They call it The Collective. No, it’s not a kibbutz or any kind of communistic settlement. Not at all. It’s a combination of restaurant and gallery: a place where you can go to enjoy good food, good art – and also good music. It opened only a couple of months ago. And, bucking a trend, it is set in the heart of Nairobi’s CBD – on the ground floor of View Park Towers, in Utalii Street and opposite the French Cultural Centre.
I’ve been there for the last two Saturday lunches. And I have also enjoyed some good conversation. Both times I met with the owner, Aicha Mane. She is from Senegal, and she is quite a lady. She calls herself the Chief Operating Officer. She is certainly an operator; or, as Sade sings it, a smooth operator.
I asked her if she isn’t taking a risk in setting up right in the city. What was on my mind was the Prestige Bookshop, which was there at the junction of Mama Ngina and Muindi Mbingu Streets when I came back to Kenya in 1986. It must be one of the oldest bookshops in the city. But it has just opened a branch in Lavington Green. ‘Because these out-of-town areas are the lively and growing places these days,’ said the young guy in charge of the shop when I went in the other day. (It has an excellent selection of books, by the way.)
Aicha was not fazed. ‘It will depend on marketing,’ she said. ‘And I mean aggressive marketing. My job is to make sure people come – and, if they come, to make sure they enjoy it.’ She went on to talk about the potential of the position – surrounded by tall buildings with all their office workers. They need lunches; some need breakfasts – and some prefer to have a drink in the upstairs lounge of The Collective while waiting for the traffic to thin out. The place opens at 7 am and closes late. There is a happy hour from 5 to 7 o’clock. And I guess a number get so happy they stay on for dinner.
The food is certainly good. And different. As the Facebook page says, the restaurant offers a world class menu – with an African twist. It is a West African twist. I asked Aicha why West African cuisine is more varied – more sophisticated – than East African cuisine. She said for countries like hers, food has such a central place in the traditional family and social culture. Great, and competitive, care is taking over the cooking. I wonder if another reason is that West African countries like hers have a French rather than a British colonial heritage!
On my first visit I had a sampling of the menu – each dish enthusiastically introduced by the chef, John Karungu. The starter was a gentle avocado and prawn salad, followed by a spicy chicken noodle soup. The cheesy eggplant parmigiana led into the main course of chicken slices wrapped in bacon. The finish was delicate homemade tiramisu. All were delicious – and imaginatively presented.
The whole place is imaginatively presented. There are some striking paintings on the walls and quirky metal sculptures around the floors – all, like the menu, are reasonably priced.
On Thursday and Friday evenings there is live music in the upstairs bar and lounge. And, oh yes, The Collective prides itself on its cocktails. They say that on Cocktail Wednesdays there is always a new drink on offer.
And so The Collective is living up to its name. It offers a lively – but, I think, never boisterous – fusion of well-cooked and well-presented food, interesting works of art for sale, and music that, not too loud and not too soft, is well in tune with the place.