Nairobi is vibrant, bustling and like many places of cultural interest, a spirited mix of stark contrasts. It’s a metropolis where cultures and classes co-exist, and more importantly, co-mingle, so it should come as no surprise that the local dining scene is equally exciting and diverse. Whether you’re visiting for work – Nairobi is the African continent’s hub for many businesses, banks and NGOs – or passing through before or after safari, take time to explore the city’s crop of restaurants. From Kenyan steaks to grilled ox balls and seriously solid Thai noodles, here are five places to eat incredibly well in Kenya’s capital.
Tucked away in a quieter part of Karen, a wealthy suburb of Nairobi, Talisman feels like a hush-hush, discreet hideaway from the city. And a delicious one, too, as chef Marcus Mitchell has been credited by many locals for ushering in the importance of eating local, sustainable and organic. With Mitchell’s eclectic but approachable menu, which trots all over the globe, you can start with a Zanzibar coconut and local seafood soup that packs a fragrant, briny punch. Then there’s sautéed ostrich fillet – subtly gamey, super-flavorful, yet lean – with potato gratin and pureed cauliflower and surprisingly good sushi. But the crown jewel just might be the house burger. Loaded with fried onions, pickles, chili relish and a massive beef patty, it’s especially comforting for the homesick and travel-weary American.
In addition to growing many of the vegetables the kitchen cooks with in a garden on-site, Talisman hosts an organic farmers market every Saturday. And be sure to take advantage of Nairobi’s mild climate year-round by grabbing a table outdoors when visiting. The spacious, scenic patio, which overlooks a lush garden, sets the tone for a charming, low-key evening. 320 Ngong Road; thetalismanrestaurant.com
2. Thai Chi
Get this. There’s good – no, make that awesome – Thai food to be found in Nairobi, at Thai Chi at the Sarova Stanley Hotel (if you’re looking a centrally located, well-appointed hotel steeped in history, look no further). And it’s not the casual, cheap (read: disappointing) quickie that most of us have been subjected to. Instead, you’ll discover a formal, but comfortable, dining room dressed in gold and burgundy, and sculptures from Thailand. And be tended to by a staff so warm and gracious that the dining experience borderlines on humbling. But it’s the polished, yet understated cooking of chefs Phansupha Phommee and Somkiat Chuenpae that will ultimately win you over.
Deep-fried prawns on sugarcane are soft, subtly savory and not the least bit greasy. The chicken satay is also a simple pleasure, with tender meat redolent of coconut milk. But it’s the house Phad Thai that took me by surprise. This one – unlike other versions I’ve tried – had clump-free, silky noodles that pulled away with the gentlest prod of my fork, and an unexpected co-mingling of flavors (not too sweet and not too funky, just right) and textures (soft, crunchy, chewy). Everything feels, looks and tastes so good that it won’t take long before you realize you’re in a place far from Thailand (or in my case, New York). After dinner, head across the hall to The Exchange bar, the former site of Nairobi’s first Stock Exchange, for a proper nightcap and some gripping people-watching. Corner of Kenyatta Avenue and Kimathi Street; sarovahotels.com
3. The Brasserie at Hemingways
Beef. It’s what’s for dinner at this airy, modern brasserie by British chef Barry Tonks. What’s especially noteworthy is that this kind of beef – namely classic steakhouse chops with crusty, charred exteriors and juicy, marbled centers – hasn’t really made its mark in the local dining scene, until now. And it’s the imported Josper (pronounced “hosper”) oven that’s turning the heads of even the most veteran beef buffs.
A virtual two-in-one that’s gained popularity in professional kitchens across Europe, it combines the functions of both a super-hot charcoal grill and oven (they reportedly scorch up to 900 degrees), allowing chefs to finish steaks quickly and, more importantly, in ultra-precise fashion. That intense heat, coupled with 21-day dry-aged beef from Naivasha’s Morendat Farm, produces a fine steak. Pair it with traditional accompaniments, like a Caesar salad, béarnaise sauce and potato gratin, for a meal that will rival your favorite steakhouse. Hemingways Nairobi, Mbagathi Ridge; hemingways-nairobi.com
Southeast Asian street eats meet fine dining at this sleek eatery decked out with high ceilings, warm lighting, loads of dark wood and geometric design elements. Upon seating, you’ll be given a clipboard menu, which is broken down into seven categories: appetizers, salads, soups, curries, wok, rice and noodles and dessert. Check things off (it’s actually kind of fun), and build an interesting, culture-spanning meal in the process. Then let the kitchen slowly play with your senses, first by sight (the chefs furiously chopping and prepping in an open kitchen), then by sound (the sizzle of the scorching wok) and lastly by smell (a heady mixture of smoke, herbs and garlic).
While the Vietnamese summer rolls stuffed with shreds of duck, cucumber and carrots make for a trusty starter, it’s the noodles and soups, the Singapore Noodles and Tom Yum Goong, in particular, that shouldn’t be missed. The bright broth arrives scalding hot – because soup should cool at your table, not in the kitchen – while the springy noodles release hints of smoke, earth and spice with every satisfying bite. Sankara Hotel, Woodvale Grove; sankara.com
While the food at this sprawling hot spot – it’s been packing in locals and tourists alike since opening in 1980 – isn’t the main draw, you won’t forget your experience here. It’s nearly impossible to. The single menu offering, in the form of all-you-can eat nyama choma, is a Kenyan staple which translates to “roasted meat.” A dizzying array of the day’s meat, ranging from the familiar (leg of lamb, spare ribs, chicken liver) to wild (crocodile, ostrich, ox balls) is skewered on traditional Masai swords and seared over a mammoth, blazing-red, open grill located near the entrance of the restaurant.
After it’s cooked, the nyama choma is presented to you tableside, dramatically carved off the sword and dumped onto your plate. Then you eat. And repeat. And repeat until you can’t take any more. When finished with the meat portion of your meal, flip down the white flag on your table. It signals to the servers that you’re ready to move onto something sweet. Enter Dr. Dawa, who floats through the restaurant and muddles Kenya’s most famous cocktails, dawas (which means medicine in Kiswahili), with vodka, fresh limes, honey and a splash of sparkling water. The whole experience might come across as gimmicky and over the top, but guess what? It’s also ridiculously fun. Carnivore Rd (off Langata Rd); tamarind.co.ke
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