I HAVE an odd love-hate relationship with the Le Francais Restaurant at Harare’s Crowne Plaza Monomotapa Hotel.
When privately owned and operating in its own premises as a quintessentially French boutique restaurant: Roger le Francais, in Avondale’s 7 Arts Complex, it was perhaps my No 1 favourite establishment in the country.
It never quite successfully got over the move to the former Bali Hai Restaurant at “Monos”, although Paul Hammond (now in the USA) and Danny Marini (now running Leonardo’s, Borrowdale) strove manfully to make it work and Keith Lamont-Stiehl, the last private owner, also made an indelible mark.
I hated the place as a breakfast venue, but management had the nous to change that meal to the Parkview Brasserie, almost next door, much brighter, more cheerful, even if you don’t have much “view” of the “park”.
I think Le Francais lends itself more as a supper venue than a lunch place, but stand correcting on that. Certainly it was as full as I’ve seen it for ages when I recently ate there with the amiable James Maposa, sales and marketing manager and giggly Nelsy Mugadza, guest relations manager. The menu is bilingual. Spotted one or two howlers in the English version and my schoolboy/tourist French memory was jogged when the odd Francophone literal leaped out of the page.
Prices were still in the “old money”; I converted costs to new currency in good faith, but everything seems to be going up every five seconds. I’m sure the three zeros Gideon Gono claims to have booted in the gonads will be back circulating by year-end. In any case, “slashing” something from (say) $2 million to “just” $2 600 (which is happening nationwide) means punters are 30% worse off. How’s that supposed to cure hyper-inflation?
I was really torn over starters, undecided between raw beef carpaccio with marinated mushroom and gazpacho dressing; grilled prawn kebab on spinach, leek and sweet potato mash, with sweet chili sauce; peppered ostrich salad topped with fried onions (all $2 000) and calamari tempura with mushrooms and beurre blanc ($3 200). However, I settled for delightfully robust smoked Norwegian salmon on potato cake, with cucumber vinaigrette ($2 500), then leek and celery soup, full of flavour at $1 500, which I thought too costly. That was then $1,5 million and I could have made a bathful of soup for that price!
Nelsy also had salmon: her introduction to this emperor of the seas and rivers and declared it first class.
James’ main course was the most wonderful looking and smelling T-bone, which I would have loved, had the uric acid crystals been kinder to me. It was $3 000 with creamed mushroom sauce, which underscores my opinion that potage du jour, which should be made basically from left-overs, was seriously over-priced. Also available at $3 000 are rump, fillet or sirloin steaks; rack of lamb was $3 200, flambéed fillet mignon $3 500.
Fish and seafood vary between $2 400 (whole poached Nyanga trout with black pepper Hollandaise sauce and a samp and bean ragout) to $5 000 for baked kingklip on lemon-thyme risotto cake with deep-fried root vegetables. Nelsy had grand grilled Mozambican prawns served with a piquant pilaf rice and piri-piri or lemon butter sauce at $3 500. Whole sole, flambéed at the table with Pernod and served with parsley new potatoes and vegetables is $3 200.
Friends had raved about a rabbit dish speciality and rabbit in pies, stews and roast were my comfort foods a lot of yesterdays ago. In wild and woolly British West Yorkshire, our staple of Yorkshire pud came with rabbit gravy: made from the little furry fellow’s kidneys. When I asked about its availability, while pre-prandially propping up the attractive, well-stocked cocktail bar, it was “off”. Five minutes later I got the thumbs up, which should have told me the long-eared beast was flash frozen somewhere and perhaps not the most sensible item to order.
Actually rabbit has been dropped from the restaurant’s “new” menu but I quite enjoyed it as a “special.” Cooked in mustard or wine sauce, the flavour resembles a slightly stronger “gamey” version of chicken. Texture-wise, it could have been more tender, probably had it de-frosted naturally. Accompanying starch and vegetables were wonderful and Le Francais’s nouvelle cuisine presentation of almost ancienne cuisine portions is stunning with service among the best in town.
Crisply roasted whole baby chicken with a ginger and garlic-scented sauce and Oriental rice, or chicken breast “pistou” stuffed with mushrooms and served with chateau potatoes and a fennel cream sauce were $3 000 and $2 500 respectively.
The flambé pan was out for the crepes Suzettes, cooked dramatically at the table and ordered by all three at $1 500: same as all desserts, including Black Forest cream cake, Tuiles baskets with ice-cream or sorbet and fresh fruit, coconut brulee or chocolate pudding with soft ganache centre; cheese platter was $2 500.
Throughout the meal, my hosts were constantly called away to answer phones, mobiles and beepers, but we sat together long enough to enjoy exceptionally good pudding and filter coffee ($400).
Le Francais is an elegant, comfortable, blue-chip, white-collar, platinum credit card type restaurant, popular to sneer at because it clearly isn’t the same establishment it was 30 years ago. (But, let’s face it, neither is our poor, suffering country!)
My own feeling is it works better at supper than lunch, but it is rather good at either.
Food is not outlandishly dear, but a good friend who eats there regularly, the managing director of a large, long-established company, not short of a buck or two, regularly complains scotch prices are extortionate.
* Open lunch and supper daily. Booking recommended. Tel 704501/30; 734583.