Mai-Loan: The Beautiful Restaurant

There’s a new restaurant in Lavington – well, new to James Gichuru Road. It opened there in August. ‘Mai-Loan’ it is called – and it used to be in a more cramped site at the Spa along Manyani Road.

‘What’s the meaning of Mai-Loan?’ I asked the owner, Nicholle Myles, who is a Vietnamese/American.

‘It’s my Vietnamese name,’ she said.

‘And what’s the meaning of your name?’

‘Something beautiful’ – and she smiled a coy smile. ‘I found it befitting to name my restaurant just that.’

Then she told me that, since everyone seems to ask the same questions about her place, she decided to put her answers on the first page of Mai-Loan’s very unusual cloth menu. And so she has written at least half this piece for me!

No – but she did explain in the text her passion for food. Obviously she has a taste for adventure, too. Because one day she decided to pack a bag and travel the world. She came to visit a friend in Kenya and, like so many travellers do, she gave up the travel and decided to stay. Before long, she was able to realise her dream of running a restaurant, here in Nairobi with its potential cosmopolitan clientele – and so she made Mai-Loan.

She describes her cuisine as ‘South-East Asian Fusion’. In keeping with her origins, there is a focus on Vietnamese but also Thai dishes. In keeping with her settling in the States as a child, there is a Western influence. And so – the fusion. Clearly, Nicolle enjoys the creating and the blending of different ingredients, different flavours.

The menu is certainly out of the ordinary. Let me give you some examples:

For a starter: Fried Camembert Mai-Loan – described as a unique creation of coated and fried camembert served with roasted garlic and sliced green apple.

For a main course (which I chose): Chilli Chicken with Basil and Coconut – cubed chicken blended with lots of basil garlic and added richness of coconut.

For dessert (which I also chose): Cream of Coconut and Banana Soup – which the menu says is a South Asian sweet tooth soother that is equally delicious served warm or cold.

See what I mean by the blends and the creativity?

The complementary lime and mint sorbet is an excellent palate cleanser; the red house wine is warmly smooth.

The setting and the decor match the food for imagination. It is a rambling house (once Tom Mboya’s Nairobi home), with a wide balcony overlooking a well-treed garden. So, depending on the weather, you have a choice of sitting inside or outside in the garden.

Inside, the atmosphere is distinctly oriental – with delicate bamboo plants and simple furnishings. The place is at its best at night – with flickering candles and glowing charcoal burners on the balcony.

Some of the upstairs rooms are being prepared for private dining – furnished with low tables and plenty of cushions. Also, there will soon be a ‘cigar bar’ – a Western rather than Eastern influence, I suppose. (And I’m not sure how this will fit with the healthy atmosphere that otherwise permeates the place.)

‘I wanted to create a place where people can come together, feel relaxed and experience something unique.’ Nicholle says. ‘I believe good service, great food and warm atmosphere are a winning combination.’

I think she is right – and that is what she has made at her Mai-Loan.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation