Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Pearl of Africa

Dinner at The Pearl of Africa

Without recommendations or actually confirming it, I'm relatively sure that The Pearl of Africa is one of the top restaurants in Uganda. Luckily, it's in my hotel and an easy commute.

Pearl of Africa is a modern looking restaurant with some African cultural references, but mostly modern in decor. The dining room is large and expansive, even in this large and expansive hotel. The layout is serious fine dining. The captains are in suits and the servers are in proper uniforms and it's easy to see you're in one of the most serious dining rooms in the nation.

Clearing the table.

I'm seated right away and it's pretty light in the dining room on this Wednesday night. The staff is attentive and asks if I'd like some passion fruit juice to start. Soon they've whisked the non-essential tableware away and leave the table open and spacious for my dining experience.

One of the most wonderful things about Kampala is that the people are so darn nice and friendly. Everywhere I go, people say hello, greet you, ask you how you are doing and welcome you to their nation. Everyone at Pearl is wonderfully nice and very accommodating.

They know how to entertain solo diners.

One of the trickier parts of dining alone is what to do with yourself. Here I am, sitting in a fine dining restaurant, the other occupied tables are filled with couples, lovers or friends while I'm at a four top with my little camera and iPhone to keep me company. For most restaurants, this could be tricky waters, not so for these guys - they've got a selection of reading materials to offer me. I pick a recent copy of Time Magazine.

Amuse Bouche: Chicken Mousseline.

Soon, the food starts coming. First up is an amuse bouche of Chicken Mousseline. It's a simple chicken mousse that's not bad served on pickled vegetables with a sweet sauce that's reminiscent of that Chinese style duck sauce - but not that sweet.

I decided to pass on the Ksh75,000 prix fix meal and go with the a la carte selections. Wasn't sure what to try but my Captain steered me towards some selections that sounded interesting: Spinach Soup then a Rack of Lamb.

White and Garlic breads.

While I really would like to rave about how amazing the food was at Pearl of Africa and that it's one of the most delicate and incredible meals I've had of late, I can't. The food is good. It's nicely prepared and done with care but it just doesn't blow me away.

The technique is grounded in French and cooking is solid. This is good and decent cooking. I've yet to find any meal at the Kampala Serena Hotel to be unenjoyable and this food doesn't disappoint in that way. Where it does let me down is that it doesn't taste that much elevated from the rest of the hotel's restaurant operations. And that's a little bit disappointing.

Soft butter.

To be honest, it really pains me to write that. The Kampala Serena Hotel has literally been my host in Kampala and the people who work here have been incredibly friendly and welcoming and I feel terrible that I can't rave incessantly about the meal. The staff was great, the welcome warm and sincere, but was the meal that different than the other restaurants? Sadly, no.

But let me temper that thought. My meal here was nice. Nicely prepared and nicely cooked. It cost me USh70,500 - which, by the hotel's conversion rate of USh2,000 to one dollar means that my meal cost me US$35.25 - and absolute steal considering the food, the quality, the service and the restaurant environment.

Cream of Spinach Soup.

In fact the meal isn't that much more costly than eating at the other restaurants in the hotel. For thirty-five dollars, I've eaten in a restaurant with lovely decor, a live pianist (who's excellent, by the way), with Michelin 3star style service in an environment that anywhere else in the world would cost hundreds of dollars to eat alone in - and I got some reading material to boot.

Taken that way, it's really one helluva deal.

Rack of Lamb - vegetables and mushroom rice.

Cheese Plate - gouda, brie & bleu.

The Bill: about US$35.

A throne.

Judges Training: Kampala

Morning Breakfast: muesli, papaya, egg white omelette, sausage, chicken, crumpet and paneer something.

Every morning starts in relatively the same manner: I wake up late because I'm sleeping at 3-4am and then rush to breakfast and then my driver meets me in the lobby before taking me through the streets of Kampala to classes at the Uganda Coffee Development Authority complex.

The weather here is interesting. Overall, it's quite nice. The mornings start out warn and slightly humid, building to hot and a little more humid by early afternoon. A couple hours later, it starts to cool down with breezes, then by night, the temperature drops to cool and low humidity. I would have thought that life this close to the Equator would be hot, hot, hot - but so far, so good. It's a balance of sweating and not sweating.

A morning cappuccino.

Today is the one and only day for Judges Training. Tomorrow competition begins and I'm tasked with making sure that the judges are up to speed on the latest rule changes and judging techniques. It's not monumentally difficult, just a bit tasking since I'm the only one here to train, certify and act as head judge for the championship. In other words, I'm here all by my lonesome.

Straightaway, we go at it. After introductions, I send the group to the tasting table where there are four sets of three coffee samples: Triangulation Time. For those unfamiliar, Triangulation is when you are presented with a set of three coffees. Two of them are the same, one is odd - your task is to identify the odd coffee in the set.

Boda boda operators ply their trade.

I prefer to keep the anonymity of the sets intact and have left the actual setup and brewing of the coffees to Clare - only she knows the key for the test. In an ideal world, we would do eight sets but today we're a bit limited on both time and coffee, and leave it at four sets. Four sets makes for harsher scores (one miss and you're already at 75%) but I'm looking to see how they perform and not necessarily setting up criteria with Triangulation for elimination.

From there, we discuss rule changes and go over the scoresheets, criteria by criteria. Definitions and examples are discussed. Potential problems and issues are brought up. Practical applications are demonstrated and then we show them actual samples to grade and discuss.

Judge trainees doing coffee triangulations.

After lunch, it's time for mock demonstrations. Mark Okuta, 2009 UNBC 4th Place and 2010 competitor, is invited to come and demonstrate for the judges. He does mock rounds of espresso and cappuccino for rotating teams of judges.

Towards the end of the day, I sit them down for the written examination. Sixty-nine questions totaling 167 points of multiple choice, fill-in-the-blanks and true/false questions challenge the judges. I read over the test and find a few conflicts and questions with multiple possible answers. I wonder to myself: Who wrote this thing? and make a point not to penalize for certain answers. I also make a mental note to make corrections to the test for future trainings.

Which coffee is the odd coffee of the three?

Everyone is finished and it's time to hit the road. The day is over. Trainings are complete. Time for competition.

We pile into Edmunds SUV and head to the Sheraton to load in the equipment and start setting up. While the crew installs and builds, I work on the schedules. This is my first outing as Head Judge and I'm now seeing the administrative work that I've left up to Rouki, Scott or Brent over the years. Part of me secretly likes being the junior judge.

A couple hours later, the sun has set and they drop me off at my hotel. Time to freshen up and get ready for competition tomorrow.

Thanks to barismo for sponsoring our training coffees!

Judges sit down for a little lunch.

My lunch of beef, rice and veggie.

Mark Okuta gets some experience as our demonstration competitor.

And faces a stringent panel of judges.

Brenda sits for her written examination.

Intently answering questions worth up to 167 points.

Museveni watches us everywhere we go.

Unloading a refrigerator.

The espresso machines arrive at the venue.