THERE was a time, not long ago, when I scorned Le Francais, Crowne Plaza Monomatapaâ€™s fine dining outlet, as a mere shadow of its former self as run by the inimitable and eponymous Roger (Siegemuller) le Francais, at Avondale.
Immediately after ZimSun (now African Sun) began running it in-house, it was nowhere near as sleekly operated as when Paul Hammond (now in USA) and Danny Marini (who owns Leonardoâ€™s, Borrowdale) strove manfully to make it work. Keith Lamont-Stiehl was reluctant to sell out to his landlord, the major leisure group, but bowed to the inevitable.
Most peopleâ€™s view was that “they” (big business) had taken a very fine unique, boutique French-style restaurant, turning it into yet another anonymous chain hotel grill room.
But the more I eat there, the more I must eat my spoken and written words of reservation!
Certainly the food on Wednesday was memorably good, although cynics will comment: so it should be when eating with three of African Sunâ€™s top executives.
You could once say the only thing that had changed on Le Francaisâ€™ menu were prices, because old favourites, including a lovely rabbit dish I relished, were still there three decades and more after making debut appearances.
Thereâ€™s no rabbit now: I probably had the last succulent dish of roasted Bugs Bunny maybe two years ago, but there are some interesting newcomers, notable by not sticking to the established award-winning French cuisine theme. The carte du jour today is vaguely fusion (without the confusion often accompanying it) rather than pedigree French provincial cooking.
Relative newcomers include tuna and wasabi salad and deep-fried pear, both $800 million starters; vegetable curry gateaux ($3 billion) and Cajun crocodile at $4 billion on the mains.
I ate with the newly re-branded hotel groupâ€™s head publicist Farayi Mangwende, Cornelius Nyahunda, Zimbabwe operations director and commercial director Tendai Madziwanyika, all after further and better particulars (as the lawyers say) of various carps about the groupâ€™s Caribbea Bay, Kariba, in a column in a recent issue of sister paper the Standard.
An unadventurous lot, we unanimously went for the hotelâ€™s sound soup of the day which, on this occasion, was home-made herby cream of tomato, piping hot, physically warming and nourishing on a grey chilly winterâ€™s day, topped with croutons and accompanied by still warm rolls and butter.
Canâ€™t help feeling $800 millionâ€™s a wee bit dear for soup (I could make a big old fashioned Victorian bathtub full for that figure) when such starters as smoked salmon and spinach roulade and lâ€™escargot (snails) with cumin croutons cost the same. Incidentally (and restaurateurs hate this! I see from my PC these were $750 000 and $800 000 in November!)
Only Farayi ordered mains from the standard (now much truncated) menu: a trio of vegetarian lasagne, which maitre dâ€™hotel Never confidently anticipated would be her choice at $3,5 billion. Cornelius and Tendai went for one of the dayâ€™s comfort food specials: scrumptious looking oxtail and plenty of it in a rich broth. The offered starch was rice, but both asked for mashed potatoes, probably the better accompaniment.
Liver, two generous slices, and caramelised onions were cooked to perfection; served with a nouvelle-cuisine-sized dainty spoonful of mash and mange-tout peas. The dish was excellent, but Never spotted my body language and soon returned with more ancienne-cuisine-style helpings of mash for the three guys grazing. The lady who lunched asked for mange-tout to brighten her pasta.
All my main course needed was a twist or two of black pepper, soupcon of salt and smear of hot English mustard.
Again I find it odd these offal dishes, using traditionally more economical cuts of dead mombeâ€™s insides, were $6 billion each, whereas the printed menu has rump, T-bone or sirloin steak, pork chops or a half spring chicken at $3,5 billion.
After much studying of the sweets menu, I chose more comfort food: a South African speciality, vinegar pudding, which (with rich, creamy, sunburst gold custard) sounds totally, nauseatingly disgusting, but tastes superb.
Neednâ€™t have bothered: it was “off”! Second choice: warm fruit salad crepe â€” dramatically flambÃ©ed by Never, part of the unforgettable theatre of dining out â€” was a perfectly acceptable substitute, for which three of us plumped. The fourth (for the life of me I canâ€™t remember whom) ate decadent looking, no doubt artery-clogging deep-fried chocolate mousse. Oh well, you only die once! Puddings are $800 million. Which probably explains why the restaurantâ€™s once superb, definitely non-cheese-paring, trademark cheeseboard, no longer appears on the menu. You certainly canâ€™t offer much cheese, local or imported for $800 million in Zimbabwe now. Youâ€™d almost need a mortgage to serve the sort of spread my family routinely expected at Christmas, birthdays and other high days and holidays.
All our cellphones rang or blipped SMSs constantly, so I turned mine off. Cornelius was called away urgently, those remaining drank really excellent locally-grown filter coffee ($480 million). Sorry, now I think of it, Farayi had tea: unpriced on the menu.
(A friend of mine offered her night security guard a warming beaker of coffee at midnight recently. He declined: “No thanks, madam, it will keep me awake!”)