Dusty Miller: Nostalgic Culinary Return To 1958

GIVEN the vagaries of taste, style, demographic and financial changes, bank failures, credit crunches and some errant proprietors’ propensity for their own liquid lunches, few restaurants clock up 50 years’ service.


But La Fontaine at Meikles, with its — in my opinion — consistently impeccable service to a loyal, knowledgeable and discriminating public, achieves that rare status on December 9.
That was due to be the date of the launch of a week-long celebration in the award-winning five-star Edwardian-style grill room, centred on replication of 1958-style menus by 21st century executive chef Chris Gonzo.
The table of fare has been successfully and authentically reprised, but it was decided the actual anniversary is too close to Christmas, so the retro-repro repast won’t be “on” until at least January!
Despite that, I was lucky enough to be invited to a sumptuous chef’s table in the steamy, noisy, busy kitchen at the 93-year-old hotel, on Monday, to try the planned fabulous fare.
Chef’s tables are now, overseas, all the rage. Punters pay a premium to eat not in a comfortable restaurant, but alongside steaming ranges and bubbling bain-maries, watching chefs-de-partie, sous-chefs, commis-chefs, cooks, bottle-washers and sundry kitchen hands sweat, while the exec chef at the head of the table, talks diners through the intricacies being seen.
In Zim, we usually only have chefs’ tables when there’s a change at the top of the cooking ladder, new or seasonal menus are launched or there’s been a (often totally unnecessary) costly refurb.
There’s a two-way flow of information, if the right folk attend. The guy in the tall white hat, waving a wooden spoon, explains his aims; guests either applaud or nervously (some chefs are trés touchy) hint the balsamic was overdone, lemon dressing’s top-heavy, salad needs more colour, meringue’s not as crisp as it might be…or whatever.
There was a mere iota of purely constructive criticism on Monday, although — amazingly — there were two foodie female no shows (unforgivable!) and The Herald of Absolute Truth’s guy was late (as always!)
I thought the mixed seafood hors d’oeuvres stunning: not over-chewy calamari rings, smoked salmon, pickled herring and prawns, unctuously plump olives and a salad garnish, with elegantly thinly sliced buttered brown bread triangles. If, in 1958, we weren’t eating the prawn-cocktail-iceberg-lettuce-and-marie-rose sauce then taking the culinary world by storm or halved grilled grapefruits, this is what our starter might have been.
It was followed by a dinky coffee cup of intensely flavoured French onion soup with rich cheese crouton. My one whinge here was I was ravenous and could have eaten a deep conventional bowl of it, not merely an elegant demitasse.
Poached eggs “Florentine” (on creamed spinach, with glazed Hollandaise sauce) may have been introduced fairly soon after this country’s then head of state, Queen Elizabeth II was crowned,  Mt Everest successfully scaled and the first sub-four-minute mile run, but it’s still a winner. This one especially so: rich, creamy, light as a kiss.
By odd coincidence, a gal pal e-mailed she’d been to Italy and Sicily and (it was unclear which side of the Straits of Messina was referred to, but where lekker lemons grow) she’d loved a local delicacy: an old-fashioned chilled lemon sorbet “palate-cleanser” served in scooped out lemon shells.
I told chef Gonzo (recently at a prestigious sustainable food conference in Italy) about this attractive trade trick; he said that was just how he’d done our sorbets. Not quite: the palate cleanser was in an empty orange shell, but the idea’s the citrussy same.
I’ve friends who always ask why clean the palate at all, in the middle of a veritable feast?  I’ve also heard other folk (usually jesting), wondering why pudding arrived pre-main course!
Our main was grand, tender, typically 1950-ish, grilled tornados of beef fillet “Rossini”, with chicken liver paté crust and rich Madeira sauce, with red wine demi-glace and a definitely modern onion marmalade (in the ‘50s, marmalades, usually with Robertson’s now definitely un-PC gollywog trademark, were strictly for breakfast toast!) vegetables were cauliflower Polonaise, tossed green beans and roast butternut.
Pudding was dramatically flambéed baked Alaska (on the menu “omlet” [sic] Alaska), which needed tweaking. The meringue really wasn’t sufficiently crisp, strawberry mousse was slightly over-stated. Presentation would have gained from a few strawberry halves dotted on the top.
There was a platter of imported and local cheese, biscuits, nuts and Meikles’ superb fruit compote. I surrendered then, declining tea/coffee and petit-fours.
Look out for this culinary trip down Memory Lane at La Fontaine soon (there will be several choices of each course during the actual event.)
The next item may outrage many Zimbabweans, but La Fontaine’s standard a la carte and TDH meals, in US$ prices, are far lower than one might expect to pay in a five-star hotel with such a fine established international reputation. I’ve eaten recently at much dearer UK so-called gastro-pubs and in local rip-off chop-suey and curry houses.
No idea where you’d draw enough Zimbucks to eat at Meikles. In the unlikely event they take cheques, you’d need tiny writing for all the zeros!
dustym@zimind.co.zw

 

By Dusty Miller