THE first time new owner Cheryl Sambaza read my review of Alexanderâ€™sÂ she almost wept. It was a few years ago.
Then she carefully cogitated the critique, conceded it was completely constructive, saving the ex-accountant the cost of calling in a consultant. She set about righting things.
My main groan was it was dowdy, dull, dark and depressing. Decorators were deployed and, hey presto, it became bright, breezy, light and invigorating.
Efforts were rewarded with considerably higher turnover: almost like whenÂ Bill Beckett ran the placeÂ named after his elder son.
The Standardâ€™s Most Improved Zimbabwean Restaurant of 2005 award was merited by this bijoux long-established once firm-favourite of an eatery, with leafy suburban atmosphere five minutesâ€™ walk from the CBD. And most days, you had to walk: you couldnâ€™t park within half a kilometre, when at the height of popularity.
Bulawayo-born Cheryl, and husband Chris â€” both accountants â€” bought the Beckett family restaurant,Â Â Â Â retaining an established menu (long in comfort food) and staff whoâ€™d been there decades. Chris continued number-crunching and Cheryl, only now in her mid-30s, concentrated on catering, in between giving birth.
She wasnâ€™t there when I went. I had a soppy, sentimental reason for lunching there. Two years earlier, almost to the second, son-in-law, Mark, rang from Oxfordâ€™s John Radcliffe Hospital, saying I was the Oupa of a beautiful baby girl.
On assignment at Dominican Convent, I trotted across the street, beaming with delight, treating myself to a great lunch. Blonde-haired, blue-eyed Sienna-Rose was two that day and, as I couldnâ€™t be with her 10 000km away, Iâ€™d raise a glass in her honour, again at Alexanderâ€™s.
They had Pilsener â€” unusual â€” and it was â€œonlyâ€ $40 million a bottle ($95 million now in five-star hotels; six months ago, lager was about $100 000.) Barman Stephen Amini chatted amiably, as I studied the menu, recalling dishes enjoyed there a third of a century ago. Heâ€™s been there four years. Mentioning â€œAminiâ€ didnâ€™t sound very Shona, he revealed it was a Malawian Muslim moniker; his folks were born there. Very sensible, that, employing non-boozing Muslims behind bars!
I hope Cheryl isnâ€™t tempted to weep again on reading this, as I, again, have a few gripes. I had to ask about nine separate choices of starters and mains before finding something I fancied that was â€œonâ€. It makes sense to scrubÂ menus, relying onÂ chalkboard of available dishes, or have a clued-up waiter outline what can be done.
Roast lamb ($70 million) was â€œoffâ€, as were lamb cutlets and lamb curry; there was no fish or shellfish and, for someÂ reason, none of three listed soups was ready. I could have roast beef, with â€” presumably â€” Yorkshire pud and all the trimmings at $55 million, or steaks in the $55-$65 million price range, but Iâ€™m off red nyama.
I ate what would have been a fine Greek salad at $20 million, had some colour been there. FolkÂ now eat almost as much with eyes as any other organ and green lettuce (which an authentic Greek salad in the Hellenic peninsula, or on Cyprus, never has), green peppers, green cucumber, lots of plump green olives, white feta cheese and white onions,Â over-anointed with brown balsamic was DULL looking. It needed red tomato, red radish, red pepper, red onion, yellow pepper, orange grated carrot, black olives and/or purple beetroot to brighten it.
Many restaurants dropped serving bread in the shortages. Initially told there was no chingwa,Â toast later arrived, without butter.
Never before tried the eponymous chicken Alexander: huku breasts, in bacon, grilled, served with creamy orange sauce highly recommended, at $70 million, with good square cut golden chips, beans and carrots.
Â Cape brandy pudding ($25 million) was â€œoffâ€. They had ice-cream, with or without choc-sauce, at $22 million: slightly OTT for two small scoops. Had no time for the freeÂ tea or coffee.
Apart from saladâ€™s lack of colour and a fictional menu, other moans were: lighting too harsh, with added disadvantage wear-and-tear of soft furnishings was more noticeable. Also cobwebs at high level visible. There was no paper in the loo when I arrived (with a cold); this was rectified but, an hour later, it was gone, meaning one of the other 10 male punters â€œliberatedâ€ it.
Starter, mains, pudding, three lagers: $232 million.
Alexanderâ€™s, 7 Livingstone Avenue, Tel 700340. Open Tues-Fri, lunch and supper; Saturday supper only. firstname.lastname@example.org