Sampling the New Kengeles Marula in Karen

When I first interviewed Gavin Bell I asked him why he had opened his first Kengeles bar and restaurant in Lavington. That was back in 1998. He told me that he had been offered a good site in Karen, but he hadn’t taken it because the Karen plots were five acres compared with the one acre plots in Lavington – so more potential customers. Also, he reckoned that the people in Karen were not only more widely dispersed – they didn’t like going out at night!

So I asked him the other day why he had changed his mind about Karen and opened the Kengeles Marula in March of this year. ‘The Karen demography has greatly changed over the last twenty years,’ he said. ‘Plots have been sub-divided; there are many more people – and a much greater mix of people.’ Yes, Karen is much less the KC place it used to be.

The Kengeles Lavington has changed, too. Since the Kengeles brand merged with the Tamarind Group – with Gavin Bell now one of the directors – there has been much more emphasis on the quality of the food. If you like sports screens and loud music, out back Kengeles Lavington is still one of the most vibrant bars in town. But out front you can actually enjoy a conversation and a Tamambo-style menu at tables set out with cutlery and glasses in the Tamarind style.

Last Saturday I went for lunch at the Kengeles Marula. It’s along Marula Lane, off the Karen Road, where the Marula Mercantile used to be. Right now, it’s in the style of the pre-Tamarind Kengeles – with chunky, rustic furniture. As yet, there are no fancy place settings. It’s an informal and relaxed place that opens onto a garden.

I found that the menu is much the same as the one at the Kengeles in Lavington – except that the restaurant has a pizza oven. There’s also Crispy Pork Belly, which is proving so popular that I reckon it will soon be on the Lavington menu. But I went for an old Kengeles favourite – the Kamakazi Kuku, with stir-fried chicken strips, fresh celery, carrots, leeks, mushrooms and onions, ‘drizzled with original Kenyan honey’. And there is a good range of wines by the glass at reasonable prices.

I had a chat with Steve, the manager, who had worked for a number of years at the Talisman in Karen. He has a great enthusiasm for his new place – very confident that it will be a winner. I asked him if his bar and restaurant is benefitting from the demise of the Purdy Arms, which used to be a little further down Marula Lane. Like Gavin, Steve thought not a lot, because the Purdy Arms was very much a KC place – and the Kengeles Marula is aiming to appeal to a clientele much more representative of the present Karen community.

The restaurant is still a work in progress. There will be an indoor space set out like the front of Kengeles Lavington in fine dining style. Also, more shaded tables will be set out on the grass.

I asked Steve about the reaction of the Karen neighbours, because the restaurant is in a residential area. He said he tells any DJ to keep the volume down – and, at present, the music stops at 11 pm. This must be somewhat disappointing to those Karen-based Kengeles regulars who hoped that the Kengeles Marula would be a straight import of the Lavington place.

It was the day before the most exciting ever programme of sporting events – a time clash between the cricket world cup at Lords, the men’s tennis final at Wimbledon, and the grand prix at Silverstone. I asked Steve which of these would take precedence on the TV screens. His answer said much about his clientele. He said, ‘Lewis Hamilton and Formula One’.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation