Last month we were invited to share in a friend’s birthday celebrations at La Fontaine in Meikles Hotel where he had had good dining experiences in the past. So have we. In 2013 we were privileged to attend a sumptuous Chef’s Table to mark the hotel’s refurbishment and re-launch. But as a food critic, it is one thing to be entertained by a restaurant – of course they are going to pull out all the stops to garner a good review – and another to slink in mid-week unannounced as the Mystery Eater. In 2013 we gave La Fontaine singing praise and a high recommendation, but I am afraid to say that in 2015 our experience was rather different.
The atmosphere is, despite its refurbishment, still old fashioned and quaint. This is no bad thing, and the sound of old favourites being played on the grand piano in the background remains curiously comforting. We had been able to book a table for twelve at very short notice and the dining area was pretty full for a cold Wednesday in cash-strapped Harare. We later agreed this could be because of the captive audience of residents. When looked up on Google, Meikles is billed as “5 Star Luxury”. La Fontaine, its flagship restaurant is far, far away from that.
Apart from those who went for the $25 buffet option, we all ordered starters and mains from the varied menu. The starters came and were pronounced generally “alright” but nothing special. An uninspired “mixed leaf” salad with no herbs, a disappointing chicken and duck terrine, a mushroom soup that came without the advertised sesame seed pastry fleuron – although the birthday boy was thankfully delighted by his pea and mint soup. The buffet salad starters were, again, acceptable, but just like any other hotel buffet, ordinary in the extreme. It is high time our restaurants learnt that raw vegetables immersed in gloopy mayo is NOT coleslaw. And using the same tired jar of dressing over boiled spuds is not the best way to make a potato salad. The buffet mains were equally dull – just like the food served at every workshop/seminar in Harare.
Then came the á la carte menu mains. There was steak (ok but chips not so good), gnocchi in very ungenerous portions with a sauce that was said to taste as though it had come fresh from the bottle, and a beautifully cooked and tasty piece of kingklip which arrived tepid and was served in a sea of spinach water as opposed to on a bed of spinach puree. But there were also some reasonable chicken and lamb dishes. However, our food was getting colder as we politely waited for the last guest to be served the vegetarian lasagna. When we managed to catch the attention of a waiter, it became apparent that this part of the order had been forgotten and when it was eventually served it was frozen solid in the middle! Now call me picky – and that’s my job – but surely according to any standards, this is totally unacceptable. By the time the offending dish had been microwaved back into life, the rest of the table had finished their dinner, leaving the one diner eating alone.
Management did come and apologise and offered us all complimentary puds from the buffet as compensation. This was an appropriate gesture and as it would be churlish to look a gift pannacotta or chocolate mousse in the mouth, over the dessert experience I shall draw a veil.
It has often been said that the service at Meikles is exemplary. Sorry to say this was not the case on this occasion. The head waiter seemed distracted to the point of rudeness and the other waiters also were not as attentive as usual. This is manifest by the fact that they didn’t notice we were a mains course short! Who knows, maybe there was trouble in the kitchen that night.
Reading over this review it sounds as though we had a terrible evening which is definitely NOT the case. The food was merely bog-standard hotel food with a few hiccoughs. We had had a thumping good evening of boarding school-type hilarity albeit a very posh boarding school. But who could feel anything other than content when the pianist played us out to Billy Joel’s Piano Man not once, but twice!