THERE’S something very “retro” about much of La Fontaine, at Harare’s five-star Meikles Hotel. Nothing wrong there; I “do” retro . . . fervently
. . . whenever possible, as an unreformed retrophiliac!
Next time retro and I meet will probably be at Christmas at Oxford’s Randolph Hotel, redolent of Evelyn Waugh and scores of authors; most recently Colin Wexford, who set several Inspector Morse books there: the detective’s trademark mouthwateringly retro Jag parked immediately outside the hotel’s grand flag-bedecked Gothic façade.
La Fontaine opened November 15 1915, during WWI, when most menfolk who’d normally patronise it were defending King and Empire, in Flanders, or the Middle East, in German South-West Africa (Namibia) or German East Africa (Tanzania); or fighting the war in the air . . . or at sea.
I went to La Fontaine for the umpteenth, always enjoyable, time on November 24, just over 92 years since it began life and feel sure the welcome was as warm as it would have been nearly a century earlier. I doubt much of the menu’s changed drastically, either.
In 1915, hors d’oeuvres would be served from a trolley, rather than plated, but contents would have been similar: cold meats, potato salad, boiled eggs, mussels, anchovies, mixed leaves.
My paternal Georgian (the Vth) grandpa — were he not up to his eyes in muck, bullets, fetid human and equestrian corpses and mustard gas in Belgium — wouldn’t have had crabstick, though: they weren’t invented.
Had my maternal ancestor not been sweeping the oceans with the Royal Navy from Trincomalee, (Sri Lanka), he may well have relished the cream of butternut with roasted macadamias my friend, Charmaine, said was “a great example” of a favourite soup. Nine $3,6 million starters, from Victorian classics to Thai fish cakes with sweet chili sauce, are listed.
Either Oupa would have diligently devoured the classic roast leg of lamb and mint sauce, served with roast potatoes, courgettes, carrots and cauliflower in a white sauce, Charmaine ordered . . . just before I did!.
My second choice was a marginally disappointing mixed grill. This dish is for when you can’t choose from a wide range of succulent meats; it usually has a bit of each on the plate. Mine was “only” fillet steak, pork fillet and fried egg with chips and veg. Usually, sausage and/or wors is included; liver or kidney (often both); pork and/or lamb chop; bacon (always); mushrooms, tomatoes and deep-fried onions are served.
Black pudding (“boudin noir” in posh!) enjoys a real retro revival overseas and would almost certainly be “on” there; haggis is a Scots “must”; nowadays a small burger patty is sometimes included.
It is often a monster meal: a plethora of protein. Probably the finest I ate was at Friar Tuck’s, Bulawayo, at 10pm, having hitched from Pretoria, breakfast-less, at 5am, in the 1970s. I was starving: a huge pile of some of the, most tender, grilled meat overlapped each other on an oval platter; a mound of well-cooked golden chips filled a round one; one of those revolving, constantly refilled, salad dispensers, resembling a funfair big-wheel (I haven’t seen them since Homegrown and Kia Nyama shut years ago) was at my elbow.
With a basket of great bread, that lot cost Rh$1,50! Totally replete I’d to admit not having a cent in local funds handy. (Severe scowl from the owner.) But I was fairly flush with rand, pounds, US travellers’ cheques and sundry Portuguese, Spanish, Greek and Italian notes. (Mr Smiley . . . 20 years early!)
I finished Meikles’ grill — and some lamb which outfaced Charmaine —and another roll (the first was just too nice . . . and I hadn’t had bread for yonks . . . and because, earlier, I was ravenous.)
There were seven mains, plus two chef’s specials and three vegetarian dishes at $11,7 million. Meal and drink prices have rocketed recently, reflecting costs of ingredients, labour, transport and utilities. Everything’s UP (except the ZW$ and my bank balance!)
A full-bodied plummy, spicy-but-smooth, Onyx Shiraz, from Darling in the Cape ($21 million), suggested by sommelier Sylvester Marezva, who’s served at La Fontaine almost a third of its 92 years, and at the Ambassador, previously, (when that WAS a brilliant hotel) was a fine choice.
From the very retro dessert trolley, at $5 million, Charmaine’s decadently rich chocolate mousse was so 1915-ish one of the Pankhursts might have made it. I had a timeless fresh fruit salad, after a hint of blue cheese and biscuits with the last of the wine. We had a liqueur each, from a rumbling, equally retro, drinks trolley.
Due to food shortages, diners again visit town at night. The place was packed, except for one “no show” table of 14 nearby, who phoned thrice, claiming they were en-route, but didn’t arrive. Frustrating: if Meikles spurned would-be bookings, trusting guests’ reliability.
A great “feel good” night: five-star food, drinks, music and oodles of some of the world’s most attentive service, but I hear prices went berserk within a week of our visit.