A pleasant task given me recently was to invite five people who know their way around a menu and wine list to lunch to check out proposed new dishes at the Komba Hari Grill Room at Rainbow Towers Hotel.
Eating Out with Dusty Miller
The amiable Eltah Sanangura, who is the Rainbow group top publicist, invited me and several other foodie journalists, opinion formers and decision makers. I, in turn asked Sarah Cullen, youthful editor and publisher of Out of Africa magazine and Dave Emberton of DStv who also reads the “news” on ZBCTV, that no one ever watches!
I sent a round robin e-mail to the Greendale Good Food & Wine Appreciation Society saying the first three members to accept an invitation to attend a chefs’ table at mystery Harare up-market hotel the following Tuesday were on.
Within one minute, 37 seconds, Lance Nettleton, who runs the Centurion Pub and Grill and several businesses, along with his wife, Jackie; Count “Lucky” Eddie Karnicki, a chartered accountant and management consultant and Andy Justice, semi-retired, but chairman of Burco Computers had volunteered. And the fun was on!
The invitation read 12:30pm to 2pm and at 12:32pm Eltah was ringing my cellphone to find out where I was; as all my guests had arrived.
“Stuck in traffic at Jason Moyo and Rotten Row,” I replied. “But I’ll be with you in a few minutes.”
The suicidal, murderous, anarchical driving of kombis at that notorious crossroads had to be seen to be believed. It would have been quicker to have walked from my office, but I had another assignment after the tasting lunch.
RTG’s top management was there to meet, greet and seat us, including new general manager of the Towers, Ivan Kasozi. I last met him at lunch at Monos Restaurant, Crown-Plaza Monomatapa. But when I first saw his name on a familiarisation tour itinerary of Vic Falls and he was gm of one of the Rainbow Group hotels there I assumed Ivan Kasozi was Russian…or Polish like Count Karnicki. But, no, he’s a local, likable Shona lad!
I feel there’s little point in going to a chefs’ lunch and merely praise singing what is being served, free of charge let’s face it; but similarly participants shouldn’t — unless totally called for — bbe absolutely negative. Constructive criticism is the name of this particular game.
And all 10 guests sitting around the hollow square eating area, perched on high stools overlooking chefs at their griddle pans, were unanimously constructively critical that the lighting, presumably designed to be discreet and intimate at suppertime, was too damned dim for a mid-day meal.
Okay, that can be sorted out by changing bulbs, removing lenses and turning up the rheostat (dimmer switch) we were assured. But it didn’t happen at the click of Ivan’s fingers, and several of us battled to read new colourful menus. And that included Lance, who’s 20 years younger than me and doesn’t need reading specs.
What we managed to scan showed that the Komba Hari now goes in for fusion food, fusing Western cuisine and that of the Far East, especially Japan. Sadly, as a fully paid up globe-trotting cynic, I’m very aware that “fusion food” often means “total confusion food”!
The fusion aspect was not over apparent on perusing the appetiser section of the new carte du jour. The help yourself salad buffet has always been popular at Komba Hari since the day it opened going on for 27 years ago (I was there!) and still is. For many years it was free if you ordered a substantial main course, but nowadays costs US$4.
A wide variety of rabbit food is nicely displayed, with lots of taste, crunch and varieties in colour and texture, but you usually eat if off a tiny side plate. Sure, you can go back as often as you like, but our cooking station couldn’t have been farther away from the greenery and sometimes I just want a big, piled plate of freshly picked garden goodness to accompany a nice thick, fat, juicy fillet steak!
Soup-of-the-day (US$4) proved to be cream of mushroom and while two of us asked for a little demi-tasse (coffee cup) of it for sampling purposes, a conventional bowlful was served to each guest.
And jolly good it was too; full of the flavour of fresh forest fungi with crunchy fried garlic croutons and one of the hotel’s dinky, still warm, crusty bread rolls and butter.
I’d particularly asked to try the very 1960-ish totally retro prawn cocktail, US$10, but everyone within sight was also served this delightful dish. Several large steamed peeled prawns in a not-too-overpowering cocktail sauce on a bed of iceberg lettuce, with one monster unpeeled prawn apparently staring dolefully at his dead pals with beady black eye.
Other guests were served “blu “ mushrooms: crumbed and stuffed with blue cheese and bacon and drizzled with sweet chili sauce at US$11 or piri-piri chicken livers, pan-fried with Melba toast (US$8); there was a fair bit of swapping crustaceans for fungi or offal.
Other starters included udon noodle soup, which readers may know better as miso: the broth Japanese eat at breakfast! At US$8; spicy beef or chicken soup is US$5; king calamari rings, crispy fried in chili garlic butter were US$12, tempura vegetables US$9 and vegetable spring rolls US$8.
Komba Hari explained: In Shona, “kukomba” is to gather or circle around and “hari” is the traditional clay cooking pot. There’s a proud centuries old tradition of sharing not only a feast but mirth and camaraderie and sure enough we feasted together and laughed much later than the designated 2pm. I subsequently heard that one of my young lady foodie colleagues feasted so well the hotel was faced with the prospect of giving her a room for the night or providing a complimentary taxi home…if she could recall where she lived!
As a man who’s eaten at Komba Hari very frequently for more than a quarter-of-a-century, I’m not convinced that the newcomers’
introduction to their main courses was a success. When the lamb is good it’s excellent and is usually served as three small chops or large cutlets crusted and grilled, set on wasabi mash and stir-fried vegetables, drizzled with all-important mint sauce at US$22.
We had a small piece of –let’s face it—not the world’s tastiest most tender lamb on Tuesday served with slapchips, sweet and sour chicken (US$17) and fried rice and chicken chow-mein (US$25) from the Asian Corner. Fusion rapidly headed for confusion, but the humour grew more infectious and Harare’s answer to Lois Lane became even gigglier!
Normally at Komba Hari I’d have a good fillet steak (300g) with mushroom or pepper sauce and jacket potato at US$20 or grilled fish or seafood before the prices became rather top heavy, or Japanese teppanyaki at US$23.
We finished, oddly, with strawberries and strawberry ice-cream, which doesn’t appear on the new menu and deep-fried bananas with ice-cream, and honey, sprinkled with nuts at US12.
We were all invited back to check out the various alterations we had suggested to cooking and serving techniques and to try the hotel’s Christmas menu. Watch this space!