There it enjoyed tremendous peaks and suffered debilitating troughs of support as quality of the food…cooking…and service see-sawed, but it generally kept its head above water. It was held in high esteem by members of the banking community, possibly due to its location: just a few minutes’ stroll from most local banks’ headquarters, with adequate parking in the basement or at street level for the managing directors’ Mercs.
On May 3, Le Francais became a new look, much brighter, middle-of-the-road Monos Restaurant. Out went assorted French paraphernalia and frippery, posters, yellowing framed restaurant reviews praising the place to the rafters — a generation ago — and floor-to-ceiling heavy dark coloured drapes giving the place a sepulchral air, which, while not out of place at night and tolerable at lunch, was singularly depressing during a brief period when breakfasts were served there.
Re-furb and re-design was still work in progress when I visited on Thursday and — far from being a member of the limp-wristed colour-coordinated crowd — even I noted an unhappy clash between newly re-upholstered chairs and the old patterned carpet. I was assured a plain solid coloured floor covering would be laid “just now”.
The new lightness of the room, gleaming through aluminium-framed sliding French doors opening onto a courtyard with outdoor tables set for lunch in dappled sunlight made me realise what we’d missed all these years.
I loved the old posters and repro French impressionists, but now there’s a stunning collection of photography of mainly Harare, but some Nyanga scenes, by Patrick Mukandi, a snapper whose work I hadn’t previously seen. The old faux random stone fireplace survives, flanked by stacks of firewood that will never burn; horse brasses, imitation weaponry and other non-ferrous nick-knacks adorn the chimney breast.
I ate with Monomotapa Hotel general manager Ivan Kasozi, whom I first met when he held a similar post with RTG at Vic Falls and African Sun group operations director John Mwanza, so it was highly unlikely we’d be served anything less than totally agreeable.
After a couple of pre-prandial refreshments of a mildly intoxicating nature in the adjoining cocktail bar, we were ushered to the new dining area, which was already more full than I’d seen its predecessor in many visits.
The menu is designed to reflect modern changing tastes and styles of food. Nothing rigid, very popular dishes will remain, those less well supported may be dropped in favour of newcomers. I recalled several items from the old days; many more were refreshingly new to the restaurant.
Starters include crumbed mushrooms filled with garlic butter, sizzling beef strips tossed with mixed salad and skewered BBQ chicken wing with a hot, spicy tomato and onion salsa at US$6; deep-fried calamari rings with lemon and spring onion mayonnaise or Mozambican snails pan-fried with mushroom, garlic and shallots were US$7.
Delicious-sounding salads are US$6 to US$7. Soups are US$5. Ivan had his hotel’s rightly famous French onion soup, John cream of forest mushroom and I plumped for soup-of-the day: cream of leek and celery. Candidly I thought the chef had been a bit parsimonious with the latter, flavour-wise. Soups come in deep bowls topped with a puff pastry crust, which keeps the broth piping hot until the last drop.
As many readers are nyama fans, I’ll start on mains by describing steak dishes: US$17 for 250g of lazy sirloin with sautéed mushrooms or rib-eye with sautéed French beans; US$18 for a 350g Porterhouse with herb butter or an “aged” fillet of beef with mushrooms and dried tomatoes and, for US$20, steak Diane will be dramatically flambéed at your table—part of the true theatre of eating out. Refreshingly there’s no surcharge for sauces: peppercorn, piri-piri, garlic, béarnaise, mushroom, plain gravy (no “jus” here!) or lemon-butter.
Marinated ostrich steak on roasted bell peppers (US$18) sounded good, as did Cajun spiced baby chicken spatchcocked on the grill and pork chops “chakalaka” with caramelised onions, both US$16.
I admired John’s appetite and digestion on seeing the “espetada” (hanging kebab) of beef, chicken and lamb with roasted vegetables he plainly relished at US$17. On a health kick, Ivan ordered brilliant looking vegetarian enchiladas with a healthy green garden leaf salad at US$12.
I think we were so busy talking hospitality trade shop I didn’t really notice my lovely moist, tasty Kariba tilapia fillets “Waleska” came minus the Polish bit! (Usually served with a good sole from the ocean, Waleska comprises mushrooms and prawns in a cream sauce). It was only on downloading pictures, I remembered. But the dish was good, anyway: with steamed young julienne carrots and French beans, wrapped together with a sliver of onion.
Puddings were apple and pear crumble tart with ice-cream for John; tropical fruit salad (without cream or ice-cream) for Ivan, both US$5 and I went for the local and imported cheese board, which was US$7 but would have easily fed two, possibly three.
There’s a fairly compact but comprehensive wine list: five sparkling, 11 imported whites, two RSA rosés or blanc-de-noirs, 15 Cape reds, four Zimbabwean wines and four dessert wines (sadly, misspelled “desert”!) but the copy I was given was unfortunately un-priced, so I cannot comment on relative value.
Monos Restaurant at Crowne Plaza Monomotapa Hotel, 54, Park Lane, Harare CBD. Not very handicapped friendly, neither is it an obvious place for children. (Buffet restaurant next door.) I saw no one smoking, but presumably it’s allowed, certainly at outdoor tables. Opens lunch Monday to Friday, supper Monday to Saturday.
Dusty Miller rating: Four Stars at late May, 2012.