Nestled in the shadow of the Avondale Police Station lies Carriage Halt, a newish restaurant promising home-style hearty food. Although I had heard that it is popular as a lunch venue, we went for dinner, mid-week, just before Easter.
It is always a little alarming to arrive at a new and unknown eatery and find it almost empty but to turn on one’s heel and leave seems a little ill-mannered – especially when a smiling friendly waiter has already delivered a warm welcome. So we stayed – and sat inside, in a small dining room divided by old-fashioned wooden screens, memorabilia from the early 20th century and a cosy décor that helped us not to feel too lonely.
The service was immaculate and super-fast, starting with complimentary crispy french loaf and a pokey couple of oil dips of chilli and garlic to nibble while we studied the menu. This was not easy due to a combination of exceptionally low lighting and an unfortunate choice of colour, background and font size of the print (not to mention failing eyesight!). We ordered a reasonably priced bottle of South African wine at around a 50% mark-up on the shop price and chose starters from a fairly standard list – mushrooms, seafood cocktail, calamari etc., all at $5 and $6. The crumbed mushrooms were tasty, served with a good tartar sauce and fresh salad garnish. The deep-fried haloumi cheese was exactly as described and came with an equally pleasing sweet chilli jam.
Our mains, again from an pretty ordinary list of standard fare – steaks, chicken, prawns, hake and a variety of combos starring all of the above, priced from an $8 beef lasagna to $22 for king prawns. I chose peri-peri chicken, which came with a choice of ‘homestyle’ chips, boiled potatoes or rice. This dish was huge – and really disappointing. The chicken, while moist, had not been marinated in the peri-peri, but the over-sweetened and somewhat sickly sauce was merely sloshed over the top. The boiled potatoes, an enormous and slightly daunting portion, had that unmistakable warmed-up-from-a-previous era flavour and were sent back untouched, as was most of the chicken.
My dining partner ordered a medium-rare rump steak and chips. The steak ($17) was cut too thin to be able to survive the medium-rare order and therefore was medium but had a good flavour. Personally I reckon that $17 is enough to purchase a decent cut. The chips were not bad but the pepper sauce uninspired and glutinous – and the simple, but fresh salad garnish that had accompanied the starter came back for an encore with this course.
My partner gallantly volunteered to try at least one of the puds, opting for malva pudding and ice-cream, and was finally defeated by the reminiscence of boarding-school stodge. We ordered a filter coffee. It came in a mug clearly marked Nescafe and tasted as if it was just that – instant.
The bill – two starters, two mains, one dessert and a bottle of wine – was $70 including a fairly generous tip, only because the waiter had been excellent and we were his only customers. As we had by no means gone for the most expensive dishes, I think this is over-priced for what started with promise but trailed to a disappointing culinary halt.
I am fast coming to the conclusion that Harare restaurateurs are depending on Zimbabweans’ unwillingness to complain too much and are, frankly, taking us for a ride.