Without an ample and diverse supply of high quality fresh seafood because of the high prices of flying it in, many chefs in Nairobi lack a repertoire of inspired seafood dishes.
An occasional special on a menu or seafood brought in frozen is often the most common dining option. As seafood dishes pop-up every so often, I generally approach them with caution and unfortunately, hesitancy. So what happens when “South Africa’s most loved seafood restaurant” sets up shop in Kenya? A lot of pre-opening hype. Though, I’m happy to report, justified. Nairobi epicureans have been buzzing about the arrival of Ocean Basket – a seafood restaurant chain based in South Africa that’s rapidly expanding with branches in Nigeria, Mauritius, Cyprus and Dubai.
Located on the ground floor of the The Oval in the heart of Nairobi’s Westlands neighborhood, the 200-seater restaurant retains its signature casual seaside-chic from its South African counterparts. From the red and blue plaid tablecloths and
wooden trivets which serve as place mats and are perfect for hot pans of seafood to the mixed-matched dining chairs which add a touch of whimsical charm to the place, the decor at Ocean Basket is picture-perfect. On the other hand, the neon-lit signage which ensure that patrons won’t get lost in the restaurant, clearly guiding guests to areas such as the sushi bar and takeout counter, is a bit of an overkill.
Though the décor carries a striking resemblance to Ocean Basket restaurants in South Africa, this one definitely feels more intimate and chic. Perhaps it’s the location – nestled in a relatively quiet commercial building instead of a busy massive mall (where South African Ocean Baskets usually are in) – or maybe it’s the soonto-be completed wine bar on the expansive patio, which undoubtedly adds a touch of sophistication that Nairobians can’t seem to ever get enough of.
The wine bar also gives the restaurant a pulse that even in its current concrete state cannot be missed. Once the champagne and oyster Sunday specials begin in the coming weeks, heading to Ocean Basket will probably become a weekly pilgrimage for shellfish and bubbly aficionados.
The menu at Ocean Basket is not overcomplicated or fussy. No other restaurant in Nairobi makes the simple cooking of mussels and prawns seem so delicious with opportunities for excitement. My companions and I began with the
Fresh Raw Oysters served on crushed ice and simply garnished with dill and lemon wedges. A large bottle of Tabasco followed. As I indulged in the subtle mineral taste of the divine sweetness of a creamy and plump oyster, a couple of my companions froze while they swallowed their first slimy mouthful of the ocean.
Needless to say, they were dramatic raw oyster virgins. The selection of tapas, many vegetarian, matched well with their house bread. A mousse of roasted eggplant with rosemary and thyme was deliciously aromatic and packed a lot of flavor despite it being relatively light. The Roasted Mixed Pepper with Feta Cheese simply dressed with garlic and olive oil arrived colourfully and with balanced caramelised sweetness.
My favourite, the sautéed Mussels in Lemon Garlic Sauce, neatly arriving in a pan, were fragrant and plump. The buttery sauce pooled in the shells just enough to complement the juicy flesh and succulent taste of the light mussels.
The signature Prince Prawns arrived on a large platter: twelve perfectly cooked prawns in lemon garlic butter with a healthy serving of spiced rice. Far from being rubbery, the meat of the prawns were firm, juicy and tasted of the
sweetness of the ocean. Then there were the King Prawns that arrived with a velvety butternut squash mash and rich creamed spinach – the crowning moment of the evening.
The big question is will people in Nairobi get tired of a seafood restaurant? Well if you’re asking this question, then clearly you’ve never eaten at Ocean Basket. Some of the thrills on the menu are subtle, like the diverse vegetarian options
that include fried goat cheese and a grilled Haloumi salad with Portobello mushrooms. Others are scene-stealers, like the mussels and prawns. A few are flat-out luxurious such as the raw oysters, served only a few hours since being harvested
off of the Namibian coast.
To be honest, I was quite nervous ahead of dining at Kenya’s first Ocean Basket. I’ve eaten at Ocean Basket in South Africa countless times. The restaurant chain has enjoyed enduring success and has a proven winning formula that keeps diners loyal. But would the consistency, quality of the seafood, and value for money – pillars of the Ocean Basket brand – also translate to its Kenyan location? I’m glad it has. From the décor to the pleasant service to the execution of the menu, I no longer need to be in South Africa to get my Ocean Basket-fix. Most importantly, I won’t be missing the abundance of seafood in Canada. This Canadian has found a substitute in Nairobi.