I was obliged to do an awful lot of eating out in the last two or three weeks before flying out on a five-week working holiday in the UK and United Arab Emirates, in order to research, photograph, write and leave restaurant reviews in the pipeline for The Standard and Zimbabwe Independent to cover the period of my absence from Ha-ha-ha-rare (Africa’s fun capital.)
Report by Dusty Miller
But then, I rarely need an excuse to visit Coimbra, probably Zimbabwe’s oldest surviving Portuguese-theme restaurant in The Avenues, Harare, (or is it Arnaldo’s in Graniteside?) because I just love their trademark speciality dish: half a plump, peppery, piri-piri chicken, which is always marinated to perfection and flame-charred, as tender as a nun’s heart and always exceedingly juicy.
And that’s certainly exactly what I had on Sunday July 28, after a hectic morning’s writing shift in the office.
On entering Coimbra, my heart sank, because the place was absolutely packed, pumping, pulsating; I couldn’t really see me getting a table or being fed for ages and Zimbabwe was playing India at Harare Sports Club in the third One-Day International cricket game.
Wrong; fortuitously there’d been a “no-show” and someone who’d booked a table for four had reneged on the reservation. Their bad-mannered and inconsiderate loss was my gain.
And I was served within minutes by a cheerful waiter who suspected (correctly) I’d enthusiastically, thirstily and urgently need a bitterly cold Golden Pilsner lager, followed by caldo verde soup, while I went through the motions of scrutinising a menu which probably hasn’t changed (other than price-wise) since Coimbra opened: originally as a assort of middle-class, white collar shebeen soon after independence.
Attracting a picaresque, rather than picturesque crowd of avid followers, it was known colloquially as “Yellow Doors”. The property’s doors are indeed still freshly painted yellow, but punters are no longer warned in a whisper to keep a ZW$20 note tucked away in case they needed to bribe members of a police raid team!
I enjoyed my usual healthy vegetable fix with a big, deep steaming bowl of caldo verde which in metropolitan Portugal features kale, but here (I suspect) the principal ingredient is rape, spinach or chard. If course it’s never as good, tasty or as complex as its Italian equivalent starter course: minestrone soup, but I’m rather fond of the dish.
At Coimbra, I’m convinced every time I order it the broth is creamier and richer than it was on the previous visit. It comes with a few chunks or slices of chorico/chorizo, the fiery Peninsula sausage and a wickerwork basket of just too more-ish soft-crumbed crispy crusted continental-style bread, always sparklingly fresh and often still warm, with fiddly packets of air-line type imported butter or marge and costs US$3,50. A traditional Portuguese-style salad is US$5,50 but will probably feed two or three punters. It was topped with large amounts of splendid moist grated carrot and featured generous strips of a tasty soft cheese and several unctuous green olives. Candidly, it was a bigger portion than I remembered, and I took some home in a doggy box to pad-out supper many hours later.
As usual, Coimbra (it’s named after a metropolitan Portuguese city boasting one of the oldest universities in the world) was amazingly packed and people poured in to eat long after 2pm when, for a long time in the early days, it closed annoyingly promptly.
Huge tables of three generations of extended families enjoyed themselves immensely, dining and wining well in convivial surroundings reveling in the company of relatives.
The flagship half piri-piri chicken is consistently first class: loads of tender meat, marinated expertly, char-grilled to perfection, plump and juicy and it certainly ticked all the right boxes. It really is so very good it needs eating in the approved King Henry VIII-style: clenched in a greasy fist. Hot lemony finger bowls and napkins are provided for the necessary clean-up operation afterwards. Pity there were no half-starved curs around to wolf down the clean-picked bones!
Coimbra’s jugs of additional (and free) sauces and gravies are always superb, too: just begging to have the great bread dipped in them!
I frequently, in fact usually, spurn the obvious attractions of the deep-fat fryer, so firmly decided against chips, ordering Portuguese-style “whole” boiled potatoes. I don’t know why that name is used, because they almost always come in neat halves! These spuds were also full of flavour and cooked with precision. The plate was decorated with a fringe of salad and separate lemon wedges helped to cut the grease.
On a recent visit I ordered the lovely grilled calamari as my main course. It’s aways cooked to perfection, but costs US$17 a portion; line fish is US$16, sole US$19,50, kingklip US$21,50, prawns US$29,50 and bacalhau (definitely an acquired taste, a bit like codfish biltong!) at US$32.
After lunch I joined Professor Mike Farrell’s family table for a drink and a chat, missing much of the cricket near white-wash! He runs the local American Hotel Training School certificate course based at the Senior Citizens’ Club, near the American embassy and has turned out most of the really professional Zimbabwean hotel and travel professionals here in the past two generations. His former students are in top jobs across the globe. We estimated that on average, 85%-95% of Coimbra’s incredibly loyal customer base routinely orders a half chicken for main course.
A short range of desserts cost US$5 each. I opted for a splendid Lusitanian trademark Molotov pudding: rich and covered in a great caramel sauce and reminiscent of school dinner “sweets”. I can’t discover why this most traditional Lisbon dessert is named “Molotov”; apparently nothing to do with so-called Molotov cocktails, a rough-and-ready petrol bomb, favoured by the nationalist parties in spreading “democracy” the early days of the “struggle” in this country. The crème caramel and chocolate mousses are both also worth trying by the sweet-toothed.
Bottom line: soup, salad, main course, pudding, three Golden Pilsner lagers: US$30.
Coimbra, 61 Selous Ave (Tel 700237) opens lunch and supper Tuesday to Sunday. Eating indoors or semi al-fresco. Child and handicapped friendly. Smoking, non-smoking tables. Compact, reasonably priced, wine list. Great Irish coffees and Dom Pedros at US$6,50 each. Safe, guarded, parking.