A VISIT to L’Escargot, the up-market restaurant at Harare’s Courteney Hotel in the Avenues, is ever a nostalgic trip down memory lane.
Because, over a third of a century, I don’t think the menu, décor, ambience or many of the staff have changed!
Around 20-30 years ago it was often impossible to secure a table at L’Escargot Wednesday-to-Saturday nights for up to three weeks, so popular was it, when run by Atilio Vigoriti, that doyen of local hospitality, and Nick Mandeya, now down-sized at Adriennes, Belgravia.
We didn’t have to book Wednesday lunch, although the place was as busy as I’ve seen it at mid-day for several years with –– among others –– a table of Japanese oohing and aahing as highly competent staff dramatically flambéed orders for prime export quality pepper steaks, spicy baby chickens and, later, Crepes Suzette.
As every second of the intricate operations was photographed and videoed with running commentaries in Nipponese, I got the impression they were disappointed they couldn’t get flambéed soup, salad or other starters at the boutique hotel. (Or anywhere else, as far as I know!)
Booking wouldn’t have been needed, anyway, but as I ate with Peter Philip Kadzutu, a hospitality consultant working for the hotel’s owners, I was treated like royalty.
And we even sat on the same solid heavy wood framed, (now, sadly, badly cracked) leather-upholstered chairs on which their Majesties the King and Queen of Spain rested their regal bums when dining there in days of yore.
I’m dyed-in-the-wool conservative (with a lower case “c”) and despise change for the sake of it, but pointed out that as much as I love L’Escargot’s retro 1960-ish menu, it was compiled when real sanctions were imposed on this country, during UDI, and few if any of the little luxuries diners out now take for granted were available.
Twice and three times a week now, fresh, live oysters, mussels, langoustines, scallops and other crustaceans are flown in from Scotland, along with sustainable fish-farmed cod, fresh and smoked salmon and much more fishy goodness..
These would be very much in keeping with the restaurant’s image, even though they weren’t available when the late maitre d’ Henry Banda, dished out delicacies to the late debonair, if slightly demonic, UDI-era cabinet minister PK van der Byl, who often entertained there.
I love their soup, which at US$2 for potage du jour, minestrone or a trademark French onion presentation which –– with some of the delicious bread rolls, sticks or toast served ––would be a meal on its own for a Gallic peasant!
Salads (chef’s US$2; Greek or tuna at US$4) are also tremendous value, given thefreshness, quality and quantity of ingredients.
I last met Peter when he was in management at African Sun. An Old Boy of Prince Edward, a few years ahead of my son, Rhoderick, his multilingual business and management consultancy operates from here and Rosebank, South Africa.
He majored in Modern Languages at UZ and when his locally-born wife buzzed his mobile during our fabulous (white) cheese-dripping French onion soup, they communicated, appropriately, in French to keep linguistic skills honed.
Other starters include the eponymous l’escargot (six snails in garlic) at US$5, gypsy spit US$4, spiced mushrooms US$3, chicken liver pancake US$3, artichoke hearts US$5, Kariba bream gratin US$4, tuna pancake US$4 and a really good old fashioned shrimp-packed “prawn” cocktail at US$10.
I must be honest and say artichokes weren’t available on Wednesday, which was understandable. Neither were mushrooms, a deficit unfathomable given that the fields and forests flourish with fungi in this ongoing monsoon.
Natbrew hadn’t delivered, either, so there was no Pilsener in the bar. I was told about the lack of mushrooms and chokes in the pub as I ordered Italian Peroni Lager instead. The waiter added he was very sorry but “coils” were also “off”.
“Coils?” I queried. “What the hell are coils?”
“Those tiny, little birds,” was the explanation.
I assumed he meant that there’d be no quails en croute for lunch!
I would have really loved to have followed our Oriental neighbours, tucking into a solid lump of lovely, luscious peppered fillet or rump steak, filet mignon or tornados Rossini at US$8-$10, but beefsteak has decided (once again!) it doesn’t like me.
Grilled fillet of kingklip –– with good chips and steamed young vegetables –– was a very acceptable alternative and I liked the look of Peter’s whole flambéed baby chicken.
I really should have left for the office after mains, as it was a deadline day and I’d tonnes of work to do before leaving for a Persian Gulf cruise four days later but was told the restaurant’s iconic, flagship dessert: crepes Suzette: brandy-flamed pancakes dripping with fresh orange, orange syrup and orange-flavoured Cointreau liqueur were totally necessary to complete the L’Escargot experience.
Splendidly cooked right in front of us, dripping with flavour and richness, they were another bonzer bargain at just US$4.
Lunch or supper in warm, welcoming surroundings, well served by pleasant staff shouldn’t cost moiré than US$25 to $30 for soup, salad or starter, mains, sweet, coffee and maybe a drop of something slightly intoxicating.