What can I write about the magnificent Victoria Falls Hotel which isn’t repeating the words of other travellers and travel writers during the Grand Old Lady of the Zambezi’s nearly 110 years’ impeccable service to a discerning and discriminating cognoscente?
Eating Out with Dusty Miller
It is a proud member of the prestigious Leading Hotels of the World consortium, one of about 450 luxury hotels, alongside its sister operation Meikles Hotel in Harare, the only two qualifying in Zimbabwe.
Its fine-dining character-filled Edwardian-designed Livingstone Room was recently voted seventh best restaurant in the world by a blue-chip travel site.
They serve breakfasts, barbecue lunches and suppers at the mainly al fresco Jungle Junction Restaurant so sun-starved northerners can enjoy as much outdoor life as possible during usually too brief stays.
Eating poolside is often accompanied by the delightful; sounds of the hotel’s marimba band; game snuffles along the neighbouring clipped, manicured lawns (especially comical warthogs), birdlife is prolific; a wide spectra of butterflies flutter by.
The height of elegance is a traditional British colonial-style afternoon tea on The Terrace overlooking the splendid Victoria Falls Bridge connecting Zimbabwe and Zambia.
This light meal, traditionally enjoyed by the ancestors of many of us, features a three-tier Edwardian pastry stand awash with home-made scones, delicious bite-sized treats, finger sandwiches and a wide choice of teas.
I was lucky enough to be invited to spend a couple of days and nights at the Victoria Falls Hotel during a week-long stay principally covering a recent hospitality industry congress. All suites were full but my de-luxe room was the last word in air-conditioned comfort during a sultry, searing hot November.
It’s not often one can eat at “The Seventh Best Restaurant in the World” but I managed it — two nights running!
The Daily Meal is a reliable foodies’ web-site covering the globe and as much as it hurts the finer feelings of an old fashioned scrawled-notes-on-cuff print scribe of more than 50 years’ standing (that’s me folks!) the new-fangled news media has instant impact.
The Daily Meal recently named The Livingstone Room Number 7 in its list of the world’s 101 top eateries. Only three outlets in Africa appear on the blog’s list. Apart from Livingstone Room, a restaurant in Morocco was 32nd and one in RSA 39th.
VFH’s executive chef Michael Oven, a Scotsman, excelled himself at the Hospitality Association of Zimbabwe awards dinner. An almost exclusively black-tie affair, discreetly lit, with light standards from the 1940s, 50s and 60s played by the resident band and guest artiste Kudzai Sevenzo, warbling like an early Ella Fitzgerald (and not for nothing was Ella labelled “First Lady of Song”), sponsors were the City & Guilds exam body and Brands Africa. As the latter firm imports some of the world’s most prestigious blue-chip wines and spirits it was a very convivial function.
I was chuffed when two women at our table screamed that they’d lost smartphone signal and, thanks to an electronic blocking system barring grossly anti-social behavior such as Googling, Yahooing, twittering and blogging at least for the duration of the meal and awards, had to revert to old-fashioned customs like conversation!
Set menu with choices began with a tiny wild mushroom and chive ragu with parmesan which, on my second visit, was also served as an amuse bouche.
Awards main course included fried Scots salmon, apple, fennel, watercress and herb salad and lemon crème fraiche: just the sort of course I usually order and one I heard was superb from all around me who chose it.
Unusually, I ate beef fillet with parmesan and olive oil mashed potato, roast root vegetables, garlic and herb butter and black pepper jus (gravy). The nyama was a dream: tender, cooked to perfection, exactly as ordered (medium-rare.)
Hoots of delight met the third choice: poached chicken breast stuffed with spinach and feta, parmesan and olive oil mashed potato, roast root vegetables and wild mushroom champagne sauce.
Sweet was a plate of halved plump strawberries, baklava pastry topped with ice-cream and a warm chocolate pudding. The meal ended with coffee or tea with petite-fours.
Breakfast for two days was at Jungle Junction, the delightfully airy, sunny or shaded buffet restaurant surrounded by sculptured gardens, wild bush, game, birds and water features where the very best of everything, including steamed kippers is available. We also enjoyed an impromptu retro English-style high-tea on The Terrace.
On night two, my guest and I were sorely tempted by The Livingstone Room’s degustation menu of seven courses at US$45 a pop, plus carefully paired wines at US$30.
We went a la carte: the mushroom amuse bouche as served at the awards dinner; neither of us could resist the sound of hand-dived seared Scots king scallops with black pudding, pea puree, apple and micro greens as starters at US$17 each.
Options included roast black pepper and thyme-marinated ostrich carpaccio with organic watercress, grana padana and semi-dried balsamic cherry tomatoes at US$15; cauliflower and blue cheese soup with crispy bacon and coriander oil (US$9) and chicken liver parfait, US$14.
Mains included Loch Duart salmon with squid ink and parsley risotto, wild rocket, crispy kapenta and caviar buerre blanc (US$26); vegetarian Israeli couscous with wild mushrooms, green beans, pumpkin seeds, parmesan, home-grown herb and mustard vinaigrette at US$17; beef Wellington with wild mushrooms duxelle, wholegrain mustard mashed potato, wilted Swiss chard, crispy leeks and red wine and tomato jus.
My guest beat me, ordering steamed Zambezi bream with Kariba crayfish and coriander butter, warm sweet potato, broccoli and toasted sesame salad and salsa verde at US$23 and, despite the “fishy” accent of the dish the accompanying wine chosen was red: Hartenberg Merlot which beautifully matched my choice of slow-roast shoulder of lamb with olive oil crushed potatoes, braised leeks, beetroot, celeriac and fennel.
Michael Oven’s cooks wonderfully and vegetables are usually exemplars. I was pleased to be shown the hotel’s prolific kitchen gardens next day by a proud head gardener, Nelson. He said fruit production was the next challenge, despite merciless sun and attempted raids by baboons and monkeys.
Wonderful “afters” cost between US$11 (baked apple and frangipani gallete with fennel ice-cream and honey….20 minutes’ cooking time) and US$16 for cheese trolley with quince jelly, raisin chutney, sliced apple, celery, crackers and fruit bread.
At US$14 crepe Suzette with Grand Marnier ice-cream was dramatically flambéed at the table by waiter Philemon, ex- Indigo Bay on Bazaruto Island, Mozambique. My guest opted for white chocolate crème brulee with fresh berries and pistachio biscotti (also US$11.)
In my view any hotel is only as good as its general manager and fairly new at VFH is Giulio Togni (42), and South African-Swiss by birth, impressed immensely. He was recruited from the opulent five-star Royal Livingstone across the river in Zambia, where he was manager, and has a solid track record with some of the most prestigious properties in South Africa.