Susan Wong discovers delicious seafood dishes in Havana, one of Westlands’ most happening weekend bars.
Things are often not what they seem. Often the times my friends thought my life was the most exciting have also been the times when I’ve felt most creatively challenged and that I’m not doing enough. A man can proclaim that they love you but his actions tell another story. Friends comment on your flawless curves but you struggle with the discomfort of your slimming body shaper. You drive a luxury car but can’t afford the upkeep. Here’s another one: you expect mediocre pub food at a tired Havana Bar that only gets packed from Thursday and are surprised to find an absolutely delightful dining experience that even features some of the tastiest prawns you’ve had in a while.
To be fair, I’ve only dined at Havana a couple of times; the rest of my visits are a collection of disjointed memories, probably thanks to the popular bar that when crowded overflows onto the street. Those that have dared to venture to the back of the establishment will however know that there lies a delicious secret, a restaurant that’s been led by the same chef for more than a decade and one who loves seafood.
“I’m a seafood kind of guy,” Chef Kimani chuckles during my most recent visit. The kitchen veteran beams with pride. Kimani first joined Havana 16 years ago as a steward and steadily rose up the ranks. Never would I have imagined that behind the soft-spoken and humble character was a talented and creative man that showcases his charisma through the food he serves.
The gold stamped leather-bound menu is a long one, about 10 pages. It’s old and page edges roll and ripple thanks no doubt to a few spilled drinks over the years. Flipping through it feels strangely exciting and humbling at the same time. A chef weekly dinner special helps you navigate through a collection of dishes with a global influence.
My companion and I start our meal with Lamb Tacos with Prawns – a marvelous combination of super soft braised lamb leg, perfectly cooked butterflied-prawns, fresh leaves of mint, pomegranate, slices of red bullet chilis, spring onions, tomatoes and topped with Tzatziki sauce. A squeeze of fresh lime juice make this a mouth-watering beginning. A Fish Taco that features two deep-fried battered fillets follows. Its fillings include a classic spread of guacamole, which serves as the perfect creamy bed for the crispy fish to nestle on and is topped with red cabbage slaw and a sprig of mint.
The Sweet-Chilli Glazed Tiger Prawns arrives tender, juicy and savoury with a sweetened kick. It is a very harmonious dish that showcases Chef Kimani’s obvious talent for cooking seafood to perfection. Next, a simple plate of Grilled Calamari, Chorizo and Prawns topped with fried Quail Eggs exudes both finesse and charisma. The smokey spicy sausage gives the mild-flavoured calamari some personality and its scored knife marks drank-up most of the flavoured oil and juices. Again, the prawns are cooked perfectly, complemented by the assertive flavour of quail, which stands-up to the strong flavours of each ingredient.
I am convinced the Lamb Tacos and the Grilled Calamari are my favourites until I nearly lick the plate of the Spaghetti Scampi, which feature prawns and calamari with a simple garlic and white wine sauce uplifted by fresh basil, pine nuts, cherry tomatoes, sundried tomatoes, red chilli flakes and parmesan. My favourite dish also arrived with deep-fried squid tentacles as a delicious garnish.
My least favourite is the Chef’s version of Lasagne, which could be likened to a giant package of slowly braised beef – shoulder and soft cheeks – in red wine and bacon bits, finally topped with béchamel sauce. The dish is a meat lover’s confused dream. Super rich and too many powerful flavours that struggle to find space for one another. But if this is any redeeming virtue, they have marvellous garlic bread!
Stay for dessert. The Toffee Cake with Caramel, warm Chocolate Fondant with an oozing center that lures you and syrup soaked Crêpe Suzette are all well-executed classics.
There’s a brief wine list and an extensive malts and spirits menu – as one would expect from a bar. The service is spotty as waiters are easily distracted by thirsty patrons. On a slow day, lunch or early in the evening, the staff are attentive and confident. We sit beyond the bar in the back corner where fiery red and orange walls feature black and white photos of street scenes from Cuba. White linens draped the tables and featured lighting made the intimate restaurant space distinctly different from the bar. It does get a little bit smoky after the kitchen starts cooking, but nothing unexpected from a popular, comfortable-but-basic, and unglamorous bar.
The music, salsa, keeps the atmosphere in the restaurant area intimate, sexy, and drowns away the spilling conversations from the bar. Surely it can’t be any good, or if it is, it’s going to be really expensive. Because, y’know, it’s Westlands! Right? For great food, especially seafood, you normally would head to the suburbs, never at the centre of nightlife; but Havana on Nairobi’s “Electric Avenue” is the exception.