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Susan Eats: Oven Baked

written by Susan Wong 14th September 2016

Susan Wong visits the newly opened Spring Valley Oven where she tries several dishes and wonders, what makes the perfect pizza?

Finding the perfect pizza is sometimes as rare as meeting an honest mechanic in Nairobi or sharing a conversation with me where food is not mentioned – very, very rare. ‘Perfect’ may be a simple word, but it carries the tremendous weight of expectations, success and failures. In order to make a perfect pizza, does one need to follow a purist’s take: Italian double zero flour, a lot of patience, and prepared by the hands of a master pizzaiolo?

Inspired by childhood memories of making pizza with my father, I recently wrote about the three life lessons I learned from pizza-making in Capital Lifestyle: 1) Simplicity is best when it comes to ingredients and choosing to be more deliberate with what’s important in life 2) I didn’t want to ask for help when I made my first pizza, but it’s okay to ask because learning to receive it is a humbling experience that truly empowers you; and 3) when you toss the pizza dough in the air you may not know how things will turn out but it’s important to remember not to dwell on uncertainties and forget about how great something can actually turn out. Thanks to my recent visit to Spring Valley Oven, I’m adding another life lesson to the list: find perfection in the imperfect.

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Located in the Spring Valley Shopping Centre on Lower Kabete Road, the bright and airy casual eatery has grown into quite the neighbourhood destination, especially for the incredibly delicious and invigorating smoothies. Made with real fruit, nut milks, leafy vegetables and even Chia seeds – the extensive selection of velvety smoothies are so packed with healthy ingredients that they could pass as dense frozen yoghurt. After several minutes of preparation time (our smoothies arrived halfway through our meal), removing the occasional fibrous goodness from your teeth was quite common. My favourite was the house specialty – Almond Berry with almond milk, yoghurt, mixed berries, watermelon, banana, and almond butter.

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Here, you’ll find much of the design inspiration originated from the restaurant’s immediate surroundings. From building around an old tree and incorporating it into the space, to the raw and rusted metal artwork of bamboo and trees that hang on the walls; Spring Valley Oven’s space is not only anchored by the large wood-burning oven but also its surrounding lush nature.

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My companions and I began with a couple of starters. The Thai Sesame Chicken Salad arrived with grilled marinated breast that tasted of a combination of hot aromatic spices and looked like Tikka. Not sure if the toasted sesame seeds in the simple vinaigrette and the deep fried wonton skins were the reason behind naming this as a Thai-inspired flavour profile; but the salad definitely tasted a lot better than how it read. The Falafel Salad arrived under-seasoned and it’s dense and dry texture resulted in deep-fried balls that easily crumbled.

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Then there was a soggy and forgettable Spaghetti and Meatballs that arrived with the specialty pizzas: the house special SVO Supreme and Seafood. Both pizzas arrived hot, deliciously yeasty, thin and visibly crisp about the edges. Loaded with pepperoni, beef, ham, onions, mushrooms and peppers; the SVO Supreme was a marvelous sight and had the flavours to match. However, I missed the crispiness from the majority of the pizza. Aside from the edges, the dough failed to crisp under the delicious layers of toppings. The Seafood pizza topped with prawns, tuna and calamari was surprisingly pleasing in both taste and smell. The prawns and calamari were not overcooked and carried a subtle flavour of the strength of the wood-fired oven. The reason I am talking-up the well-executed toppings, well – the pizza crusts themselves didn’t quite deliver. In short, I longed for a crispy thin crust in both cases (the Seafood pizza was even softer than the SVO Supreme).

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That’s how I found the perfection in the imperfect. The toppings were undeniably delicious and the pizzas looked and smelled incredibly great; but when it came down to the crust, it was merely fine. As for service, despite our waiter confirming our order twice, there was still a small mix-up with one of the starters. However, things were rectified quickly and the staff were attentive, confident and friendly.

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This recent experience gave me a lot of hope, as would a promising second date probably would. Is ‘perfect’ simply an illusion or does it refer to a journey in which we continue to rework and redefine depending on the context of the experience or situation?

Whether you’re baking, cooking, eating, grocery shopping or speaking with your local fishmonger – food is always a great conduit for self-learning. To me food has always been a source of wisdom, especially when eating pizzas. Looking forward to an inspiring Nairobi Pizza Festival!

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