J’s Fresh Bar and Kitchen Comes to Westlands

J’s Fresh Bar and Kitchen has moved to Westlands. Well, that’s not really correct – J has moved to Westlands, but his original bar and restaurant is still in Karen. Johnnie McMillan has opened a new place where Juniper used to be – at the Waiyaki Way end of Muthangari Drive. I liked Johnnie’s ‘Fresh Bar and Kitchen’ in Karen, but not the drive along the Ngong Road to reach it. For me, it was a five minutes trip to his new venture last Saturday morning.

I was early enough – before 12.30 – to order from the weekend brunch menu. I‘m a sucker for a full English breakfast, so I ordered the J’s version of it. On the other hand, I was late enough (the sun must have been well over the yardarm, as British sailors used to say) to justify a glass of dry white wine.

It was better than a typical English breakfast. Yes, the obligatory bacon, eggs, sausages, baked beans and grilled tomatoes were there; however, it was served, not with tomato sauce, but with sweet chilli jam – and, not on toast, but on sour dough bread. I guess the glass of white wine was not typical too.

Right now, the setting is much as it was when it was the Juniper: inside, a snug dining room with a well-stocked bar and, outside, wooden tables with benches. But it is a work in progress, because a long outside bar is being constructed.

The menu is very much the same as the Karen J’s. Let me give you a quick tour, with a few of the highlights. From the brunch menu, as well as Eggs Benedict or Eggs Florentine, I could have had, for 850/-, the more exotic Avo Smashed – which is smashed avocado, feta, coriander and lemon on sour dough, with rocket and balsamic cherry tomatoes, topped with two poached eggs.

I am picking out the less usual and the more exotic, you’ll understand. So, for a starter at lunch or dinner, how about J’s Mango Wood Smoked Sailfish? It promises ‘Malindi’s finest sailfish, with avocado puree, sundried tomatoes, horseradish sauce and homemade bread’.

There are lots of salads. I would choose the J’s Proper Chicken salad, ‘with grilled chicken strips, crispy bacon pieces, croutons, salad leaves, parmesan shavings, tossed in a classic Caesar dressing’.

Twelve ‘mains’ are on offer. It’s not easy to decide what to tell you about, out of traditional British fish and chips, Morendat steaks, sesame crusted tuna, or (for the vegetarians) the Italian bake of aubergine Parmigiana. But I give you Chef Agne’s Famous Creamy Risotto, ‘with beetroot, ginger and grilled seasonal vegetables’. Its price is 1,200/-, which is about average for the main courses.

And the puddings? There are five of them. But for me it has to be the Sticky Toffee Pudding ‘with butterscotch sauce and ice-cream’.

The Sauvignon house wine was OK. But, if you are not on your own and feel like an indulgence, the extensive wine list is very OK. Or, if you are in a more cheery group, then you can go for one of J’s Jars at 500/- or J’s Jugs at 1,500/-. What about this one – ‘Dark and stormy, dark rum, ginger beer, mulled lime, and mint leaves’?

After my not-so-typical English breakfast I had a fascinating chat with J’s Brazilian chef, Agne Costa. He looks so young and fresh and passionate that it’s hard to understand that he has already worked in so many countries and places: as well as in Latin America, the United States – in Europe, in Asia, and now in Africa. He trained in Portugal before taking off around the world.

Agne also studied Art History. When I asked him why he chose to be a chef, he said the work gives him freedom. Certainly, it has given him freedom to travel. So if we like what he cooks, we had better look after him, or he will be on the move again before long.

He says he spends about 90% of his waking day working with, and talking about, food. He loves finessing his recipes and coaching his young chefs. But he doesn’t bother much about cooking for himself; though his favourite food is risotto – hence the dish at J’s that has his name.

I asked Agne how he would describe the cuisine at J’s, and he looked rather puzzled. I guess it’s as varied as his own travels and as eclectic as his experimentation with dishes. The clientele that Saturday lunchtime was quite eclectic too. A more mature group than the fickle crowd that used to frequent Juniper before the Alchemist became the fashion.

Apart from the menu, a special feature of J’s Karen place was the music. He attracted a number of Nairobi’s more discerning DJs. I reckon the music will be important at the Westlands place too.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation