Talking of Tamarinds and Tamambo

After enjoying so much the sail and the food on the Tamarind Dhow the other week when I was workshopping at the Coast, I was keen to meet with Geraldine Dunford, the Marketing Manager of the Tamarind Group – to ask a few questions about success and failure in her industry.

So we arranged to meet for lunch at the Tamambo in Westlands, the more relaxed and more easily reached of the Group’s restaurants in Nairobi. The ‘top of the range’ is the very sophisticated Tamarind in Harambee Avenue. Then there is the special carvery Carnivore down Mombasa Road where, until the ban on game meat, tourists could enjoy a drive round Nairobi National Park and then eat what they had just seen!

You must be aware that the two Dunford boys, Jason and David, are swimming for Kenya in the Olympic Games. And Geraldine, the day after our meeting, was to fly out to Beijing. So, before any talk about the managing of restaurants, we chatted about the prospects for her sons – and, of course, her own feelings of pride and pleasure. Their competition starts on the day you will be reading this.

Eventually, we got down to choosing from the menu (more of that later) and to things I wanted to discuss for this piece. I mentioned to Geraldine that I had picked up a statistic from somewhere that more than 70% of restaurants that open up close down within three or so years. If I do a little calculation of eating places around the Lavington area over the last few years, then certainly more than half have come and gone.

Geraldine agreed.

‘I’ve always wondered why people go into the restaurant business so easily – often with no previous training or experience,’ she said. ‘And, actually, it’s very, very hard work. And then there’s the fashion factor. New places, especially if they have a newish theme, attract a clientele – and then when somewhere else interesting comes up their customers move on.’

Well, the Tamarind and the Carnivore have been thriving for a long time – the Carnivore was here before I came back to Nairobi in the mid 1980s – so I asked Geraldine for her recipe of success.

‘Good food, obviously,’ she said. ‘But you have to keep working on that, changing the menus occasionally – but always maintaining a quality. With the Tamarind Group we are lucky to have a team of very good managers – but you also have to keep going round, popping in – and tasting the new dishes!’

I asked her why in Nairobi the Group decided to add the Tamambo.

‘Well, we wanted to have a place the other side of town, in Westlands,’ she said. ‘And we wanted it to be a different kind of restaurant, attracting a different group of people. This is much more informal than the Tamarind, isn’t it? The menu is different, too – much less emphasis on fish dishes.’

True. Though you can enjoy a platter of oysters on ice for a starter, served with lime, brown bread and tobasco. Or, for a main course, you can take the Thai Seafood Bouillabaisse of lobster, prawns, fish and calamari ‘in spicy Thai coconut broth.’

But a distinctive feature of the Tamambo – what makes it a truly African brasserie – is the selection of special African dishes. Let me try a couple on you:

Zanzibar Samaki wa Nazi: ‘An explosion of coastal flavours; coconut cream, ukwaju (tamaraind), dhania (coriander), garlic, ginger, tomato and a touch of chilli topping the fresh fillet of seafish.’

Orange-scented West African Oxtail: ‘From Kenyan ox but using West Africa’s magical pot and patiently braising the oxtail in an orange-infused brown sauce.’

I like the décor of the Tamambo, too. Subdued, restful browns. With some tasteful displays of carvings – masks, headrests and grain ladders.

One final thought…. Another reason for the Tamarind Group’s success, it seems, is that they themselves keep looking for things new. They exported the Carnivore concept to Johannesburg, for instance. And now they have taken on the Tapas Bar at the Village Market, with live jazz at the weekends. But that is a story for another time.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation

Photo: http://www.bkenya.com