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Gallery Cafe: minor masterpiece

Dusty Miller

A WELL-KNOW eatery at London’s Tate Gallery once described itself — with cavalier disregard for usual Pommie understatement — as: “A very

fine restaurant attached to a not too bad art gallery!”

I had similar feelings on Friday about Gallery Café, at the National Gallery.

Let me set the scene. Not long back from a month overseas, with a week on a Kariba houseboat prior to that, the Avondale branch ATM of a bank I’ve used a third of a century states brusquely my account is shut, snatching debit card.

Attempts to speak to one Abigail — reportedly responsible for this outrage — at Africa Unity Square branch fail for three consecutive days, phones going dead after several minutes, each time I rang.

After walking there, I’m accused of failing to provide documents I know were handed in over a year ago, as part of
Giddy Gono’s hare-brained Know Your Customer anti-money laundering drive. After 33 years’ handling personal finances of Miller DM, photo-journalist of this parish, it should be sadly clear I’m no money launderer (why wash worthless bearer cheques?); nor cash baron. (Cash-barren, more like!)

I’m livid and hungry — but Abigail is so likeable even I can’t raise my voice and could do nothing, immediately, to sort it out. “Missing” papers must be replaced, copied and witnessed.

Hunger could be assuaged, but lunch at The Club, or Meikles Explorers’ Bar is out: I’m in shorts. Excuse me, Mister Meikles: if we ever get foreign travellers back, they do wear shorts in hot countries on holiday. Why create a pub aimed at foreign travellers, then bar them from it for dressing comfortably?

Barbour’s store, part of Meikles organisation, was even emptier, stock-wise and with punters, than I found it just before Christmas: forlornly seeking gifts for family overseas. Only one of three lifts work. The third floor’s gapingly, glaringly bare. The cafeteria “temporarily” closed in September is still shut; there are five customers, indoors and out, in The Terrace.

I sit in warm dappled shade at an un-crumbed-down table. While finally crumbing-down, the waiter — I swear — snorted in derision as I scanned a menu. Maybe not his exact words, I paraphrase: “Forget that lot…lunch is chicken and rice,” he snapped.

I detest huku and rice unless, perhaps, prepared by a Cantonese cook knowing his way around a wok.

“No other main courses?” I asked.

Unsmiling, he confirmed that.

“What have you in plain or toasted sandwiches?”

“Nothing…we’ve no bread,” he retorted — gleefully — I thought.

After further probing, they could manage scrambled egg or baked beans on…wait for it….pancake!

Snapping the menu shut, disgustedly, I almost raced down three flights of stairs, only stopping to buy a white loaf ($3,3 million) at OK (scores unsold, presumably out of the price range of shoppers mainly queuing at tills with pathetic scraps of polony off-cuts) before heading for the gallery.

Amiable owner Nomsa Gwataringa was at her Botanic Gardens cafe: too far to walk. Welcome was warm, but blackboard menu shorter than usual.

I could have handsome looking Greek salad, studded with feta and plump black olives…or chicken and ….sauté potatoes, or pork chop and ditto, which I chose.

Not the biggest chop encountered, but it was tender and tasty, topped with sauce-chasseur. Sautéed spuds were excellent with al dente French beans and attractive salad garnish.

My head’s spinning with ionospheric price rises since my leave. Unsure whether $30 million was then — or is now — great, good, fair or poor value! I thought $20 million for three scoops of strawberry ice-cream, dusted with crushed wafer, decorated with finely sliced apple and mint leaves, dear when you can (or could, a week prior,) help yourself to oodles of gorgeous sweet, sticky goodies from Meikles trundling retro desserts trolley at $7 million.

Shortages had hit Nomsa’s catering empire: no milk for coffee; no flour for superb scones. Neither of her establishments is licensed, so I had two nice colas: $5 million each.

It was busy, mainly with Japanese diplomats from the neighbouring embassy who, I’m sure, can easily afford $60 million for light weekday lunches, from tax-free overseas hardship post allowances, and French arty-crafty, culture-vulture Third World Groupie types.

One of the men vexed me intensely, constantly tip-tapping an ornamental souvenir tam-tam as he ate. I was stunned when the whole party finished food and instantly lit pungent Gallic gaspers.

After a month of places where public smoking is a serious crime, it came as a bit of a culture shock to be back in Zim, where lovely leggy lasses from Languedoc burp politely into napkins, then light Gitanes, Galloises or Disc Bleues with a flourish.

Tables are placed strategically between Shona sculpture in a courtyard/atrium and a similar display beyond plate glass windows, where Harare Gardens abuts the gallery.


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