Don’t judge a book by its cover, discovers Susan Wong who, after some initial trepidation looking at the menu in a suburban garden restaurant, is completely swayed by the long parade of amazing food
I started to read the newspaper for fun when I was 8-years-old because my parents policed my television and Game Boy time, but mostly because we had a monthly subscription to The Toronto Star. I use to enjoy waking up early on Saturday mornings so that I could greet the blonde paper delivery boy on the lawn.
“Hey Susan! Check out where Cynthia went to eat this week!”
Brian was referring to Cynthia Wine, a former staff restaurant critic at the publication and author of Eating for a Living: Notes from a Professional Diner – a favourite read of mine that’s been collecting dust on my bookshelf in Toronto.
25 years later, in the fringes of Nairobi at 45 Degrees Kitchen, I found myself staring at a framed old newspaper clipping penned by Cynthia about a restaurant in Toronto’s entertainment district (that’s now gone on to become a Canadian franchise behemoth) and was published on my birthday, Saturday, October 23, 1993 – a restaurant review that I definitely had read over a steaming hot bowl of homemade congee. Who was the featured chef? Harold Sena-Kota, the chef-owner of the celebrated 45 Degrees Kitchen.
In Kenya, fine dining is usually reserved for flagship restaurants in fancy hotels or members-only clubs, but 45 Degrees Kitchen is situated deep in Nairobi’s suburbia. Located in the Garden Estate area off of Thika Road, getting to the restaurant is quite effortless if traffic cooperates.
I’ll be honest; at first, it didn’t look promising. Outdoor LED flexible strip lighting draped freely above the spacious outdoor seating and inside the cozy dining room. Mismatched tables and chairs added a quirky sense of style to the space. Tiedye tablecloths challenged your expectations for fine table linens, and art from Kenyan painters hung on the walls for sale. With the bar area set-up on a table to the side, it felt like I was walking into someone’s garden party. I really didn’t know what to expect, and when I was handed a menu that featured more than 50 items, my companions and I naturally became hesitant.
The menu featured a four-course tasting flight and à la carte. From fresh scallops to langoustines, duck to pork, crab to Ahi, and truffle to wild mushrooms – all sourced locally, Chef Harold’s choice of premium ingredients meant no expense was going to be spared. The next couple of hours was like a culinary equivalent to a flawless Steph Curry NBA All-Star Three-Point Contest performance – graceful and a showcase of an indecent amount of skill.
Take the dish Pan-fried Scallops with Purple Cabbage and Mustard. It looked simple, but that’s how Chef Harold deceives you. Beautifully seasoned and seared, the scallops were moist and subtly sweet. The purple cabbage and mustard was a brilliant shade of lavender. The julienned vegetables had a nice bite that could only be achieved by a quick sauté on high heat. The Salt-Baked Beet Salad with Yoghurt Dressing arrived with a sprinkle of pomegranate seeds, dried cranberries, and some fresh mozzarella. Every leaf of lettuce was lightly coated with the dressing, refreshing and crisp, this salad was an understated harmony of flavours and colours.
Next, the Pan-fried Duck Breast with a Lemongrass Sauce and served with a Thai Green Curry and Jasmine Rice. The dish costs a gulp-inducing KSh 3,250, but then when you begin to start working your way through its beautifully seared and pink flesh, you realize that there’s enough here for two. The Thai Green Curry was vibrant, flavourful and rich – so delicious that I’d order it on its own. The duck was a bit heavy on the black pepper, but the cookery was undeniably faultless. The Mongolian Lamb Chops with Mushroom Risotto escalated the pleasure to another level. The chops, French-trimmed, had a beautiful ratio of fat and tender meat that gave away to the knife like butter. The beautiful chops sat on a bed of risotto that had some long grain wild rice running through it, which added texture to the dense and rich base. Few things are as satisfying as a bowl of well-made risotto. With the right wine, stock, soffritto, fat, and a lot of labour, risotto can almost take you to the moon and back. Did I mention he threw in some Shitakes? Then there was the Two-week Aged Sirloin, Cheddar Wood Essence and Mustard Glaze, served with delicious and fluffy Creamy Mash Potato. Again, the knife slid through the medium rare flesh with so much ease. At this point, my silent companions looked-up at each other and all nodded in approval. We couldn’t believe what was happening; it was just all so good. The only real disappointment of the evening was the Miso Glazed Salmon – overdone and dry.
To finish, we had a platter with a bit of everything including the Flourless Chocolate Cake, but what stole my heart that evening was the Poached Mini Pears with Port Wine, finished with a dollop of Mascarpone Cheese. So luxurious, moreish and comforting, the pears were slowly simmered with cinnamon and star anise to bring out their delicate flavours. The fruits soaked-up the reduced syrup beautifully and the creamy Mascarpone rendered us speechless.
The dessert was the zenith of a meal with many high points. I’ve never had this many foodgasms in one meal in Kenya! The incredible experience was also supported by a well-trained service team: polite, thorough and warm. Located away from the city’s restaurant hub, the team at 45 Degrees is doing their own thing, and quite happily so; and I think Cynthia would agree with me too.
Susan Wong and her companions were guests of Harold Sena-Kota at 45 Degrees Kitchen
Follow Susan on IG: @Susanluckywong