Although very much a conservative (with a lower-case “c”) and not enjoying change for the sake of it, I looked forward to tasting the new menu at Meikles Hotel’s five-star La Fontaine Grillroom with keen anticipation.
As was possibly to be expected, when created largely by Rory Lumsden — the shyest, most retiring “celebrity chef” in the world? — it combines many old favourite comfort food dishes in interesting combinations and juxtapositions of flavour, texture and colour on a manageably concise a la carte menu.
The restaurant has also introduced a tempting new — and affordable to most diners-out — table d’hôte tariff. More about that later.
The welcome at Meikles is always warm. I was first ushered into the adjoining well-stocked Can-Can cocktail bar, where my dining partner waited, sipping a …soda water? I enjoyed a delightfully chilled Golden Pilsener lager while perusing the new menu.
La Fontaine may well be the destination of choice for the lovely ladies who lunch languidly to enjoy a couple of light but tasty starter courses, and they would be spoiled for choice for several visits.
I certainly fancied almost everything on the appetiser list, including: smoked salmon paté with caper dressing and melba toast at US$10 or pan-fried prawns with braised pork belly and apple puree (remember those apparently conflicting combinations?) at a dollar dearer.
Grilled Kariba tilapia (bream) with a tapenade dressing (a Provençal dish made from finely chopped olives, capers, anchovies and olive oil) and pickled cucumber was US$7, as was the blue-cheese mousse my partner selected. (It came with thinly sliced pickled beetroot and apple remoulade) and was lip-smacking good.
Chicken livers fried with onions in a light curry sauce with grilled bacon were US$6, as was a parfait of chicken livers served “brulee” with toasted brioche; mixed leaves salad, sun-dried tomato dressing and crisp onion or sautéed mushrooms with garlic and herbs in a puff pastry.
Two soups are on this menu: roasted tomato with tomato bread; and pea soup with ham wonton. Both US$5. No prizes for guessing I chose the latter: a pleasant, deep, traditional colour, rich, smooth and velvety, but a smidgen more dead pig (or a smokier bit) in the potage wouldn’t have gone amiss. Lovely dinky still warm in-hotel baked crispy bread rolls with salty buttercup-coloured butter accompanied the dish. (For once I only had one!)
My companion oohed and aa-hed about the top dish on the mains list: pan-seared Scottish salmon with de-boned oxtail, creamed potatoes and a red wine sauce (US$28). I’d had a similar Meikles presentation (at Mothers’ Day, I think) when kingklip was used instead of salmon and found it a very worthwhile dining experience. Next dearest presentation also featured fish: roast kingklip with prawn croquettes and prawn bisque at US$25.
At US$23, there was a duck breast Pithvier “pie” (it’s actually a pastry mould), which came with pea puré. I only dismissed this option as I’d gone for the pea soup!
For US$22, there’s that old retro favourite from the 1960s: steak au poivre, peppered fillet steak dramatically flambéed at your table; or aged fillet or sirloin steak (try the latter if you want flavour) with mushroom, pepper or mustard sauce; or pot-roasted guinea fowl (a breast and confit leg served with gratin potatoes.)
For the same price, I went for a delightfully slow-braised shoulder of lamb (the wonderfully tender meat appeared almost deconstructed and reconstructed!) on a generous bed of white bean stew and tomato-lamb jus. (I’d have ordered it again had I returned for supper!)
Meikles’ timeless mixed grill of pork fillet, chicken breast and herb-crusted rump steak costs US$20. At US$18, there was pan-fried tilapia with smoked salmon gnocchi (a sort of dumpling) and white cabbage in raisin sauce. (Rory’s good with accompanying vegetables.)
Slow-cooked belly pork is the meal of the moment in Europe’s (particularly Britain’s) top restaurants, often accompanied by black pudding! Here it’s done with crispy bacon mashed potatoes, young carrots and onion sauce, at US$17.
Vegetarian dishes are mushroom tortellinis with buttered spinach and a mushroom sauce or potato and butternut risotto with shaved Parmesan: Both US$14.
I had a soupçon of well-kept French-style soft cheeses, fruit compote and crackers from the trundling Edwardian timber dessert trolley (US$8 a la carte) and my partner went for chocolate tart with vanilla ice-cream at US$5. Sylvester the venerable sommelier beamed when my companion asked for a glass of Du Toitskloof Cellar 2007 Noble Late Harvest, a classic dessert wine from the Cape, to go with pudding.
He’s long dismissed me as a lunchtime peasant, whose alcoholic intake is invariably confined to a bottle or two of Pilsener!
The table d’hôte menu I mentioned — on the day we visited — comprised starters: pork and mushroom rillettes with toasted raisin bread, minestrone soup or kingklip with citrus dressing. Mains were roast hake with tomato and cumin tagliatteli; the La Fontaine carvery of the day (it was crackly pork) carved at the table from a heated trolley, circa Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, or herb gnocchi with baby marrow; you choose ANYTHING from the pudding trolley — including the cheese platter — and bottom line is US$25 for two courses or US$30 for three.
La Fontaine is due to close either “now”, “now-now” or “just now” (subject to who you speak to!) to allow building work as part of the hotel’s multi-million re-furb. Operations will move temporarily to the Bagatelle Restaurant, in moth-balls since the loony and brutal land-invasions almost killed Zimbabwean tourism.