That’s because some places open spectacularly well, and then soon sink into, at best, mediocrity. Others are unspeakably bad for weeks and then — with staff deadwood joining the five million unemployed, new butchers sourced, prices sanely compared with competitors’ tariffs — they grow at least tolerable after a quarter’s trading.
So why did it take over three years to get to Millers (no relation, no apostrophe) at Ballantyne Park?
Simply because its owners, the Miller family (no relation) banned me for life (twice) from the two Harare Kegs they also ran before surrendering the franchise; briefly, because I said here (or in another column) they were then outrageously, unjustifiably dear… and so they damned well were!
I didn’t want to drive to Ballantyne Park to find one of my namesakes barring entrance to the free, unfettered Press; especially were I in the company of a soft-voiced comforter, someone I was trying to impress, had been tasked to entertain or was entertaining me.
Millers have now opened Millers Café, where Café Med was, Borrowdale, and there’s much hype among the chattering classes about that joint and how long it takes to secure a table or be served (reportedly forever… but hearsay!) I reasoned Ballantyne Park’s Millers would probably be quite neglected by directors, management and punters.
And that wasn’t far out: when I snivelled in on Thursday at 1:02pm, there wasn’t a solitary fee-paying soul in the house.
My cover was instantly blown by a beaming waiter thrusting out a hand and bellowing “Welcome to Millers, Mister Dust!”
But, as I always say, if they don’t know I’m coming (an hour earlier I wasn’t sure where I’d lunch) it’s too late to right wrongs.
Perhaps two dozen people eventually ate in the massive restaurant.
The menu takes some reading: tiny typefaces on shiny laminated board; pricelist separate. They certainly know how to charge (almost like a wounded Cape buffalo) and many dishes have daft localised “thematic” names, strong on alliteration: Goromonzi Gorgonzola a case in point.
I doubt if “new farmers” who “liberated” Goromonzi properties make cheese, full stop! Certainly not Gorgonzola: a unique product of Lombardy, Italy. (But dispossessed Zim farmers from neighbouring Enterprise Valley now churn great cheeses in Mozambique.)
And when did calamari steak come from Chiredzi?… or salmon from Sengwa?
Starters are US$5 (soup) to US$9. I had Inhassora calamari (making more geographical sense) at US$7. Quite delightful: squid rings, not at all chewy, served in a garlicky jus with a hint of chili.
Prior to ordering, a whole small cottage loaf, still warm was delivered on hardwood board, with fearsome Jack the Ripper knife, butter and chopped chilies. The chingwa was so good I ate half of it.
Salads at US$6-$8 were declined.
Grills start at US$11 (burger; 200g rump or sirloin) to US$20 for 500g fillet; with starch, chete. Steak is the house speciality, but a dish I rarely order.
Vegetables are US$3 extra, sauces another ionospheric US$3 a pop.
Thus a one-course fillet and chips, with (say) pepper or mushroom sauce, veg and possibly onion rings would be US$29. You could eat in Manhattan or the West End cheaper! (At around R240, you and a guest could graze similarly almost anywhere in South Africa!)
The US$3 “greens”, which accompanied a miniature potjie of liver, onion and bacon (US$12) with a tottering tower of creamy mash were, sadly and predictably, pedestrian carrots, beans and courgettes: stir fried, but al dente almost to the point of rawness, especially the carrot: virtually indigestible.
There was sufficient veg for two people… or three… or… four, seeing as most folk, like me, would leave much of it. The meat helping was OTT generous, but so it should be at US$12 for mainly offal.
Puddings aren’t exactly bargain basement, either, at US$5, but praise where due, the sliced strawberry-topped crème brulee was exemplary.
“Shane’s pudding” is listed. Is that strictly honest? I ask, as talented Chef Shane Ellis has de-camped to become executive sous-chef at Meikles’ La Fontaine? But then, I thought, L’Escargot at Courteney Hotel still has dishes named after that incomparable maitre d’hôtel, Henry Banda, who retired… and died in Malawi maybe a decade ago!
Wine list is catholic, ranging from chateau cardboard cask plonk by the glass at US$2, to non-vintage Moet et Chandon champagne at US$200. South African whites are US$10-$35, rosés US$10-$16 and reds (there’s a grand display) US$24 to a very hefty US$90. “Long-Toms” of Amstel lager were US$3.
The place is beautifully appointed, but with doors and windows wide open, was depressingly COLD. From one extreme to the other, an attractive blonde manageress ordered some windows shut and a wood-burning stove lit at 1:53pm!
No ashtrays on tables; I sensed no one smoking by the time I left at 2:22; (wishful thinking?)
Millers is where the once great Wombles was. Coincidentally I saw the last manageress, universally known as “Wendy Womble” recently. She asked boyfriend, Bruce Darling, had he read my crit of the restaurant when she ran it?
“Don’t think so,” Bruce (back from Ulster after three-and-a-half-years years in the diaspora) said: “When was that?”
“About two weeks before it went bust!” interjected a boorish, befuddled bystander, with drink taken (and a good memory!)