Visiting Two of Nairobi’s Garden Restaurants

I have learnt a new word. We were ordering our lunches at the Steak Out restaurant in Lavington. Given the place’s name and also my previous experiences there, I said I would have a rump steak. ‘And what doneness would you like?’ the waitress asked.

I looked up ‘doneness’ when I got home. It wasn’t in my Oxford English Dictionary. But Google definitions had it as ‘The extent to which food is cooked’. Great word. English has no equivalent. Must be American English.

T-Bone, Rib Eye, Sirloin, Rump, Fillet, Strip Loin – they are all steaks on offer at Steak Out; all are at 330 gms; you have a choice of five degrees of doneness. Steaks are a speciality of the house. Cheryl, the owner, loves steaks – and she had long nursed an ambition to own a restaurant that serves them.

However, despite the name, steaks are not the only attraction on Cheryl’s menu. Even my wife likes the place – and she is a vegetarian. There are a number of vegetarian options, and she went for the Chef’s Curry, with butternut, peanut, spinach, coconut, cashew nuts and paneer cheese.

We were there a couple of weekends ago. After their long lockdown, a number of restaurants had opened again; the sun was shining, and we decided to go for one where we could have lunch in a garden.

It was back in the early 1990s that an enterprising guy called Frank Sutton opened the Karen Blixen Coffee Garden. ‘I was wondering why,’ he told me, ‘with its good weather, Nairobi doesn’t have a garden restaurant – so I opened one.’ There are a few of them now; ones that fit my wife’s definition of a place where you can sit at a table and have your shoeless feet on grass.

The Steak Out certainly fits the definition. It is set in a well-matured, one acre Lavington garden, with a fascinating variety of trees and shrubs across a lawn with thick grass to cosset your feet. There’s plenty of relaxing space, then, to meet today’s coronavirus social distancing requirements. (So as not to get Cheryl into trouble, let me tell you that the third chair in the photograph was pulled up only to hold my camera!)

Last Saturday we had lunch at the newest of Nairobi’s garden restaurants: the Shamba along Loresho Ridge – also just opened again. It has more than double the space of Steak Out. There’s room for a farm shop, a garden centre, a boules court – and plenty of grass for setting out the tables. We enjoyed the advice about the ‘covid-19 requirements’ that were posted on each table. Apart from the usual information about washing hands, using sanitiser and keeping 1.5 metres social distance, the notice said ‘Hugging and kissing are prohibited’.

Feeling at home (I grew up on a shamba in England) I ordered a typically English dish of shepherd’s pie. Actually, it turned out to be a cross between a shepherd’s pie and a Cornish pasty, because the filling was minced meat but the top was pastry and not mashed potatoes. But as Shakespeare once said, ‘What’s in a name?’ – a Shamba pie by any other name would taste as good. It really was very good.

The place was busy; there were lots of cars in the overflow parking across the road. I was not surprised. The menu has a wide variety of dishes; the food is tasty and generous. The clientele is well mixed. And you can take your dogs as well as your children. It’s that kind of homely place – and a place with energy.

Before leaving, we visited the well-stocked farm shop. I don’t think I have ever been so excited by a food shop. The varieties of adventurous jams and marmalades, the huge chocolate-chip biscuits, the cream-filled doughnuts…. I will be back.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation