I TRULY hate having to report a lowering of standards in Zimbabweâ€™s currently valiantly struggling hospitality industry, but would be remiss in my duty if I didnâ€™t say â€” immediately â€” I was disappointed with food, its presentation, quantity and quality at the otherwise pleasant Flat Dog Diner, Msasa, last Friday.
The “Dog” was the venue for the May lunch of the Greendale Good Food and Wine Appreciation Society and over the past 15 years or so, since the days when it flourished as the zanily named Kalahari Canoe Club, I have never previously had a bad meal at this establishment, a welcoming cool, green oasis in the otherwise gritty workaday industrial site to Harareâ€™s east.
Fridayâ€™s wasnâ€™t a bad meal, per se, but preparation and presentation sadly lacked any passion for the career of cuisine.
For the first time I can recall there were no attractive bread baskets on the stoep dining area tables, no butter, garlic-or-herb butter or one of the less poisonous-tasting margarines to assuage hunger until the main event arrived, our society having dropped routinely ordering starters and puddings in deference to some membersâ€™ increasingly empty pockets.
True, those who had the normal starter dish of piri-piri chicken livers as an economy main course, or creamy New Zealand mussels in a pot, had two or three slices from a crusty loaf accompanying their choice, presumably to mop up sauces. But it was reportedly insufficient and members ordering more conventional mains saw no chingwa whatsoever.
Almost everyone â€” with the notable exception of TV news anchorman Dave Emberton on my right â€” complained of hunger pangs after the meal. I almost never eat supper on GGF&WAS lunch days, but did last Friday.
Chicken schnitzel looked and smelt good, it tasted fine: lots of white firm tender chicken breast bashed flat, under a golden crumbed exterior crust, but the chips were oily and limp, had obviously been kept warm (not too successfully) some considerable time. Other than a couple of thin lemon wedges, there wasnâ€™t even a hint of the tiniest salad garnish to brighten up the plate, adding something fresh and healthy to help “cut” fatty fried food.
One had to battle to find salt pot or pepper shaker, thinly distributed among the long table and in the dining room generally; there were no vinegars or olive oils.
If you think I was badly done by, the Flat Dogâ€™s signature dish from almost Day One has unarguably been its half piri-piri “chuck”. This dish, ordered by at least eight members, hadnâ€™t been marinated overnight in the pungent Portuguese colonial mixture, nor generously basted in it during cooking, and there were no bottles of the stuff to splash over disappointingly plain poultry.
One of seven special dishes we as a society were limited to, in order to qualify for an attractive group discount, was trout at $1 billion.
That figure didnâ€™t seem to phase members (but nobody ordered it, perhaps because it has a tendency to come “dry” when not handled expertly?)
Five days earlier, I enjoyed a perhaps larger than normal trout and chips (and nice bread but disgusting marge) at Cascais Portuguese Restaurant (fully reviewed in last Sundayâ€™s Standard) for $550 million.
I still like the Flat Dog, however. For various reasons, not unconnected with cost and scarcity of fuel, I got there almost an hour early, enjoying sitting in the lush, quiet, sun-kissed garden, which was a riot of colour, birdsong, buzzing insects and many butterflies, doing last weekâ€™s ZimInd crossword puzzle.
A whole tribe of cheeky grey vervet monkeys live in the grounds (possibly moving into town from once prosperous, now desolate, farming areas?) Far less menacing than often intimidating baboons, the vervet troupe, from grizzled patriarch and matriarchs down to babies a few days old clutching acrobatic mothersâ€™ tummies, comically entertained pre-prandial imbibers in the airy thatched gazebo during the very odd dull second in the new Indian 20/20 cricket series, shown on a large TV set.
Flat Dog has no swipe card machines, but management accepts cheques from less archetypically villainous members of the community, charging a 20% handling fee for the welcome privilege of this short-term credit facility.
I suggested to owner Paul Beard it might be better to hike all prices by a fifth, then give 20% discount for cash settlement; rather than be perceived as penalising folk who, certainly last week, couldnâ€™t get within 500 metres of a bank teller or ATM as “Giddy” Gonoâ€™s madhouse economic chaos reigned supreme.
Outside financial institutions at Msasa, that baking/banking day, as one bad-tempered queue merged with a second and even third and nobody moved forward, the scene resembled one of the more chaotic pre-Wembley Cup Finals.
But ticket-less punters at the north London home of soccer had much more chance of securing a terrace seat than Zimbabweans had of getting their mitts on new top limit withdrawals of $5 billion (which wonâ€™t buy much anyway) of hard-earned, but fast depreciating hyper-inflation stonked, salaries.