I drove to Avondale on a steaming hot, humid Wednesday last week, when much, if not most, of the country was Zesa-less and the Standard offices and most of the CBD was without water. (Because there was no Zesa to pump it!)
I like people-watching at lunch times and St Elmo’s and its near neighbour, the Iranian-themed Café Nush (formerly Italian Bakery), are two of the finest people-spotting “possies” in the country. Across the car-park, the former Avondale Wimpy Bar, now being re-built, was another good place to sit, eat, drink and be nosy.
Following indigenisation (which I don’t think is a dirty word), the Wimpy rapidly sank from bog-standard British burger bar to a dreadfully dirty and depressing sadza-bones-and-stringy-chicken-stew dump, while still proudly, but probably illegally — and certainly immorally — flying the franchise’s international logo.
Across King George Road, in the DStv operation at the old George Hotel, another international franchise — Panarotti’s — has shut its doors in recent months.
It was unlamented by me and a little 10-year-old whose mother I occasionally entertain to meals, who re-dubbed it Panagrotty’s — the sort of infantile equivalent of the kiss of commercial death on a restaurant!
I was torn between Café Nush, which is certainly rather mush, but being run by Iranian Moslems doesn’t serve grog and St Elmo’s which does, enthusiastically, so it got my vote!
The verandah was hot, but not unpleasantly meltingly so, enjoying a wee bit of shade and a definite refreshing breeze. Indoors was air-conditioned (by thumping generator, currently THE sound of Africa, at least around Ha-ha-ha-rare: the continent’s fun capital!) and was pumping.
The first of two delightfully icily chilled articles of a moderately intoxicating nature (canned Golden Pilsener at US$2 a pop) hardly touched sides as I scanned the laminated — and unsticky — menu.
Forgetting — as always — how generous St Elmo’s portions are, I ordered a starter of mussels in a creamy garlic and white wine sauce. This was a large, steaming bowlful of New Zealand green-lips on the half shell, plus a large quantity of loose mussel “meat” (for want of a better word).
The dish came with extra garlic sauce, additional chilli sauce, for a hint of woof! and four slabs of a good brown whole-wheat loose-crumbed bread for dipping in the extremely more-ish sauce surrounding the seafood.
At US$8, this was an attractive and filling mussel preparation which wouldn’t be out of place served in Belgium, France or Holland. I ate something very similar fairly recently in a lovely dockside shellfish pub in Leith Harbour, Edinburgh and my daughter, Adele, successfully experimented with a classical moules mariniere recipe cooked in her own kitchen in Oxfordshire the night before the Prodigal Father once again returned to Mugabe-land.
Other appetisers are from US$5,50 (chicken livers) to US$9 for a 150g portion of calamari, which — with tartare sauce and chips or rice — would be an acceptable main course for many.
My main course was pasta: penne carbonara. The cylindrical furrowed hollow quill-like (hence the name penne….geddit?) pasta tubes were professionally al dente and awash with diced ham, bacon, salami and chopped mushrooms in a creamy sauce with a hint of garlic and topped with a grated cheese which owed little to Parmesan, but was quite fine by me.
Wood-fired pizzas are perhaps the trademark St Elmo’s dish and cost between US$9 and US$20, depending upon size and topping ingredients. Grills: mainly chops, steaks and racks of succulent barbecued ribs cost US$14-US$22. Fish is priced at US$15 (Lake Kariba bream or Nyanga trout) to US$20 for prawns, rice or chips and a Greek salad.
I assume that St Elmo’s has finally listened to customers’ belly-aching about portion sizes, so have introduced half puddings at US$4 and US$4,50. Standard (read “enormous”) portions of pud are US$5 to US$7.
And for a fiver I had the most magnificent ice-cream and hot chocolate sauce, served rampant in a Knickerbocker glory glass, sprinkled with hundreds-and-thousands and topped with a glacé cherry.
Service was — as ever — impeccable, attentive waiters headed by their head honcho Big Ben the Body Builder constantly smiling and smartly turned out. Robbie Mellor is the franchisee and occasionally, out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of his brother, Russell, grafting the tables, meeting, greeting and seating.
Look out for special deals — children eat free on a Wednesday for instance.
Bottom line: seafood starter, pasta, pudding (all enough for two punters) and two local lagers US$30.
St Elmo’s, Avondale Shopping Centre, Harare. Opens lunch Wednesday to Monday (Closed Tuesdays)