The New Italian Restaurant in Nairobi

I had only one day left for the pleasures of Nairobi city life before flying off to a rural compound in South Sudan’s Upper Nile State – where I knew I would be living on a diet of rice and beans for a couple of weeks. Maurizio, the ebullient host of the popular La Tasca Spanish Corner in the Lavington Mall, had told me about the new La Cantina restaurant at Shalom House.

‘My friend Dario has opened there,’ he said. ‘You should go along. You will enjoy.’

So I went. And I did enjoy. Very much.

Going along – down Ngong Road – is not so easy these days. Shalom House is actually just along St. Daniel Comboni Road, which is off the Ngong Road about a kilometre beyond Dagoretti Corner. Anyway, the place is worth a little traffic frustration – which will be much less, let’s hope, once the current disruptive road works are finished.

It’s a very interesting road, the Ngong Road. I first drove along it in 1967. After Dagoretti Corner it was a stark boundary between the European settlement and the African reserve. On the left, there was the race course – founded in 1954 – and tidy red-tiled bungalows snug among the trees. On the right, there were the traditional thatched homesteads. I remember taking a photograph of the winding dirt track that ran alongside the straight tarmac – symbolic of the divided world that Nairobi was then.

Now, along the road there is the mix of smart offices, apartment blocks, jua kali enterprises, and entertainment places. There is a bustle about the place – and, no doubt, a hustle. But not in Shalom House compound. It is a restful and peaceful haven. And La Cantina fits in there very well.

Dario, with his jaunty white cap, long pony tail and pointed beard, calls his La Cantina a Ristopizza and Wine. It is run by a family – Dario and Judy – and it is very much a family friendly place. I haven’t travelled around Italy but I can imagine La Cantina is like small restaurants and bars you would find there in market towns and villages. With its white walls, dark wood tables and chairs, deep red curtains and cushions, a number of nooks and crannies, there is a snug charm about it.

Dario was the head chef of the Mediterraneo restaurants in Nairobi. The menu he has created at La Cantina is not as broad as what he offered at the Mediterraneo, but it is certainly a quality selection. And he is obviously proud of his wine selection, too. I refreshed myself with a glass of the house wine – a Veneto Cabernet Sauvignon which, at 500/-, is good value. In fact, Dario seems to have kept all his prices below what his dishes would normally cost in more established restaurants in town.

If I had been hungry enough to go for a starter I would have been torn between the ‘Classic Italian Bruschetta’, with their fresh tomatoes, garlic, onions and basil, and the ‘Deep Fried Mozzarella Bites’, served with raspberry jam.

I wasn’t so hungry, so I chose the main course of ‘Prime Kenyan Beef Fillet Medallions’, along with mashed potatoes and crisp vegetables – though I also dithered over the ‘Honey Glazed Pork Chops’ and the ‘Minty Lamb Cutlets’. Also, I was remembering that Maurizio had said that Dario’s pizzas are very special too. Anyway, the beef medallions were very succulent. Nice word that, isn’t it – succulent?

After that, I really wasn’t hungry enough to tackle a proper dessert. But my conscience told me, to make a proper job of the review, I should make the effort. So, patriotically, I tried the ‘Warm Apple Pie’, served with crème Anglaise. Though, I was also tempted by the ‘Strawberry Tartelette, with crème patissiere and whipped cream. To round it all off, I had to have a well-sweetened expresso coffee.

Oh yes, La Cantina has a terrace. It was quite full when I arrived – which is a good sign for Dario. The sun had broken through the grey clouds and, if I would have sat there I would have enjoyed the sight of youngsters playing – and not too boisterously – on the wide Shalom House lawn.

I like La Cantina. I think it will do well. Strategically placed half way between the city centre and Karen, it is worth the journey, from whichever direction. If you want to find out more about it, look it up on www.lacantina.co.ke. If you want to book a table, the numbers to ring are 0724-513 or 0717-572261.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation