“You’ve been very kind to most restaurants lately,” one of my most loyal readers mentioned over a chilled article of a moderately alcoholic nature in one of the watering holes in the fleshpots of Ha-ha-rare (Africa’s fun capital!).
Eating out with Dusty Miller
“Isn’t it time you gave someone the good old Miller-the-Killer stonking?” he asked.
It was sheer coincidence, I assure you, that I happened to find somewhere desperately needing a not-too-gentle size 11 boot up the rectum, a few days later.
If it hadn’t been polling day, which was declared a Public Holiday at the 11th hour and suddenly became a day when almost all standalone restaurants, tea and coffee shops, some pubs and even my favourite club decided to close to the public, I probably wouldn’t have ben anywhere near the Harare Holiday Inn.
I had heard that the former Silver Spur Steak Ranch, the various owners of that franchise over the years having had frequent literary bollockings (and the odd bouquet) in this column, was shut; presumably having gone bust; the Messenger-of-the-Court having snatched its moveable assets about a month earlier.
I hadn’t heard that it had re-opened and if that was the case, I knew there be a buffet available in The Vumba Restaurant, which is run by African Sun themselves and not leased out like the group’s hotel-based usually dreadful Spur outlets and Pavarotti’s (if they still exist.)
The previous time I was at The Vumba (Harare: not the real one in the Eastern Districts) was in August 2008 at the height of the dreadful shortages and Gideon Gono’s world record super-hyper-inflation regime. Cost of lunch at my local club had just reached the dizzy heights of ZW$2 trillion dollars, when “Gono-rhea” struck, wielding his axe on those naughty naughts and that mid-boggling figure became a re-valued ZW$200! For about five minutes.
In 2008, I ate with the group’s then publicist (like much of African Sun’s middle and senior management team, she’s long since moved on) it was Friday when, then, they had an indigenous banquet and nasty things like stewed ox-lungs, slabs of un-filleted bream with baleful eyes watching me and creepy-crawly Mopani worms were served with sadza and rape.
It was a meal which made up in bulk and solidness what it severely lacked in subtlety and flavour. I’m told I munched a little of it with a face like a burst backside and a distinct lack of enthusiasm.
Maybe that’s why it took five years to return?
A local yummy-mummy in an enormous 4WD, looked too small to handle properly obviously doesn’t read the Herald-of-Total-Honesty, because she didn’t know the Spur was closed and scanned a notice pinned on the door to that effect with obvious disbelief amid a gaggle of disappointed youngsters. They disappeared.
I was apparently the first customer to enter the Vumba Restaurant and try the conventional Western-style buffet and it was 1:40pm on election date by my chronometer.
“What’s the soup of the day?” I asked my friendly waiter.
“Cream of chicken” he replied.
“Cream of mushroom” the chefette helping serve said.
I’m not sure which it was. Either, or; or both in a gloopy, lumpy off white-grey mélange which managed to be both on the cold side of tepid and burnt (well slightly “caught”) at the same time.
The duty chef had obviously never even bothered to taste this gunk, which should have been poured in the pig-swill (for less discriminating porkers!) a couple of hours earlier and replaced urgently.
Gossamer-thin Salads were okay but lacked imagination and colour variety. Just gossamer thin slices of tomato, cucumber (with the bitter outer skin left on), iceberg lettuce leaves with the very odd small cube of some unidentified yellow cheese sprinkled on, with an acceptable coleslaw and some unexpectedly nice salad dressing: a vinaigrette with an understated refreshingly clean hint of mint.
And gossamer thin is also no exaggeration when it comes to describing the “pork chops”, which had been cut thinner than most breakfast bacon rashers, surrendering any suggestion of flavour or juiciness in being griddled to order.
Chicken strips were a bit thicker and stir-fried, which gave them at least some taste and moisture. I rarely eat red meat these days and left the beef (fillet?) strips alone.
“Starch” was sadza (of course), a great favourite with a noisy group of local election observer harridans who arrived and piled plates as if they hadn’t eaten for weeks; rice with vegetables folded in or potato wedges, which shouldn’t really have been kept in the bain-marie for the length of time they obviously had been, but were quite good. (Rather like the curate’s egg was “good in parts!”)
Veggies were a tired, dried-out, mixture of broccoli and cauliflower and a separate offering of something moist and dark green, which could have been spinach, Swiss chard, kale or — I suspect- — rape. When I first came to this country, when Pontius was a pilot, some wag told me that rape was the national vegetable and (he was a policeman) the national sport. I suppose that’s very politically incorrect over four decades later?
A huge television screen showed South Africa sadly being pumped by the Sri Lankans in Colombo (or Trincomalee, or Kandy?), and as I watched this embarrassing snot-squirter, staff began — unannounced — to move away the pudding display!
Incensed, I leaped to my feet and managed to rescue a sliced or two of pineapple and melon, serving spoonful of a very under-whelming fruit salad, rescue a little orange jelly from the top of a trifle and grab a drop of single cream.
The coffee was drinkable!
Bottom line for the buffet: horrible soup-of-the-day, dreary salads, uninspired main course, children’s party puddings (which I nearly missed) and coffee cost an unbelievable US$26. Are we ever going to get back and keep international tourists with rip-off prices like this for third rate scoff?
Two Golden Pilsener lagers were US$3, which is about standard for most of our hotels. Extortion! But standard!
Vumba Restaurant, Holiday Inn Hotel, Harare opens breakfast, lunch and supper daily. Tel: 251200.