I’ve always held that “winter” in Central Africa lasts from full moon in May (the 24th this year) until August’s full moon (on the 20th).
Eating Out with Dusty Miller
Obviously no one told the weather gods that, because on Friday April 12 — almost six weeks early by my calculations — it was cold with a capital C…. no, freezing with an upper case F throughout Harare and Paula’s Place, with its interesting semi-alfresco architectural planning was totally flipping frigid.
At least in the winter proper, Paula’s Place, like many other restaurants in the country, puts a match to those strategically placed ultra-efficient high-level gas space heaters, belting out possibly 10 000 B/Th/U (British Thermal Units… sorry I’ve no idea what the politically correct metric equivalent is!)
But this wintry night was sudden, very early and totally unannounced on the weather forecast app on the Samsung smartphone I bought in Dubai at Christmas which, sadly, I’m not really smart enough to use properly! The gas heaters were probably locked up for the nine months of the Zimbabwean year when it isn’t usually
winter and the eponymous Paula was away. In Thailand I cottoned on from the context of a talk with the manager, whom I thought at first had said “Ireland”; on holiday with her husband.
A friend of mine took his wife on leave to Bangkok… and Thai customs tried to charge corkage on her!
I had nearly gone home for long trousers… but if I had, the restaurant on Samora Machel Avenue, roughly where Highlands, Greendale and Eastlea meet, would probably have called last orders when I arrived. Say what you like, Ha-ha-ha-rare (Africa’s fun capital) isn’t exactly Manhattan!
Service is always pretty slick at Paula’s Place and it’s probably even smarter when the clock ticks on and everyone wants to go home after a long Friday, including two busy services. It was still pumping when I arrived, but almost immediately people began to bombshell, as they do, in this early-to-bed, early-to-rise nation.
There was no doubt about a first course. With the possible exception of a really lovely retro 1960ish shrimp cocktail I sometimes order, it’s almost always caldo verde, the Portuguese green soup, which in metropolitan Portugal features kale, but I suspect here is made with rape, spinach or chard. Three lovely thick slices of chorico, the fiery Lusitanian sausage were submerged in the broth and I did justice to nice crumbly continental style bread and butter.
It costs a sensible US$3. I keep coming across places charging (or trying to) US$7, US$8 and even US$10 for a bowl of soup. Ludicrous, you can make a bath full of the stuff for 15 bucks!
I’d already ordered the trademark half piri-piri chicken and…almost chips. Then I realised I was professionally comparing this meal with one eaten at Coimbra two nights earlier and changed to boiled potatoes for a fair comparison.
Then I spotted a pal’s special blackboard starter course of crab legs, which looked delicious and proved more so, when I asked the waiter to hold the huku and bring on decapod crustacean legs: nine pink, plump jobs, cooked precisely, accompanied by pungent tartare sauce and, again, wonderful with bread.
They cost US$8,50; I find those odd “and 50 cents” vexing in a country which doesn’t use small change. I suppose the answer is to order something else ending in 50c?
(Incidentally, shopping at Spar Athienietis, Fife Avenue, the bill came to US$67,32c. Having just returned from the US, I had a load of coins and offered the exact change. They wouldn’t accept it! I had to hand over US$68 and take a credit note or a few sweets my grand-children would refuse!
Other Paula’s blackboard special starters were crumbed mushrooms at US$4,50, haloumi cheese (presumably deep-fried or grilled) at US$6 and Patagonian squid (calamari) at US$8 (appetiser) or US$14 as a main. Wow that’s some whopping carbon footprint (Patagonia’s at the very tip of South America) when you can buy them in Beira!
On to the main course, by which time two fine starters and wonderfully more-ish bread had taken the edge off a previously chill sharpened appetite. The marinated, char-grilled meaty chicken was every bit as good as it always has been, going back to the days when Paula’s Place was Cascais and five kilometres away (now the Book Café); in fact, going back 30 years to Copacabana in The Kopje (when it was a very decent restaurant), and then schoolgirl Paula learned her craft at her father’s knees.
I thought there was nothing in it between the quality of cooking and flavour of the huku served 48 hours apart at Coimbra and PP, but Paula’s portion was slightly bigger. Coimbra’s boiled potatoes, however, were infinitely superior to Paula’s, but that was possibly my fault, delaying the course to enjoy the crab legs? Coimbra’s chicken and starch costs US$11, Paula’s US$12.
It didn’t take much to talk me into sampling a pudding (all US$5) and a generous slab of traditional syrupy Portuguese crème caramel ticked all the right boxes. It was an adult dessert, sophisticated, not over-sweet and pleasingly cooled down a slight lingering after-burn of the chili-rich and fiery piri-piri.
When I left at after 10, swathed in a “fleece” from the boot of the car and last winter, walking hunched against the wind like someone in Cape Town or exploring the Antarctic, there were just three punters left, one I knew from the Siavonga Tiger Fishing Tournament in Zambia 16 months earlier.