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Food and Travel: Nostalgia trip to L’Escargot

RETURNING to the once hugely popular L’Escargot at Courteney Hotel in The Avenues, is like bumping into an old friend who’s been overseas several years.

Whereas the former chum has gained or lost weight, hair is thinner (or missing) and the odd frown lines add or diminish facial character, take a nostalgic trip down memory lane and L’Escargot –– at first sight at least –– hasn’t changed in a third of a century.
Well, some of the staff are unchanged, the menu’s identical, except prices; cooking’s very similar.
Thirty-odd years ago, the still fondly remembered, well-respected  maitre d’hôtel, Henry Banda would have been meeting, greeting and seating, with a trademark smile and total discretion over who  dined with whom.
In those days it could take three weeks to get a table on more popular nights and most lunch times. It was easily among the nation’s top five restaurants. They probably sold more Irish coffees on any one night than all the capital’s other outlets did in a week!
Sadly Henry finally retired to his native Malawi. (It was Nyasaland when he arrived in this city!) but didn’t put his feet up long. Of venerable age and firmly one of the old school in the hospitality sector, he was soon called to the great dining room in the sky.
But his name lives on in L’Escargot’s hardwood covered menus with the distinctive snail carving on the front. Tournedos Henry Banda, featuring the most deliciously tender well hung export quality fillet steak and topped with young asparagus and Hollandaise sauce is $10, coming with a choice of starch and pleasantly steamed vegetables.
I wasn’t in the mood for steak, no matter how succulent when I called unannounced on Friday. In the good old-bad old days it was an exercise in sheer futility to simply rock-up at the distinctively designed –– also unchanged –– rustic brick restaurant without a confirmed booking.
I was in that end of The Avenues and wanted to avoid a mother of a storm building up and rolling in rapidly from the east. Later I was to learn we had an 86mm lashing in Eastlea; Ha-ha-ha-rare was to become a gridlocked, bad-tempered city of impatient fifth-rate anarchist drivers.
Chaos reigned throughout the municipal area; many traffic lights failed and — as usual –– there was no sign of the ZRP taking charge, trying to sort out snarl ups.
Its “colonial” predecessor boasted, with much justification, being a force to be reckoned with.  Currently, no matter what the circumstances, when the solids hit the fan, the Zimbabwe Republic Police is usually a force to be sensibly reckoned without!
The barman served me an icily cold Pilsener, apologising they only had “bombers”, so-called “quarts”, holding 750ml of lager. I needed no apology, especially as it was just $2.
A table of 15 early-door punters from a “talkfest” at the hotel left as I arrived and, including me, there were possibly another 12 customers on what, for many folk, was month-end pay day Friday. Clearly the situation has changed from having to wait three weeks for a table! I ordered, with confidence, splendid minestrone ($2), the recipe for which goes back to the days when Atilio Vigoriti ran the hotel with Nick Mandeya (they’re now down-sized at Adrienne’s, Belgravia).
It was delicious, served with a too-tempting basket of toast, soft white bread and crunchy bread sticks with butter.  Chef’s salad, also $2, was a generous bowl of grand ingredients including more-ish purple olives and soft cheese.
I wanted fillets of Kariba bream at $5, a local take on the traditional worldwide Friday favourite fish and chips, but tilapia wasn’t “on”. I like trout, but it was double the cost.
I usually have my Nyanga (or, more recently, Scots) trout grilled or baked whole, sometimes stuffed, with head, eyes and tail on; by now crispy skin intact. I was talked into trying the fish dish “split”, ie butter-flied: decapitated, de-boned, eyeless, tailless and denuded of skin. The mother of my children, who never liked supper staring at her, would approve.
There was nothing wrong with the cooking, presentation or taste, but on my next trip down memory lane, I’ll revert to ordering the fish in the old-fashioned way.  I’d saved half the salad to go with a dish which came with sliced boiled potatoes, then greens and (oddly) chips followed. My Irish pals would approve!
It seems churlish to criticise a sweet which was “on the house”, but fruit salad comprised only apple and banana. It was sharp and pleasant, but seriously bland-looking. Most diners-out “eat with their eyes” and as the nation’s fruit counters burst with red apples and oranges, water and other types of ultra delicious melon, plums, nectarines, green, black and red grapes, mangos, guavas, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, bilberries and chuck berries, among much other colourful natural goodness, it was disappointing not to have at least a splash of brightness in the bowl….with some vanilla ice-cream.
The King and Queen of Spain were guests at “old” L’Escargot and if Their Majesties were to return today, they wouldn’t be disappointed in the a la carte restaurant now run by GM John Siyachitema, who has returned from the US.
Look out for eponymous snails as a starter: L’Escargot de Bourgogne at $5 for half a dozen, artichoke hearts cooked in garlic butter ($5) and a really retro proper prawn cocktail, $10.
Kingklip fillet is $20, queen prawns $12, kings $15; quails en croute with pepper sauce $10. Pepper sauce is perhaps the authentic taste of L’Escargot which memory recalls and an excellent man-sized fillet, dramatically flambéed at your table, smothered in a black peppercorn-rich sauce is $15.
My soup, salad, grilled trout and two “quarts” of Pilsener came to $18.
L’Escargot is a residential hotel and opens for lunch and supper daily. Smart-casual dress.

L’Escargot, Courteney Hotel, 8th Street, Harare. Tel 706411-4/ 704400.


Dusty Miller

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