WOW! Is a word little used by this cynical old restaurant reviewer, but after a memorably tasty, beautifully presented, efficiently served, light and early lunch al-fresco (but on/in what Cresta Lodge, Harare, calls the Continental Lounge) recently the word “wow “ was well justified.
Report by Dusty Miller
OK, I’ll come clean. I ate with the fairly recently appointed chief operations officer of Cresta Hotels, Glenn Stutchbury; he in turn had head-hunted award-winning chef Brian Ndlovu and there was just no way we were going to be served rubbish!
It was Thursday and due to the exigencies of the service it was my first proper al-fresco lunch of the week. Others had been either skipped or eaten al-desko!
Glenn asked me to come early, even before exciting news broke that day that Cresta, which already operates four hotels in Zimbabwe, eight in Botswana and one in Zambia, had entered a lease agreement with the Gardini family to operate the family favourite Victoria Falls hotel, Sprayview.
He told me Cresta were aiming for three stars for the property, which opened in the early 1970s and is very much a part of Victoria Falls’ hospitality history.
As we mulled the compact, concise but comprehensive carte du jour for light meals (served 10am-10pm) Glenn revealed that work had already begun on refurbishing and rebranding Sprayview: that was just minutes after we’d inspected Cresta Lodge’s new Sango Conference Centre: the major item in a US$6 million makeover at the Greendale/Msasa hotel. (Workers were already laying-out for a 400-pax dinner/dance to be held there the following night.)
Brian Ndlovu was the much awarded and rewarded executive chef at Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, where the two eateries have been in various first places in Zimbabwe’s Restaurant of the Year competition for at least the last five years.
He’s now Cresta’s group exec chef and will work his way through the whole portfolio of hotels, getting their restaurants up to snuff. At Cresta Lodge his firm, but elegant touch has already been felt. Our two main courses were excellent examples of culinary arts…and tasted even better that they looked!
I sampled Glenn’s deceptively simply named chicken bowl: wok-fried strips of corn-fed chicken breasts, simmered in a coconut and Cajun cream sauce, served with al dente garlic sautéed egg noodles, a chiffonade (finely cut or shredded) of root vegetables and fresh coriander pesto.
The combinations of colours, textures and flavour were stupendous…and cost?…a mere US$8. If this is an introductory marketing loss leader, I must get back and eat a whole bowlful of the stuff before prices sky-rocket and I lose out!
My own choice, which Glenn—a top chef in his own right before entering hotel management — also tried with plenty of well-earned oohs and aahs was pan-seared crispy-skinned Kariba bream fillets on a cushion of fennel-scented potato mash, topped with tossed runner beans and a fennel-citrus soubise (Béchamel-type sauce.)
And that was US$12 worth of heaven! It would have been very easy to overdo the two fennel components and end up with something tasting heavily of liquorice/aniseed, but Brian was the light-handed soul of culinary discretion!
Other items include oven-baked gingered sticky pork BBQ spare ribs with hand-battered onion rings, hand-cut potato fries and a side salad of fresh market greens (also US$12) and a scrumptious-sounding sharing snack platter at US$15.
Salads (at just US$5!) include assorted leaves, vine-ripened tomatoes and cucumbers topped with, among other things: smoked chicken breast and apricots, drizzled with a turmeric-accented mayonnaise; grilled feta cheese and Calamata olives with sweet ravigote (lightly-acidic French sauce served cold or warm) and red wine-poached pears, grilled bacon lardons and roasted local “ndzungu” nuts, topped with a creamy dressing.
Sandwiches can be plain or toasted in a variety of white, brown of whole-seed breads are also a fiver and feature lemon chicken and mayo, bacon, egg and tomato, rare roast beef with mustard, tuna and green pepper, cheese and tomato and cucumber with natural yoghurt.
Steak roll: pan-grilled beef fillet mignons in sesame-seeded roll topped with French-fried onion rings, served with a centre salad of fresh market greens and hand cut chips is US$8; a duo of oven-fresh steak and vegetable pies with centre salad of mixed lettuce leaves, cherry tomatoes and cucumbers with chips are US$6 and Continental Bar open burger: char-grilled hand-pound patty, topped with grilled bacon rasher, a slice of buffalo mozzarella with tomato and onion-pineapple salsa, served with wide-cut potato fries and a side salad is US$8.
Clearly Victoria Falls’ loss is Cresta Lodge’s infinite culinary gain!
Puddings include marbled cheese cake topped with caramelised popcorn and “dolloped” (with a sherry-infused plum coulis or chocolate mousse cake with mixed nut brittle (both US$4) or the colourful fresh fruit skewers served with a ginger syrup I plumped for (US$3.)
Glenn serves on a committee or two planning the August 2013 general assembly of the United Nations World Tourism Organisation due to be hosted jointly by Victoria Falls and Livingstone, Zambia and told me the group would be working towards re-opening the new Cresta Sprayview by that date.
I am very cynical and sceptical that this prestigious talkfest will actually be held on both sides of the mighty Zambezi, given Zambia’s reported total indifference to the event and — since denied — unpreparedness, plus the fact that we are due hold elections before then.
Sadly, when democracy is exercised in Africa, skulls almost invariably get broken, blood runs, people die (often in large numbers, frequently hideously.) That is certainly the pattern in this country for the past third of a century. If repeated at our next polls, in my humble opinion, there’s no way any UN body will jet in here for jolly japes in the jungle!