Normally I wear two hats on this vexed question. As a dedicated family man who enjoys a break at the coast, lake, river or up the nearest inviting mountain, I accept restaurateurs are entitled to well-earned quality time off like everyone else.
But as a fairly frequent visitor to the city’s restaurants, coffee and tea shops, clubs, pubs and bars, I feel miffed on finding such establishments shut –– increasingly often without even the courtesy of a note on the door advising when they’ll re-open –– at the very times many folk want to use them most.
Ironically, in recent months, it is often those proprietors who most loudly bleat about a worrying downturn in custom and concomitant cash-flow, coupled with vastly increased overheads, who are first to slam shut their gaffs, top-up the Merc and high-tail it to the hills with fishing rods and buckets-and-spades the second the phrase “public holiday” is breathed.
An occasional visitor to one of my clubs called on Easter Sunday for a wee dram, having been sent out by a pregnant missus, craving an MSG fix, for Chinese take away, only, to find every chop-suey and chow mein joint in town shut.
Why? Since when did our new colonisers from the inscrutable east devoutly commemorate the death and resurrection of Our Lord?
So I shouldn’t have been surprised, visiting Newlands late on a hot, muggy Easter Monday lunch, to find the only sit-down eatery open was Butlers, previously Trax, nee News Café.
And that wasn’t exactly pumping. (There’s a fast-food outlet opposite which didn’t seem to attract a single punter in the hour-plus I sat on Butlers’ stoep eating, drinking, people-watching and relishing a welcome breeze.)
Perceived wisdom is that Butlers is rather dear, but I tend to disagree (on the food side).
Had I been hungry, rather than peckish, I’d have probably had herb-crusted tilapia (Kariba bream) in lemon coconut sauce, which I don’t think scandalously over-priced at US$18 or Butlers “famous” (how can it be famous, they’ve only been open a year?) slow-baked roast pork belly at the same price. Belly pork ––– even less believably black pudding –– are now massively popular on the menus of Britain and America’s really top restaurants. I adore both. (Colcom used to make a grand traditional black pudding…in the days when Samora Machel Avenue had street lights, Zesa outages/outrages were rare and pot-holes repaired within hours of them appearing.)
Rump steak medallions stuffed with home-made red onion marmalade and sautéed mushrooms, served with Madagascar pepper sauce sounded mouthwatering, also at US$18; grilled baby lamb chops with dark mushroom sauce (US$20) more so.
On the vegetarian side, giant spinach and feta ravioli in tomato and basil sauce or baked mushroom and mushroom lasagna, I thought, may tick a box or two at US$14.
I might have also been tempted by “16/20” grilled tiger prawns in coconut/lemon sauce and home-made chili sauce at US$24 but as much as I often lust for crayfish Thermidore with Italian-style white wine sauce, it carries the dreaded “SQ” (subject to quotation): I detest asking for an estimate for graze!
Butlers is a venue of choice for many lovely ladies who lunch languidly and I chose a dish they’d probably go for enthusiastically: antipasti (literally: a starter served before pasta in Italy) for its lightness.
It goes without saying the course was attractively presented: executive chef Anton Rautenbach, recruited from Cape Town by proprietor Pilani Mazadziri, is a maestro of culinary design.
The starter course, ordered as a main, featured lovely lightly pickled Kariba bream with a pleasing after-burn, generously cut slices of Danish ham, chunks of gorgonzola, mature cheddar and feta cheeses; slivers of pecorino (Italian ewes’ milk cheese) and more strips of avo with fresh mixed salad, sun-dried tomatoes, wonderful home-made red-onion marmalade and a piquant 1000 islands type dipping sauce.
Personally, I’d have killed sliced raw onion which looked nice, probably tasted superb, but is unpleasant second hand.
Two rather hard, dry (dare I hint stale?) bread sticks were insufficient “starch” with such a dish. Previously I’ve enjoyed home-made artisanal breads and flavoured butter. The dish is US$12, coming with a fruit platter of thinly sliced apple and orange.
When I last had antipasti at Butlers, it was laid out help-yourself buffet style on the bar. Nowadays it’s pre-plated by the kitchen. Denise Wright, who’s helped out Pilani (he also owns Café Espresso in Cork Road, Avondale and has coffee shop franchises at Harare’s airports) for about nine months, said the former arrangement presented a constant battle with flies.
It was only then I realised there’d been no flying pests seen in over an hour. Soon afterwards a solo midge had the temerity to land hungrily on my left wrist. I squished it with the flat of my right hand: Miller 1, Bugs 0!
Puddings are US$3 to US$6, but nibbling at the fruit plate did it for me.
A single Golden Pilsener, served in a splendid hour-glass shaped crystal goblet was US$3 — which I can, reluctantly live with, considering the plush expensive décor, hugely costly alterations and first-rate service –– but a (granted very good), strong cappuccino at the same price, I thought grossly pricey. Corkage is also a bit high at US$6 for the first bottle and US$8 for any subsequent ones. (Listed wines from US$5 a glass, to US$140 a bottle.)
Dusty Miller rating 3 Stars April 2014.
Butlers (no apostrophe!), Newlands SC, Harare. Licensed. Smoking/non-smoking. Not especially handicapped friendly. Parking in main shopping area/guarded at night. Opens breakfast, lunch, high tea and supper daily. Background music by Helmut Lotti was, sadly, scarcely audible.