Filling a niche in The Avenues!

My  lovely six-year-old grand-daughter, Sienna-Rose, introduced me to pain au chocolate — a sort of sweet, rich, but sophisticated croissant — during my recent trip to Europe.

Report by Dusty Miller

The now empty garden at Niche Bistro. When it was Alo, Alo and Le Tam-tam (both of fond memory) it was filled with chairs, tables and umbrellas.

I rather liked them and she worshipped them as part, or sometimes the only component, of family breakfasts, which were rich in fruit and grains.

I have no doubt that the “pain chocolate” (US$2) offered by Niche Bistro and Wine Bar, at 328, Herbert Chitepo, opposite David Livingstone School where Alo, Alo and Le Tam-Tam (both of fond memory) used to be, is probably something similar. What’s an “au” between friends?

But I was in the mood for an old-fashioned English-style fry-up when I called at Niche Bistro for brunch rather than breakfast last Saturday.

I’d never before met, or even heard of, Takura Makadzange, who was meeting, greeting and seating cheerfully on a broiling morning. He was obviously of local birth or descent but had a strong Australian accent. It turns out he’s the chef-proprietor. The “Strine” comes from many years in the Antipodes, where he earned an MSc in Economics, a Diploma in Wine and Spirits and worked his way through varsity as a wine waiter graduating to sommelier.

I think he must have opened Niche while I was overseas. For anyone used to the previous two operations, it comes as a bit of a culture shock, as he hasn’t yet got round to replacing all the tables, chairs, umbrellas and nick-nacks with which previous tenants filled the garden in the grounds of Alliance-Francaise. (They are on order, he explained.)

And inside adds new dimensions to the phrase “minimalist décor”. There really isn’t any! Certainly not when compared with all the antiques, collectibles, framed photographs, posters and paintings which flourished in Alo, Alo’s days. (There new operation at Arundel Village is like The Old Curiosity Shop!)

Stimulating menu
I knew I would go for their take on full English but enjoyed perusing a quite stimulating and rather different (for Ha-ha-rare: Africa’s fun capital) menu.
Filled baguettes included those filled with roast fillet of beef with caramelised onion and a Dijon dressing (US$8) and fried chicken with bacon and guacamole at the same price. Eggplant (brinjal) Parmigianino was US$7 from the breakfast, brunch menu.

Mains are not jaw-droppingly expensive, but neither are they stunningly reasonably priced these days, when the recession, school fees and general lack of disposable income are definitely hitting restaurants’ cash-flows.

Ale-cured rib-eye steak with caramelised onions, red-wine reduction and Paris mash (as opposed to Paris-Match?) was a fairly hefty US$19; grilled pork chop with bacon, crushed potatoes and butternut puree US$17.

I really liked the sound of tilapia meuniere on a tuna, caper and lemon risotto at US$14 and pan-seared chicken breasts stuffed with mushroom-and-coriander pistou. (Pistou is the French equivalent of pesto.)

It is becoming increasingly important to cater for a growing number of vegetarians in and visiting the country and goats’ cheese ravioli on spiced borscht (a rich vegetable soup, bright red from its beetroot content: can be made with or without shank of beef in the stock) fills that bill, also US$14.

Exemplary eggs
My fry-up wouldn’t have earned a Michelin star or even one of the gold stars my grand-daughter seems to collect so regularly at school. A few tweaks were needed, but the perfectly poached soft eggs, lightly drizzled with a hollandaise sauce probably prepared for eggs Benedict (US$6) were exemplary and there were three smallish but well-cooked rashers of fairly crispy bacon.

I wasn’t too potty about the beef sausages, which were rather boerewors-like in consistency and flavour — but then I always prefer pork bangers. And grilled tomato wasn’t quite as ripe as I would have wanted it. The well-filled plate was completed with splendid mushrooms, baked beans of an acceptable quality and diced sautéed potatoes to help fill the inner man.

A separate plate came with small bowls of butter, what proved to be a delightful limey-lemony marmalade and thick strawberry jam. The only problem was that the toast was already on the plate — dry, (unbuttered) and covered in gloopy eggs!

No problem! Takura brought two separate slices of fresh toast for me to sample the condiments, washed down with a big pot of rooibos tea with refreshing, fragrant lemon slices at no extra cost. The bottom line was US$10, which is good value… especially this weekend when tweaks, presumably, should have been tweaked? Breakfasts start at US$5; tea or coffee is US$1-US$2.

I’m not the world’s greatest burger fan, but thought two of Niche’s sounded worth trying: Bacon, blue-cheese and bourbon-poached pears or lamb, mint and feta both at US$10. Burgers and baguettes come with chips and salads.

Former sommelier
Seeing as Takura was a former sommelier (highly-trained, respected and knowledgeable wine steward) in Australia, where they know a thing or two about wines and the place is called Niche Bistro AND Wine Bar, I asked to see the wine list.

“Bit of a problem, there, cobber” said the amiable proprietor. “We haven’t yet got our liquor licence, so the wine bar bit’s still a work-in-progress.”

I have every sympathy with him. Both previous restaurants were licensed to sell grog and nothing’s changed except ownership (now by an indigenous Zimbabwean.)

This is not the only outlet which has suffered (like its customers) from the licensing authority’s procrastinations and prevarications. May I suggest they pull collective fingers?

Niche Bistro and Wine bar (not to be confused with Café Nush at Avondale), 328, Herbert Chitepo Avenue. Tel  0772 235 668. Opens Tuesday-to-Sunday 7:30am-9:30pm. Dusty Miler rating withheld.

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