Food and Travel:No Recession for St Valentine’s

THE competent carvery/buffet at Harare’s Crowne Plaza Monomatapa still flourishes despite — or perhaps due to –– these gloomy cost-cutting, belt-tightening, recession-hit, days.

I was recently at Meikles Pavilion Restaurant where only the breakfast buffet is now routinely offered in the five-star hotel.

You may get the establishment’s once hugely popular lunchtime running buffet, if conference groups or other large parties have pre-booked such a meal.

Otherwise it’s a mini-a la carte which, candidly, needed a few not over-serious tweaks when local food critics sampled it recently.

At Rainbow Towers last week at a chefs’ table trying out a splendid St Valentine’s Day spread for tomorrow, I was also told a similar system now operates in the Harvest Garden. The buffet will only be prepared and served if numbers are likely to warrant it. That day it was in full swing.

Alternately, they offer a compact table d’hote menu.

African Sun publicist Farayi Mangwende hosted me at a much-postponed get-together and briefing lunch on the fast-expanding hospitality group’s developments.

We ate in the Park View Brasserie and so (separately) did the group’s chief executive officer, the dapper, diminutive, but charismatic, Shingi Munyeza, which –– I thought –– spoke volumes for the blue-collar outlet’s food quality and variety.

For once, a buffet soup was absolutely steaming, piping, professionally hot and a grand thick, well-seasoned, cream of vegetable with warm rolls and one of the less unpleasant margarines was much appreciated.

I had a vast range of salads as a starter: basically building on traditional olive-rich Greek salad, enhanced with a colourful coleslaw, featuring much very finely julienned carrot.

Main problem I’ve always seen about buffets (apart from the sheer unbelievable gluttony of some Zimbo diners) is that the hotel or restaurant in question usually has little idea whether two, 20 or 200 covers will descend hungrily and impatiently on a poor chef trying to carve a medium sized roast ever thinner.

I suppose Monos’ staff do know how many talkfests are being held on any particular day. If delegates, resource persons and organisers are having lunch (and/or supper) on the house — usually the case –– a reasonably accurate ballpark figures can be guestimated. Always assuming double that number of “walk-in” (unbooked) punters don’t arrive.

When conferencing is full, Monos have traditional legs of pork, buttocks of beef, whole poultry etc, along with “stewy” type dishes: curries, etc.

When we went, there wasn’t a lot of professional yapping going on, so main non-vegetarian courses were confined to quite superb, but time-consuming stir-fry chicken and/or beef. Stir-fry wouldn’t work well as an exclusive offering with a full house.

I asked for chicken, chete, but was served an acceptable mixture of huku and beef, with vegetables that were freshly prepared (frequently a major buffet failure: tired, wilted, warmed-up dried-out or watery veg!) These were cooked slightly al-dente to my taste.

Starches included sautéed potatoes, rice and a very pleasant pasta, which looked an unusual size: a little thicker than vermicelli and tasted splendid with meaty stir-fry juices.

Puddings are always first rate. I had an excellent fresh fruit salad effectively featuring many of the fine fruits this country still grows, with a little ice-cream which isn’t displayed but is always available from the fine-dining blue-chip Le Français kitchen next door.

This help yourself eat-as-much-as-you-like buffet is US$15, with hot drink US$1 extra.
On Tuesday I was asked for a professional opinion on the St Valentine’s repast, available at Cresta Lodge tomorrow night.

I don’t have space to relate all the rather twee headings for the dishes served in the rather tweely-named Chatters Restaurant, or outside in the pleasant gardens, subject to the vagaries of the weather.
Soup was a classic colourful combination of cream of chicken and tomato, pleasing to eye and palate, served with nice warm rolls.

My main reservation was that this attractive sounding and looking feast was to be a buffet; in my experience most couples would prefer to be pampered at such a time.

Cresta MD, the ebullient Judy Jones, said management had felt the same way, but when they did plate-service for Mothers’ Day, the average punter screamed the house down, protesting they wanted a help-yourself buffet!

I bow to superior hands-on knowledge!

From chafing dishes, chicken breasts with spinach stuffing, diced chicken breasts in a garlic dressing and golden salads and creamy chicken liver in white wine sauce represented poultry options.

There was a tremendous presentation of grilled stuffed trout with lemon butter and either/or chips, rice and baked jacket potatoes.

Tenderised sirloin steak marinated in fresh herbs and grilled and/or pan-fried pork chops topped with Julienne of mixed vegetables and honey ginger sauce looked good.

There were crisp young salads and piquant pickles either as a starter or side dish for mains (or both I suppose)

A wide range of colourful puddings including chocolate mousse with brandy snaps laced with chocolate; cassata ice-cream and raisins; fresh-fruit salad and cream or ice-cream; chocolate gateaux, milk tarts and éclairs preceded tea or coffee at US$25 a head.

In the same area of eastern Harare, The Office, in Msasa, tomorrow serves a slap-up St Valentine’s brunch of full (very full if I know “The Teletubbies” who run the place) English breakfast and buck’s fizz (sparkling white wine with fresh chilled orange juice) at US$10 each. Booking is vital (023 401 734 or 011405541.)

My good friend Vayant Nayee, who runs the very solidly reliable Jaipur Indian Restaurant at Sunrise Sports Club in Belvedere South, asked me to mention they have a St V’s special tomorrow, but didn’t say whether it was at lunch and/or supper and I have been unable to contact him since.

If your loved one fancies a curry on the patron saint of lovers’ special day, that could be your place.