Toranj Restaurant: Three Worlds in One

It was a good restaurant as good restaurants go – and as good restaurants go, it went. Yes, most do, don’t they? Go, I mean. But I thought Spring Garden was one of the survivors. It must have been the first Chinese restaurant in Lavington. It was on the slip road, near the Gitanga Road rather than the Waiyaki Way end of James Gichuru Road. It was a family friendly and unpretentious place. It seemed a fixture. But it wasn’t.

In its place is the Toranj Restaurant, providing Persian, Turkish and Italian dishes. You might think that is a rather odd mixture. But, as well as a Persian/Iranian chef, there is a Turkish chef who lived and worked in Italy for 30 years.

It’s only drawback, for someone like me who likes a glass of wine with a meal, is that it doesn’t serve alcohol. I wasn’t thinking straight the first time I went for a look-see.

‘What wine are you serving?’I asked the waiter.

‘Sir, you have entered the Muslim world,’ he said with a sympathetic smile. ‘We don’t serve alcohol.’

However, as three of us discovered on my second proper lunchtime visit, there’s much at the Toranj to make up for that one drawback.

Even the drinks were OK. I was in the mood to experiment, so I ordered a drink with a name I hadn’t come across before – a Doogh. It is a mix of yogurt, sparkling water and mint. Delicious it was – and very refreshing. The secret, so I was told, is in the use of sparkling rather than plain water.

(Which reminds me of a message I received the other day from a friend:

It’s my wife’s birthday today. I think I should get her something sparkling – do you think I could get away with a Sprite?)

But back to the Toranj… I was in the mood to experiment. I guess I still smart with the telling off I received a few years ago when I was with a consultant colleague at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Phnom Penh. It’s a wonderful place, overlooking the junction of the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers. But what caused the ire of my colleague was that I ordered sausages and mash.

‘You’re in Cambodia,’ he said, ‘and you’re ordering sausages and mash! How could you?’

‘I like sausages and mash.’ I pleaded. But I reckon since then I have tried when in Rome to do more what the Romans do.

Maybe I am prompted to think back to that incident in Cambodia because there are some things about the Toranj that reminded me of restaurants in South-East Asia – especially the trellising round the upstairs lounge, its bamboo screens and the many things neatly plastic.

I ordered Persian, because I have never eaten Persian or Iranian before. I chose the Chicken Breast because it promised to be a ‘succulent skewer of saffron and lemon marinated chicken fillet’. I know I should have asked for it to be accompanied with rice, but I couldn’t resist when the waiter told me I could have French fries if I wished. Yes, I did wish, because I had had my fill of rice with every meal in South Sudan for the last two weeks and more.

It was a good choice. The chicken was tender and, yes, very succulent. It was served well, too – a colourful and pleasing arrangement of vegetables. I suppose the chips didn’t really fit in – but they tasted good.

My son, Jan, went for something typically Turkish – the Chicken Shawarma. It’s what I most associate with Turkish cuisine – the meat grilled and carved in thin slivers from a vertical spit. Judging by the speed he cleared his plate he was obviously enjoying it. He confirmed that. And he also said that there was something Mediterranean about the tomato-based sauce. Must be all those years the Turkish chef spent in Italy.

Our friend, Gabie, is a vegetarian. And she couldn’t find anything among the main dishes. So she ordered the Mirza Qasemi starter, a mixture of sautéed eggplant, onion, tomato, garlic and egg. It was very nice, she said, very filling – and good value at only Ksh.680.

All three of us were well filled, so we decided, along with our coffees, to only share a piece of the Revani cake. But it was so moist and so sweet we wished we had ordered a whole one each.

We were joined by one of the Directors, Asgarali Kassam. He told us about the idea behind the restaurant, and about the Toranj name – a medallion symbol in traditional Persian carpets. He’s an interesting man, a keen philatelist, coin collector and cricket administrator. He’s a very good talker, too.

The Toranj is a relaxing place. It is especially refreshing outside. And the food can be an adventure. It deserves to last as long, or even longer, than the Spring Garden.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation