Chez Sonia: A Taste of France in Peponi Road

As a teenager my first travelling venture was to cycle with my sister to France. From our home town of Boston (the original one) on the east coast of England, we pedalled down to Lydd airport on the south coast, loaded our bicycles on a smallish but wide-bodied plane, landed in Le Touquet, and made our slow peddling way to Paris.

The thing that struck us first about France, as we cycled through the streets of Le Touquet was that you could see into the living rooms of the houses. If there were curtains, they were drawn back. In England, I had grown up behind net curtains.

The second thing that struck us, as soon as we were looking out for a place to have lunch, was that there were cafés with tables outside on the pavements. There wasn’t one café like that in our Boston. The weather in East Anglia was too bracing, I guess. And, like the living behind net curtains, we English were not out-going enough (in both senses of the term) and too accustomed to privacy. Even now, when I anticipate a trip back to what was once my home, I think of having a ploughman’s lunch beside a log fire in a cosy and curtained-off mock-Tudor pub.

All this is by way of an introduction to a taste of France in Nairobi – the Chez Sonia wine bar down Peponi Road. When the sun is shining, you can sit out in the garden; when there is a chill in the air, you can sit inside where there is a log fire. As a place to eat and drink and relax, it promises something like my fond experiences in Europe.

A few friends have recommended the place. So my wife and I went for brunch last Sunday morning. It’s quite a long way down Peponi Road: it’s number 68, on the left and just before the right turn to New Muthaiga. From the carpark you climb some steps to a white and rambling house that would have been built, I think, in the 1950s. It has lots of rooms: a dining room, smaller ones for private dining or meetings, and a room for exhibitions. All are interestingly furnished and hung with paintings.

The sun was now and again shining through the clouds, so we chose to sit in the also rambling garden; a very bushy garden, with some striking moonflower shrubs. The scattered tables were suitably distressed; all the white plastic chairs were a cross between art nouveau and the local bent wood Nubian ones.

The menu was, of course, very French. We studied the breakfast one. My eye caught the Canelés – temptingly described as ‘small French pastry flavoured with rum and vanilla, with a soft and tender custard centre and a dark thick caramelized crust’. I remembered the rum baba cakes I used to indulge myself with on my trips in France – but only once on a bicycle.

The canelés were delicious, but they were small and only two of them, so I chose a sharp tasting and very filling Oeuf Cocotte: two oven baked eggs with ham and melted Emmental cheese. The prices were very reasonable: 380 shillings for the two canelés and 650 shillings for the oeuf cocotte.

Lut, my wife, is a vegetarian. She chose a salad with walnuts replacing the cheese. One suggestion we have for Chez Sonia is to extend the vegetarian options.

Chez Sonia prides itself on its wine selection – a justifiable pride, given the list of names on the menu. But writing this piece I heard about the thirty days ban on restaurants serving alcohol. So I rang Sonia. ‘We will survive on our food!’ she said. I also think she will come up with some imaginative mocktails.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation