Restaurants come… and go and some others remain firmly in business, but change professional tack, often considerably and sometimes frequently.
Eating Out with Dusty Miller
I never expected to eat the sort of help yourself buffet beloved by so many Zimbabweans at the stately and venerable La Fontaine Grillroom at Meikles Hotel.
Because that graceful Edwardian-style eatery, with its acres of crisp, freshly ironed blindingly white table cloths and napkins, gleaming, heavy, solid, silver service cutlery, sparkling crystal ware and delicate bone china is, in my opinion, the very personification of fine dining.
And say what you will, eat-as-much-as-you-like/can-manage buffets/carveries, especially in Zimbabwe, where it’s not all that unusual to spot the odd sherry trifle, chocolate mousse and a solid slug of sunburst yellow custard on the same heaped, tottering plate as sadza, roast potatoes, chicken stew and gravy, is not exactly fine dining!
Meikles, the soon-to-turn-100- years-old five-star hotel in downtown Ha-ha-ha-rare (Africa’s fun capital), introduced buffets in the elegant flagship La Fontaine — apparently by popular demand — on Friday, February 21, but it was the following Monday before I could get along there to sample a lunch.
And as you might expect, it offered bits of the best of both worlds.
Service is superb with the hotel’s hallmark civility rather than servility philosophy shining through. The main La Fontaine dining room is still as calmingly and charmingly elegant as ever. John Stevens still tickles the lunchtime ivories very professionally playing his own cherished favourite tunes and diners’ requests. Unfinished pre-prandial drinks are swiftly brought through from the well-stocked Can-Can cocktail bar.
The Livingstone Room was an annex or ante-room to La Fontaine. On occasions I’ve booked it for private lunch or dinner parties at which speeches can be made without disturbing fellow diners, very politically incorrect jokes are told without worrying about spending the night in Central.
When the massive heavy doors are thrown open at the coffee-and-brandy stage, members of the private party could join in with whatever was happening next door: dinner dances, cabarets, etc over the 40 years I’ve eaten there!
Nowadays, the Livingstone Room is the fairly discreetly tucked away scene of the “running” buffet. We agreed, ideally, it needed a couple of suitable paintings on the rather bare walls, following the hotel’s US$9m refurbishment, but the buffet itself was literally a series of mouth-watering still-life pictures.
Soup-of-the-day was a wonderfully creamy chicken concoction, full of flavour and the rich, rewarding texture of shredded huku breast, but, as so often at buffets, slightly lacking the requisite temperature to make it nigh perfect. There’s a tempting array of in-hotel baked still-warm, brown and white rolls and butter is pleasingly chilled in a Victorian silver vessel on the table. Soup also came with crunchy garlicky brown-bread croutons.
There are lots and lots of delicious mixed salads, some crunchy, some creamy, which I had as a separate plated appetiser course, but my two fellow diners used to decorate their main courses.
What I thought, was desperately needed was a couple of honest-to-goodness plates of plain cold meats: ham, rare roast beef, tongue, cold pork or chicken breast (or a thick slice of veal-ham-and-egg pie) for the many diners out (especially visitors from northern climes) who tend to believe it’s almost criminal to eat hot cooked food in the middle of a baking hot African day.
Then, for me, it was back to the salads: especially one featuring grated carrot, pineapple and unctuous green and black olives, to accompany basmati rice, a little baked fish, some excellent Thai-style fish cakes with sweet chili sauce and a hot chicken dish. There was also a rich beef stew, sautéed potatoes, steamed al dente vegetables and, of course, the ubiquitous sadza! And loads of gravies, sauces and “hot stuff” depth charges.
I heard that Meikles youngish development chef, Rory Lumsden, locally-born, extensively overseas trained, was in charge of the buffets which are served, in addition to the a la carte menu, for supper, daily, at lunch weekdays and for breakfast daily and ours certainly reflected some of his magic touch.
My chums helped themselves to several attractively colourful, but fairly light and easily digestible puddings, meaning to finish with a cheese board; I lustily attacked the beautifully kept cheeses along with fruit compote, grapes, strawberries and cream crackers, intending to finish with a soupçon of dessert (probably fruit salad), but none of us could manage an ultimate course.
We did have coffee: one frothy cappuccino, one latte, one filter, which is included in the excellent value for money, US$20 a head package buffet meal deal.
With the coming of the buffet, La Fontaine has discontinued its table d’hote two and three course packages, but the memorably good a la carte menu is still offered.
I glanced at it and spotted one or two new choices among mainly firm old favourites.
Items which sprang out of the laminated menu included starters of sautéed prawns with prawn spring rolls and soya mayonnaise; salmon paté with salmon mousse; chicken livers pithivier with confit duck and mushrooms and crumbed belly pork with celeriac remoulade (US$6-US$10).
Exciting soups at US$5 or US$6 a pop included lentil with pork belly; butternut with spicy chicken won ton and creamed mushroom with ravioli.
I liked the sound of some of the steaks: 28-day aged fillet, grilled with fries and buttered spinach at US$18; grilled entrecote with hand-cut fat chips, spinach and slow-roast tomato (US$17) and for the really hungry a 400g rib-eye grilled with herb bone marrow crust and fries at US$24.
Sharing dishes are increasingly popular and at La Fontaine two of you can do your best to graze a Desperate Dan-sized portion of one-kilo of pork ribs with thick cut chips, apple compote and mustard sauce or a whole pot-roasted chicken with roasted root vegetables, liver toasts and roasting jus (gravy) at US$30 a helping.