Sampling a Lebanese Cuisine in Westlands

The Phoenicians were sailors, weren’t they? And, back many years BC (from 1,500 to 300 BC, to be precise), their lands stretched across what is now Lebanon, Israel, Gaza, Syria and south-west Turkey. Even further, their colonies, so Wikipedia tells us, reached right across the Mediterranean and to the Atlantic Ocean.

So it is hardly surprising that our Nairobi Phoenician Restaurant has moved about a bit – I first knew of it in Westlands, close to the Sarit Centre; it moved to both downstairs and upstairs at the Junction Mall; it is now back in Westlands and pleasantly moored in Matundu Lane.

It is also no wonder that the Lebanese (or Levantine) cuisine of the Phoenician Restaurant is very varied. It is made up of many whole grains, fruits, vegetables, starches – and the meat is often fresh fish and other seafood.

We were at the Phoenicia for dinner last Saturday evening. It was a small birthday party and the carnivores were outnumbered by the vegetarians. That is why we chose the Phoenician.

I decided to identify with the vegetarians, and so I chose for my main course the Falafel, listed as a starter. You will know it, I think: those deep-fried balls made of ground chickpeas, nestling in a sea of hummus dip, which is mashed chickpeas, blended with tahini, olive oil, lemon juice – and scooped up with pita bread. I also wanted to make room for the dessert I had my eye on: the baklava, those thin and sweet layers of crispy pastry and chopped nuts, glued together with syrup or honey.

But my companions were more familiar with the Phoenician menu that me. What they did was order a mix of a number of starters. Along with the Falafel there were plates of Sambousek, small cheese pies; Ftayer, spinach pies; Moutabal, grilled aubergines with sesame oil and lemon juice; Batata Harra, spicy potatoes; Mehchi Warak Arish, vine leaves stuffed with rice, tomatoes, parsley and oil.

It was a feast – a tasty, pleasant feast. It made me think again I could turn and live without meat. I remember when I very nearly turned. It was years ago, when I visited Lobatse, the huge slaughterhouse in southern Botswana. In fact, it was then the second biggest slaughterhouse in the world – it might still be.

I will never forget what I felt when the magnificent horned steers were herded into a pen and one by one they were killed with a stun gun. One second they were proudly alive; the next second they were blooded meat.

As we walked round it was like a chamber of horrors. I was standing by a bend in a long metal chute and a steer’s severed head came hurtling down and I reacted like a slip fielder in a cricket match. Towards the end of our tour, the hung sides of meat seemed like what you would see in a butcher’s shop – except, on closer look, the meat was still pulsing.

As we left the slaughterhouse I decided that I had to eat a steak that evening – or I might never do so again. Sometimes, like at the Phoenician on Saturday, I wished I hadn’t done so.

After the vegetarian feast, only two of us had room for a dessert. We decided to share a baklava. It was as sweet and fresh as baklava can be. But it was a mistake to share – there were only a few thumb-nail size portions. It was expensive at 600 shillings – about a hundred shillings a bite. In fact, everything at the Phoenician is a bit on the pricey side.

But the food is good – and the ambiance is a nice cross between sophisticated and family friendly. The ancient Phoenician sailing ship insignia is boldly displayed, and there are fresh flowers on the tables. I went back late Sunday morning to see the place in daylight and to get a photograph.

Matundu Lane is first right off Brookside Grove, which is off Waiyaki Way. Approaching from the town side, you would be better to reach it via School Lane. It is a leafy area, and the restaurant is in a red-tiled bungalow with seats on the broad veranda as well as inside. There is plenty of parking space – and also a children’s play area with colourful swings and climbing frames.

I was the first customer there at 12.15 on the Sunday morning, but by 1 o’clock the place was beginning to fill, as the man on the keyboard was doing his stuff. I indulged myself with a warmed chocolate muffin with vanilla ice-cream drenched in chocolate sauce – just the sort of thing the kids would love.

I began this piece by talking of the variety in the Lebanese cuisine. The Phoenician has another marked variety, because it also has a Japanese cuisine. But that is another story.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation