“What’s your favourite restaurant in Nairobi right now?” J’s. “What?” A lady in her mid-30s, whom I had just been introduced to, questioned in suspicion. Her full lips pressed into a thin twist as she snarled about how J’s had been one of her most revolting experiences. “They had such a bad wine list!” I asked her about the food and all she could muster-up were sounds of “ugh” and “eww,” which were followed by, “it’s a dump.
I was shocked. Were we speaking about the same J’s? I asked again: “Ok, but what about the food? Did you try it?” She evaded the food question again and continued to complain about the small wine list. In my mind, I had already slapped her, twice; but the waiter from the café was delivering another house glass of Rosé – young and smelling of tannins, one that would get you drunk fast – and he would’ve been in the way.
If you’re looking for a wine shop experience, fine dining cuisine, lengthy dish names that seem too complicated to eat, plush velvet high-back chairs, backlit onyx bar facades or even a spacious restaurant that could host your next company Christmas party – J’s Fresh Bar and Kitchen is definitely not for you. The newest and in my opinion, one of the more authentic gastro pubs in Nairobi, J’s is the home to uncomplicated, flavourful…incredibly flavourful, honest cooking.
A handful of picnic tables surround the open kitchen, which anchors the intimate gazebo-like structure. J’s is small in size, but makes-up for it by focusing on serving good and consistently fresh meals. The concise menu is small for Nairobi standards but is focused and not filled with pages of dizzying choices. The one and half-pager swims in British pub influences, all served artfully on rustic wooden boards.
To start, there was the soft, crunchy and meaty Scotch Egg and Homemade Ketchup. Hard-boiled egg encased in sausage meat, breadcrumbs and herbs; gently moulded by hand and accompanied by overly barbeque-tasting house- made ketchup. A beautiful board of J’s Beetroot and Goats Cheese followed. The colourful spread was vibrant in colour and had flavours to match. The marinated cherry tomatoes, slow-roasted beetroot Carpaccio and puree, proved that vegetables could also be robust in flavour. A gastro-pub favourite, the Traditional British Fish and Chips did not disappoint. Moist and flaky fillets encapsulated in a miraculously crispy, light and golden batter. The chunky chips, cooked three times, brought out the kid in me. And the pea puree was just enough pizazz to elevate the dish to the gastro-pub stratosphere. There was the Ultimate Chuck Steak Burger that arrived with a stack of Paprika Fries; its patty was super juicy thanks to a coarser ground made from a cut of beef from the shoulder.
By far, my favourite was the Char-Grilled Chilli and Coriander Squid, Garlic Aioli and Fresh Lemon. Beautifully flavoured and caramelised by the hot grill for probably as long as the cook could sing the Alphabet Song, the fresh squid was a delight to eat – a slight pop of crunchiness that only fresh seafood cooked to perfection would have, woke-up the senses and the delicate flavours of chilli and coriander were balanced easily with a fresh squirt of lemon juice. I would have ordered another Squid had I not been saving room for the requisite Double Chocolate Brownie, an exceptional end to my Sunday afternoon with its chocolate chip ice cream, doused with chocolate sauce.
I’m happy that I can find my gastro-pub escape and “Don’t worry, about a thing” kind-of dining experience
At J’s, the gastro-pub cuisine is pushed beyond stodgy pigs and puddings. The Sunday roast option occupies a nostalgic place in our British culinary imagination but the rest of J’s menu reinterprets a few English recipes, some even centuries old. This is a restaurant carefully calibrated which depending on your mood, may or may not be its greatest virtue. As they say, “one man’s meat is another man’s poison,” so one person’s alleged terrible restaurant experience may be another’s treasure. The laid-back atmosphere of J’s is complimented by smiley Fedora hat-clad staff that are most of the time, attentive; all of which reminds me of a holiday at a Caribbean resort. A slight hum of reggae plays in the background and the Sunday afternoon atmosphere buzzes effortlessly. For a moment, I escape to a beach with my strong cocktail.
I wouldn’t be surprised if another J’s pops-up somewhere along the Kenyan coast. But for now, I’m happy that I can find my gastro-pub escape and “Don’t worry, about a thing” kind-of dining experience along the traffic jam-prone Ngong Road.
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