(The time being the late 1950s-early 1960s: long before celebrity chefs and glamorous TV cooks, other than Philip Harbin and Fanny Craddock!)
Dapper, fussy, hot tempered, he’d been a gallant officer in the Free French, fighting Nazism; had a Croix de Guerre, Legion d’Honneur and a cluster of British gongs not awarded for shining boots.
He was also a Chevalier de Tastevin and cooked like a dream. A character of note, I once saw him chase a couple of over-paid youths down the street with a meat cleaver, after they demanded brown sauce to accompany fillet steak in his cellar restaurant.
His French onion soup was a clear brown bouillon-type, meaty-beefy broth, packed with onion; Swiss cheese-heavy toasted croutons floating on top, dotted with freshly ground black pepper. I always expect the dish to look –– and hopefully taste –– like that; it sometimes does.
For years I’ve looked forward to getting the speciality served in that style at L’Escargot, the once hugely popular eatery at Harare’s Courteney Hotel. (Twice Restaurant of the Year under previous management, it could take three weeks to get a table in its heyday.)
But for decades, various chefs there have served a perfectly wonderful onion soup, full of flavour, onion-crammed, virtually roofed with crouton, dripping runny, unctuous, rich molten cheese, but the sort of ivory off-white hue expected in traditional English onion soup.
It’s a delightful, gutsy, workmanlike broth, with punch: the sort of potage people all over the world do a solid day’s work on, but –– in my opinion –– not French onion; I’ve often told their maitre d’hôtel that.
On Thursday, he offered to “brown it up”. But it was late, I was tired and hungry. “Leave it,” I said. Having consulted Dr Google and Prof Yahoo, today, of 10 illustrations called up, seven were the rich, brown concoction of my late father’s chum’s cooking and three looked almost identical to L’Escargot’s version. I apologise!
A soup does it for me when, straight from the pot, steaming hot, full of goodness, it needs not a single grain of extra seasoning from the cruet: but a pepper mill grind is always acceptable.
L’Escargot’s grand rib-sticking soup ticked the box, at a sensible US$2 a generous bowlful. Sadly, rolls accompanying it were as hard as the knobs of hell, looking as if they may have that unwanted sweetness sometimes encountered. They were untouched.
A second starter: prawn cocktail, mainly because it was priced at an eyebrow-raising US$10 a pop, had to be investigated. Good shrimp cocktail at Cascais is half that.
It was filled with medium-sized beautifully pink, plump, tender peeled-prawns, anointed in a not overwhelming marie-rose sauce which didn’t nuke the delicate flavour of the star attraction, sitting on a mere hint of lettuce as a base. So often the dish is over bulked-out by shredded iceberg and gloopy pink-red glop which coats the roof of the mouth.
It was good, very good. As agreeable as any dish of this nature ordered 1 000km from the ocean can be. But I’m unsure it was US$10 good! (It also needed thin brown bread and butter!)
Having splashed out US$10 of ZimInd loot on a starter, I ordered a bargain: grilled or “pan”-fried bream fillets at just US$5 as mains. (The qualification gets me, what the hell else can you fry in but pans…takkies?)
Having stressed I wanted “nice, creamy, soft, mashed potatoes”, chips were served. Maître d’ was sorry but explained the only spuds in the kitchen simply wouldn’t mash.
I suppose it happens. Overseas, packets of potatoes are colour-coded for culinary suitability. Type A, grown in (say) the Channel Islands, ideal for boiling, acceptable for mashing and hash browns, excellent for chipping and roasting, not much cop for baking.
Type B (from, say Portugal) could be the world’s best for mashing, rubbish for chips. Somewhere there’ll be a Type X which states categorically: not suitable for mash.
Clearly Courteney Hotel’s commissariat invested heavily in the locally-grown equivalent of Type Xs.
Sod’s law, chips served, against my wishes, were magnificent: glowing gold hue, close to browning; crisp outside, hot, fluffy, floury within.
I often threaten to ritually slaughter, with his own filleting knife, the next chef serving me carrots, green beans, courgettes or any permutation thereof. Good grief guys, shops are full of delightful, delicious fresh, healthy INTERESTING and very cheap veggies, let’s use some gumption and help put Zimbabwean cooking back on the map!
L’Escargot’s Kariba bream fillets were perfectly cooked by a sensitive soul used to the foibles of freshwater fish, accompanied and complemented by piquant home-made tartare sauce, neither cloying nor over-powering.
But the damned vegetables were green beans and carrots the raw side of al dente, which remained almost untasted.
I’d walked into the restaurant just as the last other punters left! (Having fallen among thieves at Sports Club!) Ice-cream was finished, Jamaican banana proved a delightful pudding: three halves sliced horizontally; (what happens to the fourth?)kitchen-flambéed, served in light citrus syrup. I think it was US$2, but isn’t on the bill. A L’Escargot tradition is serving sweet “on the house”.
The place looks tired. Once magnificent heavy throne-style Spanish seats’ leather work desperately needs linseed oil…or re-upholstering. Two of them have cushioned the royal backsides of the King and Queen of Spain in L’Escargot’s more glorious days. When I grimaced at dirge-like background mbira “music”, it was quickly turned off. (Big tick for that!)
L’Escargot’s worth a visit, especially for trademark, flambéed at the table, pepper steaks and eponymous snails.
Soup, prawn cocktail, mains, pudding (gratis) and three local lagers cost US$23.
L’Escargot, Courteney Hotel, 8th Street, Harare. Tel 706411-4; 704400