L’Escargot is situated at the Courtney Hotel in 8th Street and in the 80’s and into the 90’s was the epitome of fine dining in the capital with reservations having to be secured well in advance. In this case the reservation was effected, the telephones apparently being out of order, by the sending of a runner with forked stick to ascertain that they were in fact open and that a table was available.
As evidence of its former popularity, the chairs on which we were seated were those occupied on December 17 1986 by King Juan Carlos and Queen Sophia of Spain and commemorated with brass plaques on the back of the chairs. Reminiscing was made easy by the fact that the décor remains unchanged after all these years — the same furniture, the same carpeting, the same paintings and artefacts on the walls. The cellar like atmosphere remains, with vaulted roofing and brick work walls, but the lighting was somewhat brighter than we remembered and unfortunately emphasized the need for an overhaul.
There were one or two patrons at the bar, but they didn’t venture into the dining room. One other pair of diners did make an appearance, ate very quickly and left long before us. Drinks to hand, we expectantly awaited the menus. These too are unchanged — a heavy wooden cover with the signature escargot etched into the wood, but before we could open them the waiter advised us what was on offer. For starters escargot, spicy mushrooms, gypsy spit mushrooms, tuna, mushroom soup and French onion soup. For mains there was hake, rump steak, garlic steak, pepper steak and filet mignon. The absence of anything chicken was surprising and we confirmed that this was the case. We perused the menu nonetheless to see what might have been and it was a balanced menu with lots of choice but there’s not much point in holding lots of perishable food for non-existent punters. We also made an enquiry as to whether they could prepare one of the vegetarian offerings and it appeared that, if pressured to, they could.
With trepidation I asked for the wine list and the waiter said he would see what they had and did we want white or red. I said red and he returned with a bottle of Nederburg Duet which he said was the only red in stock thus making for an easy choice. A generous basket of warm rolls, toast and crostini was brought to the table with a large slab of margarine on a plate and the wine was opened and left to breathe. We awaited the meal with some trepidation, but our fears were unfounded.
The gypsy spit mushrooms comprised six large button mushrooms wrapped in bacon and drowning in a sea of melted butter and copious quantities of garlic. This was served with a plate of sliced white bread, the crusts removed. It was very good. The French onion soup turned out to be a creamed onion soup but was served with the traditional cheese encrusted crouton and was not unpleasant. For mains we both chose steaks, the flambéed pepper steak for me and the filet mignon for my companion. We enjoyed watching the preparation of the pepper steak adjacent to the table, the blending of ingredients for the sauce and the final whoosh of flames as the alcohol was added. The steak was a generous portion but rather more well-done than medium. The filet mignon was declared excellent and vegetables comprising freshly cooked chips, and andante green beans and carrots coated in melted butter were served with both dishes. The food was rich and neither of us managed to clean our plates.
For desserts there was only ice- cream and chocolate sauce on offer which we declined and grudgingly settled for instant coffee to end off the meal.
Expect to spend US$15 to US$30 per head
Courtney Hotel, corner Selous Ave/8th St, Harare.
The pricing at L’Escargot
Soups were US$2, other starters were US$4, and main courses were under US$10, except for the pepper steak which was US$15. This restaurant certainly offers value for money. And the quality of the food points to some culinary skills in the kitchen. The price of drinks is however commensurate with that of other hotels. It is a great shame that the restaurant appears to have become one that probably only attracts the patronage of hotel guests.
The restaurant is entered in the “deluxe” category. This it is not — it fails on many of the exacting criteria for this category, not least of which was the very limited choice of dishes on offer. L’Escargot needs to re-invent itself — revamping the décor and a smaller, more modern, menu of well-executed dishes would make a world of difference.