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Food and Travel: Vexed by Vapid Veggies

MET “Professor” Mike Farrell, who runs the American Hotel Institute training scheme here, in the middle of Harare, shaking his head, muttering in a Dublin lilt about a “terrible lowerin’ o’ standards”.

The honorific is in quotes, as I’m not sure he really is a don, but lots of folk call him that and I feel sure I once had a business card professing he was a Prof.

Not that that means much. I once had the card of a Harare-based plumber of Irish-Scots stock, an amiable red-haired, freckle-faced jovial type, whose card proclaimed he had a PhD.

“Never, Jim!” I protested. “You’re a very well read plumber in a Time-Newsweek-Weekly Telegraph-Readers’ Digest sort of a way, but with all due respect, you ain’t PhD material.”

For years he asked me back to his home to prove it and when I finally went for a jar, his PhD was framed in the bar proudly. But it was a PHD from Glasgow Poly not a PhD from Stathclyde, Edinburgh, St Andrews or Aberdeen.

He was the proud owner of a Paper Hanging Diploma!

I don’t know whether Mike would moan over alleged standard lowering at Taverna Athena, a Hellenic Harare restaurant long serving authentic Greek food attractively and generously, as they now have non-Greek lunch specials.

Manageress Kelly Alison sent a mysterious invitation to the Kensington outlet (nee Mateo’s) and to my amazement the place was pumping: almost full Wednesday lunch.

Attraction is a grand pie with wide choice of fillings (mine was chicken and mushroom) with lots of crisp golden chips, attractive substantial freshly made salad, canned cooldrink, tea or coffee at US$5.

And clearly she’s hit the spot; punters just poured in: success breeding success. The al fresco pavement eating area, now very inviting was full when I arrived on a blisteringly hot day; an hour later, inside was packed; people drank and ate at the cosy bar.

Pies included prime steak, beef and onion and pepper steak. In light puff pastry, they were packed with first rate tasty ingredients. Service was fast, friendly and efficient.

All old Greek favourites are still on the menu they’ve had since Union Avenue days; blackboard specials included calamari, $8, half-chicken or fillet steak $10, trademark spareribs $14 and lamb kleftiko $17.

Kelly was previously at Symphony and Blue Banana. She has a hospitality degree from Bournemouth and much hands-on experience in the UK and Australia, including London’s Savoy Hotel. Before Taverna, she was in Botswana at Wilderness Safari Lodges’ Mombo and Vumbara Plains.

She said she had introduced salad instead of a traditional daily two or three seasonal vegetables, a move I applaud. Zimbabwe restaurant veggies are currently my pet hate.

There is very rarely any choice and they tend to be (unintentionally) raw when “al dente” is acceptable, or boiled to hell, so no flavour, texture, colour — or goodness — remains.

And why isn’t there a wider range?  Most vegetables in this country flourish eight, nine 10 months annually. In the UK the growing season is eight, nine or 10 weeks at the most; often eight, nine or 10 days!

I read just two UK restaurant reviews on the Internet, salivating over, among many other items: pea purée with herb risotto; fondant potatoes; beetroot fondant with truffle garden kale, carrot and orange purée;  bed of red cabbage with a red wine jus; roast apple wedges with belly pork; asparagus; saffron leeks; globe artichoke hearts; Jerusalem artichoke veloute; confit plum tomatoes; Marsala braised shallots; chopped Savoy cabbage; roast beetroot; horseradish-crusted new potatoes; potato-and-parsnip puree; home-cured beetroot, pickled cucumber and beetroot salad; braised red cabbage and raisins; caramelised beetroot with hazelnuts and lambs lettuce; broad beans in white sauce; swede-turnip-carrot-and-celeriac mash; roast onions; curly kale in  parsley sauce, mushy minted peas; Brussels sprouts; endive in jambon sauce mornay.

OK, we’re NOT in the UK and many of those ingredients were probably imported there, but most will easily grow here.

Lunch at Meikles otherwise first-rate La Fontaine Restaurant was (to me) marred by disappointing veg.
The table d’hote spread comprised Greek salad or pumpkin soup infused with coconut, or the oven-roast tomato with creamed spinach and poached and Hollandaise I chose.

Mains were vegetarian cutlets (I’m not THAT mad about veg!) with chili sauce; or tempura-fried hake with lemon butter sauce and roast potatoes (odd combo?); or grilled pepper-crusted sirloin steak with chips and the mignon of pork, grilled and served with fruit compote and mashed potatoes I ate.

I didn’t like mains arriving nano-seconds after I’d mopped up the last of the delicious starter with a scrumptious warm buttered roll.

Pork was tender, young and herby, beautifully cooked, nicely presented on great mash with lovely “jus” (gravy!) But veggies were DULL with a capital D!  They comprised (predictably) pumpkin, courgettes and almost raw cauliflower florets Hollandaise.

Glancing around, many diners either declined vegetables or left most of them, which is something — surely—no chef wants?

The $20 prix-fixe menu offered crème caramel or local cheese with biscuits and fruit compote and tea or coffee with petit fours.

My cheese came from the normally a la carte retro dessert trolley, trundled over by an anxious-to-please young waiter, but — sadly — there were only two varieties: a totally bland, dry Gouda type and an also very dry blue-cheese, which was far too salty.

F&B manager Lawrence Namuziwa, joining me briefly, said he deeply shared my concern about vegetables; trying the cheese, he also agreed with me on that score.



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