When one of the owners of the Karel T-Lounge heard that I was going to review it, he asked about who I was. When he was told that I am British, he said, ‘British? What do the British know about food?’
Well, I reckon that would have been a fair comment something like forty years ago. But, even then, as I have claimed a number of times, no breakfast anywhere in the world can beat the English breakfast: fried eggs (the yolk runny and the white firm), crispy bacon, baked beans and fried tomatoes.
Also, I would put my friend Eileen’s Sunday roast – thinly sliced and juicy beef, Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes, Brussel sprouts, garden peas, and hot brown gravy – top of my list of best-loved meals. Third, no fish and chips served in restaurants here that claim that they are classic English, have anything like the taste of what I hope is still served in corner ‘chippies’ – battered cod and oily chips, wrapped in grease-proof paper and yesterday’s newspaper.
But when I was a youngster, eating out was not for the British wananchi. I would argue that it was a steakhouse chain, Bernie Inns, that first made eating out popular and not only cheaper but also less mysterious. They restricted the menu to something like tomato soup or prawn cocktail for starters, steak or fish dishes as mains, Black Forest Gateau or ice cream as desserts – and they presented the menu in English rather than in French.
Not that the servings of the Birnie Inns, or of the many other steak houses that spread across the UK, could be classed as fine dining, but they helped to raise the awareness of the British about food beyond the traditional ‘meat and two vegies’ offerings. And these days, of course, we have celebrity British chefs such as the popular and caring TV personality, Jamie Oliver; the bad-tempered Gordon Ramsey, host of Hell’s Kitchen; the fish-dish specialist, Rick Stein, with restaurants in Australia as well as in Britain.
But enough of standing up for English/British cuisine – I am supposed to be writing about the Karel T-Lounge. It is strategically located in the new section of the Village Market in Gigiri. And it is not what I expected. Assuming its T stood for Tea, I had in mind the rather cosy mock-Tudor cafés that you find especially in the southern towns and villages of England: cafés that serve the famous Cornish teas of jam and cream on scones and dainty cakes – or, at quite another level, something like the opulent yet sedate lounge in the famous Taj Mahal Palace on the seafront of Mumbai – where, when I once visited it the only thing I could afford was a cup of tea. Earl Grey, of course.
The Karel T-Lounge is a very different kind of place. Done out in blues and whites, set off by green foliage and furnished with a scatter of comfy couches, it is very contemporary, very sophisticated. It is well set in the vibrant and stylish Village Market. And it seems already to have attracted a vibrant and stylish clientele.
I was shown around and introduced to the menu by one of the two owners, Philipos Tsehaye – not the one who called into question my reviewing credentials. Mind you, perhaps that one was right – I am more into ambiance than into food.
Nevertheless, you don’t have to be a gastronomist to appreciate the variety and quality of the lounge’s menu. Its foundation is a Mediterranean cuisine, as explained by the Italian chef, Giuseppe Romanazzo. But Guiseppe is well travelled – in America, South-East Asia, and the Arab world, as well as in Africa. And so his creations have a cosmopolitan flavour.
‘Our clientele is also cosmopolitan,’ he says, ‘so I try to respond to their tastes. But what they want isn’t always what I like to cook!’
Let me give you a few examples. How about the Karel Breakfast: homemade pancakes with papaya, Norwegian smoked salmon, fresh salad, jam and butter with a selection of bread? But I went for the Cod Fish Fillet, covered with poppy seeds, and accompanied by a potato and peppers stew and lemon butter sauce. Delicious. To finish off, I chose the vanilla flavoured Crème Brulee.
Philipos wanted to prove that the T could stand for Tea. He showed me the impressive list of teas on offer. I was tempted by the English Beauty, but went instead with the more reputable Emperor Grey.
As the menu says, Karel is a Phoenician name for an ancient Mediterranean city – a place known for its ‘strong sun, healthy food and friendly exchange port’. Well, Karel T-Lounge seems to be living up to its name. It can’t control the sunshine, but it is producing good and healthy food – and it is certainly a bright place for friendly exchanges.
Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation