As my favorite Indian restaurant in Harare has of late become absurdly expensive, it was with high hopes that we visited the newly opened Spice Lounge in a party of five people one Saturday evening. The first thing that strikes you as you arrive is that it looks unfinished, as though the interior designer has failed to show up. There is one large dining room, austere canteen-style with no curtains, colour – or indeed decor of any kind. We chose to sit on the verandah which was equally lacking in atmosphere but we were greeted warmly and immediately offered a “welcome salad”. This was a delicious dish of tomato, coriander, chilli, onion and garlic bound together with dressing and little pieces of roti. A good start.
The cuisine is north Indian, hearty food characterised by rich spicy gravies. The menu offers a good selection of vegetarian, fish and meat dishes, with starters ranging from $4–$7. Apart from the usual choice of samoosa and tikka, they also do unusual vegetable kebabs and three tandoori options with lamb or chicken. Unfortunately neither the tandoori lamb chops nor the prawn malai were available so we opted for the old standards – samoosa and tandoori chicken wings. The first was a serving of four large samoosa, disappointingly under-spiced and rather stodgy. The chicken wings were also lacking in flavour – and although the portion was generous, the dish was inconsistent, with some wings being crispy and others soft and flabby. After the wonderful flavours in the complimentary salad, starters were a definite let-down.
We chose five mains – two vegetable, one fish, one chicken and a lamb curry, ranging from $13–$18. Rice and the usual assortment of Indian breads are extra. Even popadums, yogurt and pickles are extra. I must once again take issue with the prices restauranteurs in Harare think are acceptable and fair. Lamb is expensive in Zimbabwe and the dish (Lamb Kahari) was utterly delicious. But how can a restaurant charge $13 for Aloo Gobi – potato and cauliflower curry or $14 for daal? The Daal Makhani (a Punjabi speciality) was deep, rich, creamy, unctuous and thoroughly splendid – but $14? It is made from black Urad daal, with butter and cream as well as a blend of spices and tomato, and the owner told me it is cooked over 3 days. The portion was again large and plenty for our five diners to share – but had we been a couple it would have been too large and too expensive as a side dish. I would recommend that Spice Lounge offers half portions as an option for smaller groups who enjoy more than one main dish on the menu.
The fish curry some of our party found disappointing as it was made from a dried salt fish. I personally enjoyed it. My overall criticism is that all our main dishes tasted rather similar so while extremely tasty, I missed the differences and contrasts in both flavour and appearance. Everything served at our table was brown – even the Matar Paneer, another personal favourite but a hefty $15 for a dish of peas and cheese!
There are some tempting puds to choose from. The chocolate brownie was uninspired and dry but the Mango and Jeera (cumin) ice-cream was outstandingly good.
Before I wrote this review, I went back to the Spice Lounge to make sure that our first impressions had been fair. The second time was mid-week and there were just two of us. I was, I think, right about the portion sizes. We ordered a couple of modest starters, one meat main, one vegetable and a daal, one portion of rice and a naan bread. The liquor licence had in the interim been granted and with one beer each from a VERY limited choice of alcoholic beverages (I recommend wine drinkers take their own), the bill was $70 with tip. The first time we visited on a Saturday there was one other table occupied. Midweek we dined alone – not another single customer. I simply cannot comprehend why restaurants are not doing more to lure diners with more affordable options. Last week we ate in a Tamil restaurant in Johannesburg and the bill for three people was R300 ($30) for a similar amount of courses and dishes.
With a few tweaks, Spice Lounge could be a welcome addition to our eating-out choices. The food is good – robust and flavoursome. But I fear unless changes are implemented soon, they risk putting themselves out of business.