‘Have you been to Ocean Basket yet?’ a friend asked. ‘It looks like Seven Seafood has a competitor.’
I hadn’t been to the new fish restaurant in the Oval at Westlands but, having eaten a few times at Ocean Basket outlets in South Africa, I doubted if Seven Seafood would be much worried. Ocean Basket is a South African chain, and you find their restaurants across South Africa and also in other countries where South African-type shopping malls have sprung up in recent years. Their website tells us that they have 190 restaurants in 10 countries – and maybe one or two more have been added since the website was last updated.
My own experience of Ocean Basket places is that they are cheerful and relatively cheap – somewhere between McDonald’s fast food restaurants and the likes of Seven Seafood – but probably nearer McDonald’s .
Anyway, last Sunday evening my wife and I decided to try the Ocean Basket at the Oval.
This is what Fats Lazarides, the Founder, said about the intentions when he, his brother and another partner, opened their first restaurant in Pretoria back in 1995:
‘We wanted to make people aware of good seafood. We wanted to create a simple place where people could enjoy a great meal and great value. A homely place where they’d get together with friends and feel like they’re part of our family’.
Well, yes, our first impression was that this is certainly an open, friendly and homely place. There is nothing pretentious or formal about it. The high glass wall dividing the inside dining room from the broad terrace is curved like an Atlantic-crossing ocean liner from the 1930s. But the furniture is simple; the waiters are brisk but welcoming; the menu is large enough to cater for very many tastes.
The paper covers spread over the plaid table cloths do much to set the mood of the place. They are white and with a scatter of line drawings of watery things: fish and crabs and seagulls and lighthouses. And you know that no-one will object if you take out a pen and colour in the shapes. In fact, that’s what my wife did. Perhaps they should supply coloured crayons.
There are jokes on the paper covers, too – the kind our sons believed they were entertaining us with when they were young teenagers. Let me give you one of the Ocean Basket examples:
‘How many tickles does it take to make an octopus laugh?’
Wait for it…
You get the idea? The Ocean Basket marketers love puns, it seems. For instance, Ocean Basket is your ‘sole provider’; it promises a ‘whale of a time’.
For me, the test of a homely seafood restaurant would be how their staple fish and chips measure up to the fish and chips I remember from my younger days in the UK. I am especially thinking of the street corner ‘chippies’, where they served their take-away fish and chips sprinkled with salt and pepper, splashed with vinegar, and wrapped in newspaper – the News of the World, for preference. Not for the salacious stories, you’ll understand, but for the flavour of the wetted newsprint.
I had never tasted any fish and chips in Kenya that measured up at all to traditional English fish and chips – the batter has always been too dry and, anyway, Nile perch or tilapia has nothing like the flavour or texture of North Sea cod or haddock.
But the fish on my plate – well, not a plate but a small silvery frying pan – was hake, which so Wikipedia tells us, is ‘within the same taxonomic order (Gadiformes) as cod and haddock’. Whatever, it was delicious – with a flavour like, but more subtle than, its cousins.
But there was a surprising disappointment. The seafood restaurant had run out of chips – which is rather like a bar running out of beer. Instead, I had to make do with butternut mash. Too sweet – nothing like chips.
My vegetarian wife was happier. She chose a California Vegetable Mix sushi – a mix of avocado, asparagus and cucumber. She gave me a taste. Quite smoothly nice. But it will take more than a few mouthfuls like that to make me a vegetarian. I consoled (no pun intended) myself with an ice-cream and espresso Afogato.
But, back to what the Founder said about his intentions. He talked about value. And, yes, the meals are certainly affordable. Their Famous Feesh & Chips (that’s what they call it) is Ksh.950. The California Vegetable Mix is Ksh.450. The Afogato is Ksh.350.
As the blurb on the menu says, justifiably, the Ocean Basket provides ‘fuss-free eating, quality ingredients, healthy options, outstanding flavours and a warm’… wait for it… ‘whalecome.’