolwa, just past a tiny yacht club believed to be the oldest in Australia, this jaunty eatery commands sweeping views of the receding waters, flecked here and there with black swans and cruising pelicans.
The latest venture of chef Jordan Theodoros, Aquacaf represents a dramatic departure from the complex, frequently brilliant, food he created at Adelaide’s Melting Pot. Here the small, simple and largely seafood menu is more in keeping with Goolwa’s status as the first Cittaslow (slow city) to be named outside Europe.
And Theodoros’s fans have been quick to follow him to the Murray Mouth, for on this surprisingly grey and chilly summer’s day, with rain threatening (if only), the tiny, ramshackle cafe is overflowing. Tables spill from the crowded main room where the open kitchen hisses and clangs to a wooden deck and down again on to a small terrace.
Super-efficient and friendly staff move briskly through the espadrille-shod crowd. No sooner have we sat on the terrace than the menu and wine list are produced. Moments later we’re quaffing a glass of 2005 Eliza Padthaway sparkling ($8) and watching windsurfers skirt an ominously expanding sandbar.
Specials today are local cockles or pipis ($23.50), a mainstay of the Goolwa fishing industry. For decades hardy cocklers have scoured the sands of Ninety Mile Beach, luring these tasty molluscs to the surface by means of a somewhat eccentric dance dubbed the goolwa or cockle shuffle.
Putting aside thoughts of burly fishermen doing the twist, we tuck into a steaming bowl of the pink-tinged shellfish, cooked simply with peas and parsley, a delicious evocation of place.
The main menu is short, cheap as chips and designed to warm the cockles of a summer holidaymaker’s heart: salads, fish, baguettes and burgers.
But this being a Theodoros operation, things are not entirely straightforward. Salads feature the likes of almonds, lychees and sheep’s milk fetta; chips are handcut; food is served not on plates but on cheese boards; and fish is encased in pastry to form not a pie but a pasty.
Pasties are a grand South Australian tradition with roots in the Yorke Peninsula’s rich Cornish heritage. On the Fleurieu, however, Theodoros has abandoned the copper miners’ meat-and-veg version for leeks, cheddar, fresh herbs and mulloway ($17).
The result is unexpectedly good: soft, flaky shortcrust pastry encasing large chunks of tender fish, with a little sharpness from the cheddar and summer freshness from the herbs. The dish is accompanied by a drizzle of dill and mustard dressing and pot of house-made tartare.
Mulloway is a seasonal fish much prized by local anglers and its presence on the Aquacaf menu is a reminder of the rich history of this place, a town of anglers and boat builders where the country’s oldest steel-railed line (the coast-hugging Cockle Train) powers under steam to Victor Harbor.
While mains are served we watch an old wooden paddlesteamer take a turn near Hindmarsh Island, then tuck into pasties and chowder ($16.50) — a brimming bowl of black mussels, cockles, mulloway, potato and speck — while our ravenous sons make short work of the excellent fried squid ($18), liberally scattered with chilli, and an old-fashioned burger ($12), handmade with pork and beef mince and served with caramelised onions, fried