Forget the opinions of the gourmands, the experts, the famous food critics. The collective customer rankings on restaurant review websites offer us a distilled nugget of crowd wisdom that speaks about a restaurant’s performance over time, over tens or hundreds of plates served. The biggest in the world is tripadvisor.com and I use their site wherever I might be travelling. It was with interest that I found The Shop Café based at Doon Estate in Msasa to be getting rave reviews, and sitting comfortably in third position for Zimbabwe’s restaurants, with Amanzi in at two and Victoria 22 in top spot.
Tripadvisor.com have aggregated the 20 odd customer reviews, and endorsed The Shop Café as a high-flyer. For such a small team, lead by the indomitable Kerry Wallace, they are punching above their weight and showing no sign of letting up.
Service takes place in the dappled shade under a grape vine and a white awning for protection from the elements. They have separate menus for weekdays and weekends. During the week they offer patrons a buffet of salads and roasted vegetables and lots of things I’ve never heard of, and possibly didn’t exist until Kerry took to making them. He is most creative on the vegetarian front, and The Shop Café is notoriously appealing to non-flesh eaters. The weekends see a simple menu offering diners a beef, chicken, fish or vegetarian plate, and a few other rotating options, including gourmet cakes, chalked up on a blackboard inside.
On the hot Saturday afternoon that we sat down to assess the wisdom of Kerry’s online reviewers, we ordered a vegetarian platter ($15, pictured), the fillet steak with mushroom sauce ($20), and the pan fried tilapia ($18) to share. All were washed down with glasses of the café’s trademark lemonade ($1), which is excellent on a hot summer’s afternoon. A basket of three different breads landed with our drinks. Homemade, they were baked with beetroot, onion and sundried tomatoes, all very tasty preludes of what was to come.
The first thing you notice when The Shop Café dishes arrive is the artistry and care that has gone into the presentation. Every dish comes with a salad. These comprise a riot of colour that would make a parakeet blush. Fresh flowers, fresh lettuce, rocket, roasted seeds, raisins, black olives…
The fish was succulent and fresh. It was served with herbed potato wedges with a sweet tomato relish and a salad. It was flavour of the day for me – trumping the steak, which was fine, but unremarkable until elevated by the mushroom sauce.
The overall winner was the vegetarian platter. There were Spanish and Greek elements to it – nachos in a light skordalia, blanched broccoli, garlicky and healthily al dente, vibrant tomatoes and peppers roasted into tender sweetness. At centre stage was the spanokopita – two spinach filo rolls served with tzatziki.
To finish off, we idled our way through espressos and a bowl of raspberry ripple ice cream, made on site. It was rich and creamy with a tart raspberry sauce and a slice of biscotti to top it off. After this we were replete and ready for the bill, not stuffed, but happy and feeling uplifted by the food we had eaten.
The service was fine for the most part, though I think The Shop Café staff could edge a notch up if they offered some insight into what is on the plates, especially the vegetarian platter. For a meal beyond one course, it starts getting quite expensive, adding fuel to my hearty recommendation for the cheaper vegetarian options, which will knock your socks off.
All in all, the reviewers are right – it’s a great restaurant. For the artistry, the balance of flavours, the warm ambience, I recommend The Shop Café for leisurely weekend lunches with bottles of chilled white wine, or business lunches where you are aiming to impress.